Culture Shock & Cultural Sensitivity
Disclaimer: This document and its contents are a collection of opinions, thoughts and advice based on the personal and informed experiences of the writers, colleagues and others. It is meant to be taken as such.
Culture Shock is not an excuse for unprofessional behavior
Culture shock is normal, unavoidable, and terribly difficult. It is up to you to recognize your experience of culture shock and to take the necessary steps to minimize its impact and ride out the storm as gracefully as you can. No matter how bad your culture shock, taking out your frustrations on the teachers and students is never appropriate and will have long lasting negative consequences for both you and the JETs who will come after you.
Even if you are paired with a difficult supervisor or teacher, the odds are that there will be at least a few kind teachers in the school who will be willing to help you. The best thing you can do is build up your alliances with these other teachers. Engaging in unprofessional behavior such as being on your phone all day, correcting or embarrassing your teacher during lessons, blatantly doing personal work while at school, or vocally complaining about another teacher or supervisor in front of the other teachers will create an unfavourable impression and lead to further isolation.
Know yourself and know when it’s time to leave
Sometimes, if you are very unhappy with certain aspects of your placement or feel like you have had enough of the JET Programme, the best decision you can make is to not re-contract. If your situation is not ideal, odds are that having an end in sight will make your remaining months on the JET Programme much more enjoyable when you no longer have the prospect of having to stay for another year or two to contend with.
It is much better for everyone involved for you to have a really good few months (after you decide not to re-contract) than to have a horrible two or three years.
Social Media Usage while culture shocked
When you are going through culture shock, you will not feel like yourself. Your emotions will be heightened and your thoughts may become muddled. Be careful about what you post on social media at this time. Constant negative rants about Japan, or posts which put your teachers, supervisors, fellow ALTs or even Japanese culture itself on blast will probably achieve very little and will reflect very badly on you in the long run. It is much better, and much more constructive, to contact a friend or support group and voice your complaints and seek solutions in a private environment.
Every Situation Is Different, and there is no guarantee that you will instantly hit it off with the group of JETs in your prefecture or area. You may think that there is nobody around who has anything in common with you and give up very early on trying to form friendships. But the support you will get from your fellow JETs is very important. The best advice is to give people a chance and try your hardest to look for things that you may have in common. For your own mental health, you should try to make at least a few friends on the programme, even if there are vast differences in age, nationality, and outlook. Give them a chance and remember that although you may not necessarily be making life-long friends, it is important to build up bonds with at least some of your fellow JETs.
Do not underestimate the power of physical exercise to help you regulate your mood and adjust to your stay in Japan. Be very careful about using alcohol while culture shocked. Alcohol is very easy to access in Japan and is relatively affordable so the temptation to drown your sorrows is definitely there, but it will only make your adjustment harder.
A note on Orientation at Keio Plaza
Being able to share our diverse Caribbean culture with Japanese students, teachers, and friends is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a JET Programme participant. However, please keep in mind that we are guests in a foreign country and must be sensitive to the cultural norms of the host country as much as we can.
Many Caribbean people pride themselves on their vibrancy, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, just because it is more acceptable to be loud and merry in many different occasions in the Caribbean does not mean that it always appropriate in Japan. Please be sensitive to this.
When you first arrive in Japan, it will be the last time that you will be gathered together with your fellow Caribbean JETs before heading off to your various prefectures. You will probably be very excited, and should definitely make the most out of your brief time there, but please try to be mindful of your behavior while in Tokyo. Talking extremely loudly in the bus or hotel room, or having loud limes and parties in Keio plaza until late in the night is inconsiderate of the other guests in the hotel and is severely frowned upon in Japan. First impressions count for a lot. Have fun, be yourselves, but please be mindful of those around you at all times.
A note on conflict management in Japan
Though most teachers will be happy to be working with you, there is always a chance that you may be paired with a supervisor or teacher who is resentful of having to work with an ALT. If you find yourself in a situation that you are paired with an unhelpful supervisor who neglects to assist you, your best option is to build up your relationships with the other teachers. Asking for a copy of the yearly schedule and asking a helpful teacher to show you what the important events in the school year are will be very beneficial. The JETs who are in your area are also a very good source of information. Better to focus on the helpful ones than to try to get the unhelpful ones to change.
As frustrating as it may be, confronting an unhelpful or rude supervisor in front of the other teachers, or showing visible irritation in the staff room will just make things more difficult and turn you into the perceived ‘bad guy’ in the situation. People go to great lengths to avoid embarrassing their supervisors in Japan, and though this can lead to situations of bullying or power-harassment, it is best to avoid direct confrontation in an open space. It is better to confront your supervisor in private to raise your issues with them. This is much easier said than done but will be better in the long run for fostering good relations with the other teachers. If things get really bad, then you can bring it up with your PA.
Also, be honest with yourself and figure out if there is anything that you can do to improve your situation. Operating in a foreign country is very disorienting, and you should see if there is anything that you are doing that’s viewed as wrong (abusing your free time at work, communicating in a manner which is perceived as rude etc) before you cast judgement.
Living in Japan is not without its challenges, but in the end you will end up a stronger, more culturally sensitive person - a great skill to possess in today’s interconnected world.