Ashlie O’Neill, Former Hyogo Prefecture ALT, 2010-2013; Event Coordinator with JETAA New South Wales
During my last month in Japan I went from Aomori to Okayama and I climbed Mt Fuji, a feat I once thought impossible as an unfit non-climber with no training. At the top of Mt Fuji, I looked down over Japan and reflected on how the last 3 years had been life changing and how much I had learned and experienced. Looking back on it now, climbing Mount Fuji was a bit like leaving JET and my experience with reverse culture shock. I had prepared myself for the climb up, the cold, the dark and the thin air but the way down was so much harder than I could have ever anticipated.
Upon returning to Australia the reverse culture shock came. I could understand everyone’s conversations, drivers were more aggressive, take-out food took longer, there was a lack of order in general, and people used phones on trains, – which still makes me nervous now. But I was not prepared for the other ways my culture shock manifested itself.
I didn’t fit in anymore. It was not that my friends and family didn’t care about me, but their situations had changed. The world did not stop because I went to Japan. I changed a lot in Japan; I become more independent and learned to love the freedom that came with living alone. I was confident and a lot more outgoing. I was an adventurer, willing to try new things and meet new people. Those around me often treated me like the insecure, needy, homebody that had left in 2013 and it made me feel like I was sliding back into my old self.
In September, I attended the JETAANSW 30th Anniversary event. It was nice to see familiar faces and talk to others who were also struggling with settling back into life. Many had jobs they disliked but others had been unable to secure one at all. Talking to other people about the struggles we were all facing helped me to relax. Reverse culture shock had hit us all badly but together we were able to laugh and support each other. Many alumni mentioned that they had also felt lost before finding their current careers. They encouraged me to just keep trying and not get disheartened. I was very thankful for the chance not only to talk to other returnees but also to talk to JET alumni who told me their personal stories.
One ex-JET in particular spoke to me about her job in International Student Services. I had no idea that a job so perfect for me even existed and, after talking with her, everything about my future felt a whole lot brighter and exciting. I knew that was what I wanted. Again, I began applying to jobs left, right, and centre but not even one employer replied. Still no luck. I felt more useless than ever.
Eventually I contacted an ex-JET I had met in September; I told her how little luck I was having with my job search. We organised to meet up and it was incredibly helpful to get advice from someone with experience in the field. We sat and talked and she pointed out which of my skills would be most important to highlight for the positions I was applying to. With her help my CV got a much-needed renovation. We discussed the hiring process, job responsibilities, and possible other avenues for getting into international departments at universities.
One day I received an e-mail from somewhere I had submitted my CV a few days earlier. We had a phone interview and the job sounded perfect. Next, I was asked to an interview. I wanted to be excited but I had learned to not get my hopes up anymore.
The interview went well. I met many members of the small team and toured the campus with a Senior Residential Assistant. I told myself they would probably find someone else anyway. I sent an e-mail the next day thanking the staff for the chance to interview with them. I received a friendly e-mail back saying they loved meeting me and would be in contact and then the all-too-familiar silence followed.
The silence was broken by a friendly e-mail telling me that they were still discussing applicants and thanked me for my patience. Then, a text from the programme director directed me to my job offer e-mail.
Finally, I got a job in the area I wanted to build a career. Finally, someone saw the value in me and my experience! Finally, the feeling of uselessness went away. I was finally beginning to build the rest of my life.
So then, this is my advice for returnees about what lies ahead. Join your closest JETAA. They will connect you to other JET alumni, organise events, and keep you linked to Japan. No-one knows what a JET has been through like another JET.
Like climbing Mt Fuji the road will be difficult, sometimes in ways you couldn’t have planned for. Give yourself and those around you time to adjust. It is ok to not be ok; this is a huge change and if you need to, reach out to someone and just talk to other returnees or alumni near to you. Be patient; it may take longer than you planned but eventually you will reach your destination. Don’t give up on your goals. In the end, it will be worth the hard work and the waiting.