JETAA Portland just completed yet another successful JET pre-departure orientation seminar for new ALTs and CIRs departing out of Portland. This was my first, and it brought back fond memories of when I attended orientation in 2007. As usual, Matt Turner and the consulate folks were on the ball — something Portland JETs have long enjoyed. The other JETAA officers were also splendid. Through many years of orientations they’ve honed it down to an art.
I got to present on workplace etiquette and culture shock. Those seem like separate topics, but I discovered that they are heavily intertwined. So much of what alleviates or aggravates culture shock for JETs is their role in the workplace. If you have frequent pleasant interactions with coworkers, you’re pretty golden. My Japanese teacher once told me that in 20 years of working alongside ALTs in junior high school staff rooms, she learned how to spot which ALTs would be motivated to pursue studying the language: the ones who got along well with at least some of their coworkers.
Most ALTs come to their new workplace full of energy and ready to work, but some end up put off by what seems to be a lack of genuine welcoming energy. The reserved nature of Japanese professional environments can create a kind of feedback vacuum that gets people questioning themselves and possibly losing sight of what gave them that energy in the first place. For CIRs, the professional pressure can be especially high. Moreover, they don’t have the potential of forming relationships with students — something that can bring a lot of fulfillment to the lives of ALTs.
The good news is that JETs are usually a flexible lot. Even though culture shock hits them as much as anyone else, they tend to be able to roll with the punches. Also — and I know we hear this a lot — most of those Japanese coworkers are genuinely shy in the face of someone they don’t share cultural norms with, and they need time (and maybe some encouragement) to get past that. Keeping hold of that initial energy and positivity will help make that happen.
If you’re a JET participant who is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call the Tokyo English Life Line or the JET Line (03-5213-1729) during working hours. At night, call the AJET Peer Support Group.