For this month's interview with a member, I chatted with Andrew and Courtney (agc_cwm), two Canadians that have been teaching English in Japan since early 2006.
Andrew and Courtney at the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens.
The most obvious benefit of teaching English while travelling is of course the fact that you can earn money as you travel, allowing you to travel for longer. Was this the main thing that attracted you to teaching English?
Courtney: We didn't leave Canada with intentions of extensive travel in the short term. I had a goal of doing a big Europe tour, but had too much student debt and not enough money to make it a reality. That definitely put that plan on the back burner. Basically, I was looking for a way to pay off my loan and still be able to save money. In addition, teaching English was something that we could both do together and, while we were in Japan, we could travel to nearby countries at the same time.
Andrew: But mainly we came here for the money. We had heard from lots of people who were able to come over to Asia to work, pay off student loans and debts, and still travel.
Courtney: We know far too many university graduates who are stuck in a job (or multiple jobs) back in Canada just because they have to make the payments. Not what we wanted to be doing.
Andrew: I agree with that point. I think when we originally came over, the plan was to stay for one year. But that changed pretty quickly. We decided after six months in Japan we were going to stay for another year.
Courtney: Yeah, that was about the same time we decided to go to Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines for winter vacation.
Andrew: Now, two and a half years since we came over, Japan has become our home away from home and we use it to travel to a lot of places that are otherwise difficult/expensive to get to from Atlantic Canada.
What made you choose Japan in particular?
Andrew: We were considering Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Then we did some research. We found that there wasn't a lot of difference between the countries in terms of teaching English and travel. We would have been happy in any of the countries, I think. But, I felt kind of drawn towards Japan. I suppose I had more contact with Japanese culture than Korean or Taiwanese. My sister did karate, we had a few Japanese exchange students at my high school, I sold a lot of Japanese electronics at the Future Shop, I used to watch Astroboy and Transformers, and I thought ninjas were pretty cool.
Courtney: I picked up origami as a hobby near the end of elementary school, and acquired a taste for sushi when I hit university. I also worked in research and development at a company that cultivated seaweed for the Japanese food market. Outside of that, though, my exposure to Japanese culture was pretty limited in small town New Brunswick. When it came down to researching where we were going to work, I guess I made my decision when I found the most detailed information available was about teaching English in Japan. We applied for positions, flew to Toronto for interviews, and got jobs with a company in Japan. Luckily, we were hired by a company that gives its employees the most vacation time.
Andrew: Thankfully, it's also the company that didn't go bankrupt last year.
Did you experience any culture shock when you first moved to Japan?
Courtney: Hell yes.
Andrew: Definitely. I still would be, if not for the decision to stop being shocked by things. If I hadn't made that decision, I may have gone crazy.
Courtney: or crazier!
Andrew: Moving on. It's more of an odd day when we aren't shocked by something. When we first got here, obviously there was the language issue. It took a while but I was able to get a decent grasp on the language. And by 'grasp of the language', I mean I can order in a restaurant, ask what time the bus comes, and check if someone speaks English!
Courtney: Andrew really knows just enough Japanese to get himself into trouble. The story about the day he went to get a Japanese driver's license is a classic. I, on the other hand, get by with a lot of gesturing, and a 'sumimasen' (excuse me) or 'arigato gozaimasu' (thank you very much) thrown in every once in a while for good measure. In terms of culture shock, the first confirmation that I wasn't in Canada anymore came when we had to catch a bus from the airport to meet our housing guy. It was dark, all the signs were in an unfamiliar language, and the cars were driving on the left side of the road. Combine driving on the opposite side of the road with lack of sleep, homesickness, and jet lag. I wasn't sure what was going on.
Andrew: I didn't think I was ever going to get used to cars driving on the left side of the road. Now I look to the left when crossing the road. I'm worried about when we go back to Canada.
Shuuri Ryukyuan dancers.
Courtney: Living in a big city for the first time was a big adjustment for us. We both come from small towns: Andrew's hometown has about 10,000 people, and I grew up on a farm. My settlement has a population of 300. The amount of buildings, the public transport, and the sheer number of people took some getting used to.
Andrew: Another big one was when I was on a crowded train. I mean, it was crowded. But it was quiet. No one was talking or listening to really loud music. It was silent. Everyone was giving each other their space to sleep, think, read or just relax. That was eerie. Wait, it still is eerie. I have to say, I have gotten used to the quietness and look to see what's happening if someone's being loud.
Courtney: Don't forget the food. When we first came here even the familiar foods looked strange. And expensive (especially produce). We ate bread for the first two days we were here because our housing guy showed us a bakery that looked semi-familiar.
Andrew: Then we branched out to grilled meat and rice noodles for the next week. We lost a lot of weight during the first while we were here.
Courtney: Eventually we found we could identify a product by looking at the pictures on the box. We also found restaurants where you could look at the pictures and order from a vending machine. Though we are VERY proud to say we never broke down and went to McDonalds every day.
Andrew: One good thing about Japan is that there is plastic food in the windows in most of the restaurants. All we did was wander around until we found some plastic food we liked then took the waiter outside and pointed to what we wanted. That was quite amusing for us and the waiter.
Courtney: Oh. Whenever you go into a convenience store, or any store, all the staff members yell, “Irasshaimase!” which means 'welcome'. We didn't know if we had to respond to this greeting or not. We were confused every time we went into a store. Eventually someone told us we didn't have to say anything back, which made the whole situation a lot less awkward for everyone involved.
Andrew: And those were just the superficial things we noticed when we first got here. It seems like everyday we are learning something, whether it's good or bad, about Japanese culture.
Now that you've been in Japan for a few years, do you feel like a local?
Courtney: Absolutely not.
Andrew: We have met a lot of really nice people here. We have also met some people who are not so nice. I suppose that's the case with every culture and place. Without going into detail about Japanese culture, and as best as we can tell, society is based a lot on groups, especially the inner group and outer group. If you are in the inner group, everything is great and easy. If you are in the outer group, then everything is not quite so easy. You are treated with respect and treated nicely, but always kept at a bit of a distance because you aren't in the inner group. We, as Canadians, will never be in the inner group in Japan and therefore never completely accepted. We've come to grips with that.
Courtney: Canada has such a mixture of cultures and races, we would never immediately assume someone's nationality based solely on physical characteristics. Not so in Japan. With one look, it's obvious: you're either Japanese, or you're not. This isn't the place to be paranoid that someone's always watching you. Someone always is. It's difficult to feel like a local when you get on the train and, without having done anything to draw attention to yourself, people stare at you.
Andrew: Especially when they are middle-aged men. That's pretty creepy.
Courtney: I sometimes wonder if there is something between my teeth, or in my hair. Did I get it? How about now? Is it gone?
Andrew: Last year I helped organize an English summer camp for kids through work and our campsite was out in the country. It was also an area where families go on the weekend. I went up a day early to help set things up and there was a family there having a picnic. I was walking by with a group of 4 other Japanese people when one of the kids, (he was probably 5 or 6), noticed me. That was when he yelled out at the top of his lungs to the other kids, “America-jin!” basically, 'there's an American'. I stopped and waved, and luckily his mom then brought him over. I introduced myself, said I was from Canada, and we shook hands.
Keeping all that in mind we do feel comfortable and enjoy living here. We live pretty well, can travel a lot, save money and enjoy our work. In our opinion those four points far outweigh any negatives.
What do you miss most about Canada?
Courtney: Canadian summers. The kind where you need a sweater at night. It's hot and humid here in Kansai like I've never felt in a temperate climate.
Andrew: Tim Horton's coffee and doughnuts.
Andrew: The stupid little conversations you have with people on the street.
Courtney: Fig Newtons.
Andrew: Knowing exactly where to get things. We're looking to buy new backpacks, but we only know three stores that carry them. They don't have what we need but we don't know where else to go.
Courtney: Yeah, shopping takes a whole lot more reconnaissance than it used to.
Andrew: Driving a car. But not the buying gas part.
Courtney: Oh yeah. Our friends and family.
Andrew: Right. Definitely our friends and family.
Check out these past interviews in the Talking Travel series: