JQ Magazine: Life after JET – The Employment Conundrum

Geneva enjoying hanami in Hakusan Kouen, Niigata, 2009.

By Geneva Marie (Niigata-ken, 2008-09) for JQ magazine. Geneva works as an account manager in the vast Great Plains a.k.a. Omaha, Nebraska and is a (sometimes) contributor to JETwit.com. Contact Geneva at geneva [dot] sarni [at] gmail [dot] com and visit her on LinkedIn.

It’s 8 a.m. on a chilly morning in December and I’m sitting at my desk in a thoroughly nondescript building located on the edge of Omaha, Nebraska’s suburban sprawl. I’m checking my interoffice e-mail and yielding phone calls—typical cube-rat chores. I’ve got my coffee and my Spotify, and oh right, I’m writing this article during my downtime. When I think about my daily routine, I realize that it’s a far cry from what I was doing two and a half years ago when I was teaching English to elementary and middle school students in rural northern Japan on the JET Program.

Like everyone who returns from living abroad, I found myself suffering from the typical culture shock and malaise. However, the readjustment to regular life, a regular job, and a regular me—the life I had before my time on JET—has been a continuous uphill battle. It’s been a very trying two years, a strange journey that has somehow left me feeling isolated and worlds away from my former home in Japan, taking me to a place I never thought I’d end up in. Not to mention feeling like I will never get the chance to work in a Japan-related field anytime soon.

My story begins in the frozen metropolis of Minneapolis, where as a 24-year-old, non-traditional student I reenrolled in college at the University of Minnesota as an Asian studies major (emphasis in Japanese, of course). Admittedly, I wasn’t the best Japanese student. I was older than most of my peers and thus (I felt), at a disadvantage. I struggled through two years of language learning before deciding at 26 to embark on my first trip out of the country—a study abroad in Tokyo. It was a life-altering experience for me and probably the most expensive thing I have ever done. It was so life-changing that I often look back at life in my twenties as “before and after Japan.”

Nearly a year after my study abroad I (finally) graduated college. I decided to take the advice of my peers and faculty and immediately apply for the JET program, as it seemed to be the best bet for a Japanese studies major hot off the heels of graduation. However, I didn’t get the job. I had assumed JET would accept me based on my major and the experience I had studying at a real Japanese university, but I was wrong. After this happened, I became increasingly concerned about all of the time and money I had spent on attaining my education. I was worried I’d start losing my language skills.

I did lose them for awhile, until I actually got my job with JET. I committed to working in an office for another year after being turned down the first time. I found myself in a steady relationship and had really settled into a stable existence for myself after college, although I was still persistently seeking a way to get back overseas. A year later, I reapplied again and after all the interviews, the checking of credentials, and the nearly six-month waiting period, I snagged an ALT position with JET. Soon after I received word about my placement I went into waffling mode, trying to decide if I should actually go or not. I wouldn’t be working in posh Tokyo, but the somewhat isolated Murakami City in Niigata-ken—far from the hustle and bustle of the big city. I had worked so hard to get a placement on JET, but at the same time I would be leaving everything that I built for myself during the interim. With the encouragement of my then boyfriend and family, I realized this was not an opportunity that comes along every day and maybe I should go for it.

I headed to the small village of Murakami City in the summer of 2008 at the age of 29, obviously a lot older than my first-year counterparts. It was definitely an experience in every sense of the word. Thrilling highs and forlorn lows—and honestly, that’s what I was seeking at the time. Of all the worries I had about working on JET, the language barrier, the homesickness, etc., the one thing that I hadn’t given much thought to was my health going awry.

I ended up spending only one year on JET due to some unforeseen health problems that were only an issue at that time (and have mysteriously not returned since). My plan had been to stay more than a year, but with my health going downhill and trying my best to juggle a long distance relationship, I decided to return to America, and at the worst time, mind you. My fellow ALTs and I had been carefully watching the news during the early summer in 2009. Most of us would be returning home in a few months and we were especially worried about the economic nosedive that had taken place. We were scared that we wouldn’t get jobs when we returned, and that is exactly what happened to me.

Fast forward two years: I’m in Omaha, employed with a full-time and a part time job. I spent a good portion of time after I had returned from Japan with no job and seemingly no prospects of landing one. Depressed and discouraged, I had lost all confidence in my abilities. The relationship I tried so hard to keep from ending while I was abroad slowly fell apart, too. The following year was pretty bleak. Feeling like I didn’t have many options left, I decided to move here, where my family currently resides.

Omaha has been a great transition place for me, despite it feeling like an utter failure at first. I was finally able to find work here, but unfortunately, it’s nothing to do with my field of study or college level experience. This also is not a place like Seattle or New York where there are major Japanese hubs and thus I find myself more and more removed from my Japanese knowledge, let alone not having the option to work in a Japan-related industry. I often feel like I am a victim of location. If I could afford to make the move out to a bigger city I might be able to finally find a career in my field.

Although I have decided now that I have a little more confidence under my belt, knowing that I’m actually a hirable person and worthy of a job, I’m going to finally set off on the journey of pursuing a career in something Japanese-related in 2012. I imagine it won’t be easy and it will take a lot of hard work, especially with having some strikes against me. But just like I was persistent in getting my JET job, I believe I’ll eventually persevere in finding work I’m passionate about doing. Ganbarimasu!

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