■ Job Type: ALT ■ Prefecture: Kagoshima ■ Years on JET: 2005-2010
It was not surprising that I knew nothing about JET Programme at that point. Jamaica has only been a participant on the JET Programme since 2001 and the group selected each year average about 12 persons. There are no Asian language departments or faculties at any of Jamaica’s three Universities and Japanese language instruction was for many years restricted to one facility, the Language Training Centre in Kingston. Jamaica is surrounded by the Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean islands, so in our high schools and universities, we are taught either French or Spanish as a foreign language. Even at the point that I was handing in my application, there was a big question mark with no one who could tell the tale of their experience in Japan.
A few months later, I was called for an interview. I left the room with my head down, convinced that I had failed. It was that last question that had jabbed me in the side. The question was “why would a young graduate want to leave Jamaica and not give back to the government and country?”, to which I had given a completely inadequate answer. Today, with a smile and an answer to this question, I wish I could go back and face the panel again, knowing what I know now. Much to my surprise, I got a call on, of all days, April 1st from the Embassy, informing me that I had been successful. At first I thought that this was one of the best “All Fools Day” prank in recent years, so I hit the redial button in order to congratulate its creator. It was no prank, it was in fact the Embassy of Japan and I was accepted. But pause for a minute… I had another hurdle to get over…
In the midst of celebrating, I suddenly realized that I had not informed my relatives of my plans. They did not even know that I had applied to the Programme. Now, I needed to not only tell them that I was going to Japan, but to also obtain their blessing and approval for my journey.
I grew up in Southern Jamaica, in a small community that that did not exist on even the most detailed road map of the island. It was difficult for my relatives to say goodbye to me when I went off to University in the capital and that was just three hours away. And now I was about to tell them I would be heading off to Asia, on the other side of the world, for a whole year. I was not looking forward to this conversation.
Our dining area felt like a courtroom that evening. My relatives’ arguments were what I expected: I did not speak any Japanese, I did not have any experience working with Japanese people or teaching English and I had never lived in a place where my race was a minority. I was, of course guilty as charged on all counts and as I was about to wave my banner of defeat, the head of my household stood up and there was silence. My great-grandmother looked at me and said with a smile “we have four months to teach her how to cook Jamaican food, the rest she will learn in time”. A few weeks later, my aunt gave me a map of Jamaica and Ridge District was inserted in pen, in the place where I always imagined it would be. It was a very good feeling knowing that my family supported my decision and in the difficult months ahead they would be my anchor.
Kagoshima is in the south of Japan and there is a certain charm about this place that reminds me to slow down and not take life so fast. The Sakurajima volcanoe is a beautiful backdrop to the developing city. People in Kagoshima are very friendly, helpful and easy going.
In July 2005, for the first time in the history of the JET Program, Jamaicans were placed in Kagoshima. It has been an interesting year as the only Jamaican in the city. There are two reggae bars in Kagoshima and I was the first Jamaican to enter them. The minute I said that I was from Jamaica, people automatically assumed that I knew how to dance, sing and run at incredible speeds. While stereotypes are invariably unfortunate, it happened to be true in my case. Jamaicans are generally rhythmic people but ability levels vary. I can hold my own but I will never be seen in any reggae music videos unless the artist wants to give examples of what not to do.
Anyways, with none of my friends who knew better looking over my shoulder, after a few drinks I showed them what to do. At first when my Japanese was non-existent, it was reggae music that brought me and my now closest Japanese friends together. There were times, especially after a non-productive shopping day when I would go to the reggae bar and lament to my new friends about the difficulties of finding my size. Everything that I thought was a problem, for example my clothes size or the difficulties in managing my hair, they supported me by saying that this was what made me special. I tried to squeeze this source to its limit, so I asked “what about the fact that I wear size 10 shoes”? They had that dismal look and ordered more drinks.
Isn’t life funny? I never thought that I would come to Japan to learn more about my own culture. I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it means to be a Jamaican now that I am holding the kaleidoscope, spinning it around and looking in.
I am not the same person… because I have been empowered by my experiences here in Japan. I know that when I return to my small district in Jamaica, I bring with me many tales about friendship that neither distance nor time could ever erode. But most importantly, I am an example of someone who dared to venture outside the gates of our community into the unknown.
If you have read this far, it has been a pleasure sharing my experience with you. I could have said in only one sentence that coming to Japan was the best thing to ever happen to me, but like most good things in our life we have to take that extra mile on the road less traveled to find it.