■ Job Type：CIR ■ Prefecture：Aomori ■ Years on JET：2004-2007 ■ Birthplace：America
My connection to Japan began about fifteen years ago, before I even set foot on its soil. It all started with summer visits to Taiwan, a childhood friend’s recommendation of Namie Amuro’s “Sweet 19 Blues” album, and the boom of Japan’s pop culture, namely TV dramas, in the Taiwanese media. Before I realized it, I was jotting down short phrases of the Japanese lines by ear and noting the Chinese captions. Beside a love of music and the mass media, I was intrigued by the words and images and wanted to discover more. Several of my family members have had either Japanese education in Taiwan or studied in Japan, including grandparents who still sometimes speak Japanese with each other and friends of similar age. However, my own education in this fascinating language did not start until my first year at the University of Washington, after a five-day visit to the Kansai area for the first time. After a JET Programme information session on campus in my first year of college, a summer exchange program in Hakodate, Hokkaido in my second, and a summer internship in Kobe in my third, I was certain of my decision to apply for a CIR position as graduation drew near.
After weeks of anticipation following the fateful day of feeling that I had failed at the interview in the morning and subsequently the singing of a Japanese song at the annual talent show held by the Asian Student Commission on campus the same night, a package appeared in my mailbox. Its arrival was as if to compensate for my disappointment in the mistake-filled performance caused by a shaken confidence after the interview. I had much to learn. The placement read: “Hachinohe, Aomori.” Before finding out that Aomori was the birthplace of both the Tsugaru shamisen and my favorite artist Yoshitomo Nara, my image of the prefecture was limited to the Nebuta Festival, big apples, and walls of snow. I arrived in Hachinohe nervously, for the initial week featured many firsts: exchanging myriad business cards, interpreting at the welcome dinner banquet for guests from the sister-city, and accompanying the visitors to local sites I was seeing for the first time myself. “Overwhelming” did not even begin to describe the situation. While past Japan-related experiences prepared me to a certain extent, there were still adjustments to make and a new dialect to comprehend.
I work in the International Relations Group in the Gender Equality Promotions and International Relations Section of Civic Affairs Department. The four-member group also serves as the office for the Hachinohe International Relations Association, through which events such as the Halloween Tour and multinational panel discussion are held, and services including consultation for foreign residents and English guided tours of the city are provided. I am also in charge of the “International Lounge” page of the Association’s quarterly newsletter. In the City Hall’s network, as well as on a separate website, I maintain a bulletin for introducing words or sayings in Japanese along with the English and Chinese counterparts. (http://blog.goo.ne.jp/miffymiao/)
Along with a Japanese English teacher and a fellow JET, I act as a personality for the English conversation program at the local radio station. There have been many pleasant surprises such as finding out that our listeners range from English teachers to the lady who sells bento at the City Hall. Other than occupying my off-time with TV, movies, books, music, concerts and art museums, I have partaken in AJET activities, started learning the Tsugaru shamisen, and joined a flower arrangement club, a calligraphy class, and a community film discussion group organized by the local movie theater. Never did I imagine that I would have the chance to take a stab at reviewing movies and writing story synopses in Japanese. Nor did I foresee myself playing the role of a dialect-speaking character at the annual Tsugaru dialect contest for non-Japanese people or performing at fundraising concerts and talent shows held by the Aomori JET charity organization, Everest of Apples.
I spent the first decade of my life in Taiwan and a little more than another in the U.S. On my weekly elementary school visits, occasionally at first glance, some children wonder why someone who appears similar to them is teaching them English. However, those moments turn out to be the perfect chance to teach about the diversity in the definition of “American.” Sometimes I receive requests for presentations on American as well as Taiwanese culture, which are also precious opportunities for me to become more knowledgeable about both countries and reconsider my identity as a Taiwanese-American. Since Hachinohe has a friendship-city in China and a fair number of Chinese residents, I have translated documents and interpreted at events several times. Despite having to become familiarized with simplified Chinese (as in contrast to the traditional Chinese used in Taiwan), these unexpected assignments have been rewarding challenges.
Less than half a year remains until I complete my three years on the JET Programme. I had come here with the intention of experiencing life and work in Japan while sharing my own culture, but much, much more was in store. The role of a JET expanded beyond bridging communication and promoting international exchange between the Japanese and the non-Japanese. Had I not been a part of this, I would not have had the invaluable involvement in various Japanese communities, I would not have searched deeper to become a true expert of the places I had lived in for so long, and I would not have met and befriended people from countries such as Australia, England, and South Africa. Looking back at a gathering of Aomori CIRs in my first year, it did not occur to me until later that Japanese was what linked us together. The days as a JET participant have opened my eyes to not only new things, but ones that are worthy of reconsideration.