There have been some discussions on the TAIRA mailing list about learning how to get along with the people in our communities. One person commented that it is very important to "make the rounds" when you first arrive and introduce yourself to all of your neighbours. It is customary to bring a small gift, such as a hand towel or some soap. The gift does not have to be anything special -- the thought is more important than the actual item.
This discussion made me reflect on my own experiences coming to Japan. In retrospect, I think that I was extremely well-prepared, although nothing can really prepare you fully for living in a different culture.
When I first came to Japan, I came as an English language teacher on the JET Programme. I was selected as a participant on this programme from Toronto, and the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto was responsible for helping future "JETs" prepare for their new life in Japan. The consulate organized at weekend-long seminar that was run by former JETs and some Japan specialists. They talked to us "newbies" about working in schools, what to do with our leisure time, how to learn Japanese, what kinds of foods we will eat, how to get along with our Japanese colleagues, and lots of other topics. We also had casual evening activities where we could speak to the former JETs one-on-one to get a personal account of their experiences.
In addition to that, before I left for Japan, I received a telephone call from the teacher that I would be replacing. She called me a couple of times, sent me letters, and left lots of notes in the apartment and at my desk at work, so I was able to get a really good sense of how to go about living in my apartment and working at the school with her input.
When I finally arrived in Japan, I was taken to Shinjuku for another orientation in Tokyo. More than 1000 new JETs arrived from a great number of countries around the world over a two-day period, and we all were given rooms in three hotels in Shinjuku. We had two or three days of seminars on living in Japan, teaching in Japanese schools. learning Japanese, integrating into the community, etc. This orientation also gave us a chance to meet lots of other foreign people who would be living all over Japan, so it gave us a kind of support network for when we had trouble.
After the Tokyo orientation, I was taken up to Fukushima and brought to my new town. My boss was in charge of five JETs, so he and some of his colleagues held another orientation for us on the day after we arrived. We were told about our jobs and what our responsibilities would be. We were also given booklets full of information about who to contact when we had difficulties, etc.
After a couple of weeks in my new town, I went to Fukushima City, the capital city of Fukushima Prefecture, for yet ANOTHER orientation. I was given even more details about various topics (teaching, working, living, learning), and some things started to make a lot more sense because I had by then spent some time in my new apartment and had made the trip to my new school a few times. This orientation also put me in touch with about 100 other JETs from around the prefecture who could act as a support network for me when I needed help.
Quite a lot of orientations! At the time, I kind of felt "over-oriented" and somewhat perturbed that I couldn't just be allowed to live and work in my town without having to attend a million seminars about it. However, in retrospect, I realize that I learned a great deal at these orientations and the fact that I attended so many of them helped me to make sense of my life in Japan.
I am not saying that I didn't have problems when I first arrived. Of course I did. But I would definitely say that I had a good sense of how to go about solving my problems, and a very wide and varied network to turn to when things became too much for me to handle on my own.
Talking to my friends in Tsukuba, I realize that the vast majority of people here were not "oriented" to the same extent that I was, and I think that that has an effect on how people cope with their lives here. Students at the universities, for example, often come here without ever having spoken to someone who has attended their university in the past. To my knowledge, researchers are not usually given special seminars on how to manage their lives in Tsukuba before or after they arrive. And English teachers who work in Tsukuba are usually not a part of the JET program (the city of Tsukuba hires its English teachers privately, not through the JET program), so they too could benefit from some background information about living and working here.
I would like to propose that we find a way to offer some kind of one-day seminar (in April?) to people who arrive in Tsukuba without sufficient information for leading their lives here. We could ask some people from the international community in Tsukuba to speak on various topics of interest to newcomers. I think it would be a good idea to organize it as a co-operative effort involving Tsukuba City Hall, the universities, and the research institutes, perhaps holding it either at one of the universities or -- if at all possible -- at the International Congress Center or somewhere like that. (For now we could start small, holding it at Tsukuba Information Center, or one of the research institutes, or JISTEC or somewhere like that.) We could try to make it possible for researchers and teachers to attend the seminar as a part of their duties, so they wouldn't be expected to use their vacation time.
The advantages of having this seminar would go beyond helping individual people get used to their lives in Tsukuba. The seminar could act as a focal point in our community, and serve as a place where we all come together once a year to meet and welcome newcomers and get to know the other members of our community. It has often been noted that Tsukuba has a lot of foreigners, but that students hang out with other students, researchers with researchers, and teachers with teachers. I think we also have a habit of hanging out with people from our own countries. There are a lot of foreigners here, but we don't really know each other very well. I believe that it would strengthen our community a great deal if we could break down those lines and get to know each other better.
In addition, by allowing us to create a stronger network for ourselves, the seminar should decrease the amount of pressure placed on the people whose job it is to support us (our academic advisors, host researchers, bosses, etc). Holding this kind of seminar will allow us to "help us help ourselves".
The basic proposal is that we would hold a one-day seminar, open to anyone in Tsukuba, preferably free or at a very low cost to participants. At this seminar, we would provide information and advice about living in Tsukuba (and Japan in general), talk about how to get along with your neighbours, how to make friends with Japanese people, how to work in a Japanese office, how to study Japanese, etc. Individual seminars might last for about one hour. We would ask people who have lived in Japan for a certain amount of time to give presentations on particular topics (30 min) and then we would open the floor to questions (30 min). We could probably have two or three sessions in the morning and another two or three in the afternoon, all covering different topics.
There are a lot of things that would have to be worked out, but I think that this is an idea that has a lot of potential. I would like to volunteer to take a leading role in organizing some sort of "Tsukuba Orientation", but this is very definitely not something that I could organize on my own, and not something that I would like to undertake unless I am certain to have the cooperation of the international community in Tsukuba.
So, I would like to ask you to add your comments to this blog post (or contact me privately) to let me know whether you think having a "Tsukuba Orientation" is a worthwhile project. If we build it, will you come?
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