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An Outlook on Teaching English in Japan

Before moving to Japan, there was a lot to think about. Money was near the top of that list. While I was fortunate enough to maintain a part-time relationship with my employer overseas, it wouldn’t be enough to live on.

With a background and lengthy history in Marketing, Media (Audio/Video), and Communications… I figured it couldn’t hurt to pick up an English teaching certification prior to moving (just in case). After all, this is probably the most common route that foreigners take to generating income. As it turns out, that was a good idea.

Flash Forward 2-Years

While it wasn’t my initial goal to be an English teacher, living in the countryside has meant that the interest is relatively strong and the competition little. What started as a temporary position with the city, quickly turned into multiple projects and opportunities, my own private classes and running classes at a local center.

How long did it take to get good? I’ll let you know when it happens!
My opinion is that teaching, along with many trades, is best improved through many hours of experience. While I do feel some improvement in comfort-level and the flow of classes, it’s a long road ahead. A road that likely never ends.

Kids VS. Adults – Beginning VS. Advanced

One thing that took me some time to get my head around is the approach to different types of students. Not only their different levels of speaking and understanding, but also different ages and personality types. For that matter, the expectations and desires of students at the same level can be entirely different. While some may hope to just enjoy some casual conversation, others expect to be challenged, follow a steady curriculum and even receive homework.

They won’t always tell you what they want.

Rack it up to cultural differences, or whatever you like – but don’t expect the student to be able to tell you exactly what’s on their mind. You must develop Spiderman-like senses to gauge the student’s level of comfort, enthusiasm and willingness to engage in what you have prepared. Until you’ve developed this, there’s only one sure fire way to overcome the painful awkwardness of a class-gone-bad: Over-preparation. Instead of preparing one lesson, prepare 3. Consider how you can ramp up the difficulty as well as reduce it “in the moment”. Trust me – no lessons go to waste, they all get used eventually.

Numbers and Scalability

Take into account whether your lessons work just was well for 1-student as for many. Will you be able to adapt to the moment when you class size changes? What about if a parent suddenly decides to join the class and observe at the last minute? If you are not already a skilled and flexible teacher – then your lessons must be scalable, or you must have a “Plan-B” on the back burner.

Teaching the Experts

You may at times find yourself at the head of class where the students far exceed your level of grammar skills or level of education! Don’t worry. As a native speaker you bring an insight to the language that is hard to achieve as a second language. The question is, will you be able to articulate it? If teachers are taking your classes it’s because they want to sound like a native. Don’t be afraid to correct their small mistakes and point out the misuse of words. As with all students, it depends on the students goal – but the value you wield is your native tongue. Quotes, idioms and proverbs are your friend.

The High’s and Low’s

As you start the journey of teaching English, you will probably find the path filled with Ego-boosting and Ego-crushing moments. Your reputation is important in Japan, and how you handle these moments says a lot about your personality and professionalism.
Expectations vary widely, and some students and parents (of young students) will love you, while rest assured the dissatisfied will move one. Leaving you to evaluate how to do better next time.

Don’t dwell on the lows – aim high and forward. With experience, and personal analysis comes wisdom.

 

Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs (Part 2)

My original post about Costco items that foreigners (living in Japan) love – was popular! But I did get a few comments saying “This list is only for American’s”, or that it was otherwise incomplete. So I brought the question to you… the masses (on Twitter) and received a great response! Many of your guilty pleasures matched up with my own. Other expats (mainly in bigger cities) never found a need for Costco, or found that it wasn’t worth the time/expense. Fair enough. Others recommended alternative foreign-foods stores including the Foreign Buyers Club or The Meat Guy. Let’s have a look at what you all said.

Things we all agreed with:

Costco ToyamaTortilla chips, salsa, tequila, taco seasoning, frozen quesadillas and tortillas were all mentioned multiple times. So it’s good to see expats keeping the Mexican fiesta alive even in the land of the rising sun!

Home, Kitchen and Personal Care

We completely neglected this important category, and expats suggested some great items! Some expats necessities include:
Kirkland brand Batteries
Socks
Deodorant
Kleenex tissues
OralB Glide floss
Paper Towels
Plastic Wrap
Toilet Paper
Tide (Laundry Detergent)
Downy or Bounce fabric softener

These items seem popular, not just due to their high quality but also due to the generous amount you get for the cost.

Important Snacks

I mentioned some snacks, but other beloved items expats love are:
Kettle Chips
Mixed Nuts
Chia & Pumpkin seeds
Popcorn
and the ever elusive Peanut Butter.
But your spreadable desires didn’t stop there, as Nutella was also mentioned multiple times.
New Zealand Meat Pies were also mentioned – something I’ve never tried, but now I need to!

Spices

A few hard to find spices like smoked paprika, and others were also mentioned. A new favorite for me is Costco’s No Salt Seasoning, which adds a lot of flavor to about anything, even tastes mildly salty to me, without adding any sodium to your diet. Give it a try!

Baked Goods

While I mentioned bread rolls…  other baked goods such as the Organic Wheat Bread (with seeds), Croissants and Bagels remain very popular.

Coffee

Did you know that Kirkland coffee is roasted by Starbucks? I guess it’s no big secret, but this fact escaped me. It couldn’t hurt to pick up a bag. Buying beans at local markets is quite pricey for me out in the Japanese countryside.

All the Cheeses, Please

We mentioned it and you confirmed it – Japan (in general) isn’t big on cheese. Fortunately Costco carries a wide variety for those of us who need to get our fix. The expensive cheese is out in the high-traffic area, while the blocks of Kirkland brand affordable cheese (yet quite delicious) is in the refrigerated area near the butter and yogurt.

Pet Supplies

Not having a pet – I would have never thought of this! Dog bones and (Vet recommended) Dog Food were also sited by pet owners due to their lack of additives.

Kids

While books can be found anywhere, I’m always pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of English language books at Costco Japan – always a good thing for those of us raising our little bilingual monsters.


See the original post for more ideas – Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs (Part 1).

Did we leave out something? Let us know in the comments below.

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 3 of 3

Thinking about visiting Japan?
This is the final part in our 3-Part series about visiting Japan without speaking Japanese. Watch Part-1 and Part-2 before watching this final episode.

Today we finish out chat with Rob Dyer at TheRealJapan.com about the prospect of visiting Japan without speaking Japanese. Is lack of fluency a show-stopper?

Few would argue that as a foreigner, putting a little effort into communication by memorizing basic phrases and understanding the fundamentals of the culture is important. But for the average traveler who delights at the prospect of traveling through Japan, becoming fluent in the language may not be realistic.

In this final, Part 3 of our Video Series we conclude our discussion and touch upon topics including:

  • Exploring the city
  • Interacting with the locals
  • Body language

View Video Transcript
Click the Follow button at right to be notified about future posts and videos from this Blog.

And make sure to check out TheRealJapan.com to see what Rob is working on. His new E-Book, “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

 

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 2 of 3

Thinking about visiting Japan?
Watch Part-1, before watching this Part-2 in our 3-Part series.

Today we continue our discussion with Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com on the topic of visiting Japan without speaking Japanese.

It’s advisable to have at minimum, basic Japanese phrases memorized and a sense of the cultural differences. But lack of language fluency should not be a barrier to your adventure. There are a number tasks you can perform in advance to help make your experience as smooth as possible. These preparations are discussed in these videos as well as in Rob’s new book, “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese”.

In this Part 2 of a 3 Part Video Series we talk about some of the amusing things that can occur while traveling, as well as topics including:

  • Mental and Logistical Preparation
  • Transportation
  • Getting Lost

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Now check out PART-3 for the conclusion. Be sure to click the Follow button at right for future updates. View Video Transcript

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 1 of 3

A discussion on the challenges of travelling to Japan without speaking the language.

Visiting Japan for the first time can be a daunting experience. Add in potential language challenges and cultural differences – it might give you some cause for concern before your big adventure.

Rob Dyer

Fear not! Today we sit down for a chat with someone with a wealth of knowledge about traveling through Japan – Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com.

In this Part 1 of a 3 Part Video Series we learn a little about each other and discuss the apprehension that some people feel about visiting Japan, including such topics as:

  • The Language Barrier
  • Japanese Hospitality (Omotenashi)
  • Trip Preparation

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Next check out PART-2 as our discussion continues. Be sure to click the Follow button at right for future updates. View Video Transcript

5 Common Traits of the Uncommon Foreigner in Japan

Are we all a bunch of weirdos? Not those just passing through – but those who choose to live here indefinitely. It’s a question I’ve asked myself before, and I include myself in that mix. Living in a small town in the countryside, it means the number of “Westerner” residents are few and far between. So few in fact, that I’ve had the chance to interact with a good percentage of them. To answer the question; No. I guess were not all weirdos. But there are a few characteristics I’ve noticed that seem to “pop out” across our tiny cross-section of the population.

    1. Non-Conformist
      By this I mean that many of us have not guided our lives along the typical success path laid out for us by our home country. Perhaps we didn’t enter college right out of high school, attempted unusual jobs, or have otherwise met with curves in the directions of our lives. However you’d like to define it, Expats tend to have unique personality traits which set them apart from the average Joe.
    2. Problem-Solver
      Setting up camp indefinitely in a foreign environment brings challenges. You are destined to encounter pleasant surprises, and strange problems that you never could have imagined. You don’t have to be a problem-solver to be an Expat, but you have to be one in order to become a successful Expat.
    3. Able to Read Personalities
      When you are not an expert at a language, you must be able to pick up on subtle social clues in order to make decisions. This is further complicated by cultural differences which may leave people being socially-kind to you even when you are making rather large mistakes. Highly sensitive people hold an advantage here at determining the best course of action.
    4. Comfort with Being Alone
      Let’s face it, being an Expat could be a lonely business for some. But it’s really not too bad for those who are comfortable with spending lengths of time on their own. Social people will no doubt make friends, and relationships over time, but a willingness to battle loneliness is almost a required skill when living thousands of miles from home.
    5. Able to Handle Attention
      Loneliness is often interrupted with bursts of the exact opposite – unsolicited attention. People are naturally curious, and will often lavish attention upon you as if you were a D-List celebrity. Usually it’s all in fun, but it can also be obnoxious. The hardened expat has the class to deal with both wanted and unwanted attention in the most prudent way possible.

    Am I providing a gross stereotype here? Maybe. It’s just one man’s observation. Whether you agree with me, have more to add, or think I’m crazy – let me know in the comments. Also, check out my blog post about 6 Striking Cultural Personality  Differences. Thanks as always, for following my observations.

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 2

Can two years away from your home country make you feel like an outsider when you return? To some degree, yes. It makes me re-question;
“What kind of person volunteers themselves to be dropped into a foreign land indefinitely?”

Waterfall
Beauty of the countryside.

I suppose you have different types; the adventurous who will take on anything, and those who are willing to exile themselves from their current world. Which am I? I’d like to think the former, but more likely the latter. Hopefully at least a combination of the two.

The outgoing, very social nature of Americans reminded me that small-town Japan is generally rather reserved, at least socially. It felt good to experience the “chit chat” once again that doesn’t really take place in Japan.

As for the American chaos… I think some chaos is good. In fact I needed my kids to experience a bit of chaos. A little USA-vaccination so to speak, to let them feel that the world is much bigger than what they currently understand.

On the Topic of Raising (half American/half Japanese) Children

IMG_3214Of course I could never think of my children as half of anything, only able to experience both worlds. But let’s be honest, they will have benefits and disadvantages. As kids there are instance where they will benefit from the novelty of having a foreign (American) father. Of course my fear is that there will also be exclusion – as being different often creates when you are a child. As adults we value our uniqueness, but a kid just wants to be like their friends.

Then again, “exclusion” is not exclusive to where I live. Kids can be mean, anywhere. And often are. And as much as we’d like to protect them from the realities of life, sheltering them is no solution.

As a father, it’s my job to prepare them. Should they choose to live in Japan, they must have the patience, demeanor and sense of order as a Japanese citizen. Should they choose to live in America they must be able to speak-out and let themselves be heard, to be creative and take risks when called for.

These personalities seem almost at odds. At 180 degrees. Yet, some fascination exists within each culture for the other. Maybe we both wish our own cultures had a little bit more of the character we idealize in each other – to balance ourselves out.

Ultimately I come to the conclusion that there is no one better to exhibit of striking a balance between both cultures, than the example of me and my wife. An imperfect example that we must continue to improve upon. They will need to seek the balance within themselves.

(Read Part 1 of this article)

 

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 1

I recently returned from my first trip back to the USA, after 2 Years of life in Japan. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a mixed bag of emotions. The concept of reverse culture shock, of returning to your home country after spending just a couple years away – is a real thing. I suppose in my case there is also a Big City VS. Small City contrast which plays a part.

LA - The Belly of the Beast
Although it was only two years away I think it was the closest that I had ever come to seeing America, specifically Southern California, from the eyes of an outsider. It had me thinking about my identity a bit.

Some of the Things That Popped Out;

Disorder:
The chaos of American is both good and bad. It feels quite liberating and free, while the lack of process can be frustrating at times. It’s good for my kids to see that this world (and life) is more than any one country or culture. A person needs to have the skill set to thrive in both an environment of chaos, or an an environment of order.

Volume:
LA is a big city, noise pollution and people are loud. But beyond the number of people, they are also unconcerned about others. Whether it’s someone speaking loudly on their cell phone, or bumping music from their car – it’s simply a louder environment.

Korea Town Los AngelesThe Food:
It’s no secret that I like to eat. The city holds a range of ethnic foods that is simply unavailable in small town Japan. It was great to eat all of the things I had been missing for the last couple years, and I definitely gained a few pounds. How many tacos did I eat? I lost count! But the almost universally unhealthy food as you walk through the average grocery store (American snacks) – that’s another story.

Friendliness:
While LA is not especially known as a friendly city, it sure felt welcoming to me. I imagine this was just due to being around English and feeling at-ease. Also, all those tiny conversations you have throughout the course of a day, you usually take for granted. But as a foreigner in small-town Japan, people are far more hesitant to strike up a conversation for multiple reasons.

Cleanliness:
Never underestimate the convenience of being able to walk into a clean bathroom anywhere you go. This is not the case in Los Angeles. One of the big reasons for moving to a smaller town, I got sick of telling my kids not to touch things. The pure unspoiled nature of the Japanese countryside is hard to compare with anything else. The grim of the city, I don’t miss.

Traffic:
Oh boy, the traffic. When I lived in Los Angeles I hated it, but I was used to it and tolerated it because… what choice is there? But visiting it again after getting used to a small town made me scream むり, impossible, and that I could never deal with that again.

Anxiety:
While living in Japan, the local supermarket we used to shop at was in the news recently. The police had chased a suspect into the store and gunfire was exchanged. One of the employees was caught in the crossfire and unfortunately killed – by police. While crime exists everywhere, theres no denying the number of guns and crime levels in big American cities. It’s nice to worry about my kids less in a small, relatively safe town.

Relationships:
To have my children get to know my family and bond was/is priceless, and our time together was too short. This is a huge downside to living abroad. Seeing old friends reminded us of all the things that we have in common with them, and the close relationships we had there. We miss them. Starting over in a new country, with new priorities means that new, deep friendships come very slowly.

There’s more of course, but these are the things that most jumped out at me. But what I realized more than before, is that Japan is now my home, at least for now. I need to do a better job of making my home a place that I cherish by creating deeper bonds, reaching out to people and embracing my experience to its fullest.
Strive for fearlessness.

In my next blog post I speak more about having children caught between two cultures – Japanese and American.

Raising Kids in Japan – Changing Schools

One thing that struck me as my kids entered preschool here in Japan, was that the teacher-to-child ratio was quite generous. Also, the cost is quite manageable compared to the USA. The children by all accounts love where they are and enjoy themselves, looking forward to school just as kids should. In short, I’ve been mostly happy with it.

Side note: Their Japanese Hoikuen 保育園 preschool is really more about socialization and play than it is about studying. If I had wanted them pushed in education more early-on, I would have put them into a Youchien 幼稚園 type of preschool, however I figured the relocation from the US was stressful enough.

Now after 2 years of their adjusting and making friends, we may be imparting another shock upon them which concerns me. As we consider building a home in a nearby area, we must also consider changing their preschool. If we do not – then they will be faced with entering an elementary school later down the road with no friends/acquaintances. If we move them now, they have a solid year to adjust and make new friends.

This in itself is not insurmountable. But I then consider the other issues:

  • They are the youngest in their classes: Children in Japan are placed into classes strictly by birth date, and the maturity difference between oldest to youngest can be striking. The US seems to be much more flexible in this regard. Studies have shown, the older kids in the classes perform better.
  • They are the only “hafu’s” ハーフ: In their current school, and likely in their new school they will likely be the only non-full-Japanese kids. Isn’t fife is hard enough without being regarded as different, especially as a kid?
  • My kids are small: Being the youngest, and having parents who are relatively short means my kids are relatively small in stature. Sure, being bigger and stronger isn’t everything. But, this effects their sports and athletics ability (rather important in the countryside schools), and likewise their confidence.

I should also say – these are my concerns, my own demons. Not my kids’ worries. They simply take one day at a time. They are happy, well-adjusted children. But I know that childhood is far from simple. For now I must consider how I can ease them into this new possibility. I plan to:

  • Visit the new school often, even if to just play
  • Start meeting member of the new school
  • Let the children know, a move will put us closer to grandparents

Do you have children as you live in a foreign country? How have they adjusted? Any tips you can provide for changing schools? I would love to hear the thoughts of others. Comment below.

Small Town Japan

Funny Habits From Living In Japan

After about a year and a half of living in Japan, things have gotten into a regular routine. I guess a small town – is a small town, regardless of what part of the world you live in. I take my kids to school, I work, I pick them up, dinner, bath and bed. Rinse and repeat. Of course I’m not mentioning the magnificent nature that we experience, my hours spent teaching them English, and other things unique to our location. Living in another culture means making personality adjustments if you want to be successful in that society. Has it changed me? Probably not at my core. But there’s many small, social habits i’ve picked up.

BOWING FROM THE CAR

Ok, this one may be a bit silly, but it’s a simple matter of courtesy. Americans wave – Japanese bow. If someone pulls over to let you pass them on a narrow country road or intersection, it only makes sense to give them courtesy bow to say thanks. Should i mention the flashing of the hazard-lights as a thank you when someone lets you cut in front of them? I guess I just did.

APOLOGIZING BY DEFAULT

This relates both to Japanese language and culture. Japanese apologize about everything. But it’s not always a grand gesture. Often it’s more like… “Hey, sorry if I inconvenienced you” or “Excuse me”. Do I have to do it? No. But i think you can come off as rude when people are so used to hearing it, and suddenly they don’t hear it coming from you.

MORE SELF CONSCIOUS IN PUBLIC

Along with the Japanese habit of keeping harmony, and preventing yourself from bothering others, comes a certain self awareness. When my kids are screaming, and how I react to it has a bit more value here in Japan than the US. If I need to blow my nose, or sneeze, or anything else loud and potentially offensive I tend to be a bit excessively discreet about it. Yes, part of this is that as a foreigner my profile my stand out a bit more than the average Joe.

SEEING MYSELF AS AN EXAMPLE

As one of the few (non-tourist) foreigners in town, you tend to stand out. Someone passing through town may be able to momentarily get away with acting like an ass, but I (as a resident) cannot. Sure, part of me wants to single handedly disprove the negative generalization of the scary, uncultured foreigner. But let’s face it, negative people rarely change their views. Setting myself up as a high-standard is far more for me, than it is for anyone else.

REDUCED PDA

I’ve never been one of those people who makes-out with someone else in public, nor is it something that i really care to observe. Though I would say that small-town Japan takes it to another level of reservedness, and typical PDA between couples seems rather rare, usually just young people and tourists. While I am affectionate on rare occasion and dish out the hand holding, hug, or kiss – I’m just far more aware of it. Nobody needs to see that stuff except my wife and kids anyway.

These are just a few tiny habits, and there are no doubt many more. Having said all that, these are all basically social, or cultural considerations in my opinion. I’ll always hold a certain reverence for the cultural traditions in which I was raised. At the end of the day, when you come home, kick off your shoes, pants… take of your makeup, you’ve gotta look yourself in the mirror. That person you’re stuck with when you are alone, that’s who you are, regardless of what you put out there socially. So hopefully you can respect that reflection. (Check out my post on other Cultural Differences.)