I’ve gone into my own personal alternate story, given tips on how to cope with alternate limbo and gone into what you can and should do after being upgraded – now it’s time to address the title: “Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate.” In this final installment of “alternate” posts, we can finally get down to the good stuff, the “perks” of alternate-dom. Now these can vary greatly depending on your situation, but hopefully my experiences will help illuminate that light at the end of the tunnel nonetheless!
Openness to Opportunities Other Than JET
I’ve already touched on this a bit, but being an alternate forced me to consider options other than the JET Program. Before I was alternated I, like many other JET hopefuls, was very much set on going to Japan and believed JET was the only viable option for me. I had heard of the eikaiwa horror stories and I also knew that I couldn’t afford (nor did I have an interest in) being a language student again. What I didn’t know is that there are alternatives to JET if one is set on doing ALT work. The best one is considered to be the company Interac, which I touched on in my first post of this series. In addition, you can often find private companies looking to hire ALTs by browsing through sites tailored to foreigners looking for work in Japan such as GaijinPot or Daijob.
However, maybe you’ll realize you don’t want actually want to work as an ALT. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that you don’t even want to teach English at all. If that’s the case, there are certainly a plethora of opportunities available; it may just require a bit more initiative on your part.
I will actually be moving to Tokyo to pursue freelance work when my contract with JET is up in a little over a month. I doubt I would have been willing to make such a big life change had my eyes not been opened to all the amazing job opportunities in Japan during my months in alternate purgatory! I think that being an alternate really allows one to take a few steps back from JET. Without that tunnel vision blurring your perception, you may be surprised to find that there have been other great (or even better) jobs there for the taking the entire time!
No Wasted Time!
This one is specific to my situation because I arrived in Japan in September as opposed to late July or August. It initially had me pretty bummed, as I knew I’d be missing the orientations, but as I’ve come to realize it was very much a blessing in disguise!
Why was it a blessing, exactly? Well, most new JETs must start “work” within a few days of arrival in their new city, while the students don’t actually start classes until September. This means that you have to go show up at your base school for eight hours a day, five days a week and just sit at a desk. Sure, you can use the time productively, but I can imagine that getting more than a little monotonous for a month straight! In addition, it’s August – quite possibly the hottest month of the year in Japan – and it’s not always a guarantee that there’ll be air-conditioning! When I arrived in September, it was the perfect temperature; I was totally comfortable without cooling or heating my apartment (which can result in cringe-worthy electric bills!).
Since I arrived September 8th, a Tuesday and about a week after the kids had started school, I was a little worried I might have to jump right into work without adequate time to get acclimated to my new environment. Luckily for me, this was not the case. In fact, I had about a full week before I started classes and even then I ended up spending the rest of September only having to give my self-introduction presentation. In other words, I had plenty of time to prepare but at the same time, didn’t get bored (well okay, the self-intro did start to get just a tad bit old after the 20th time!).
Like I said before, I was originally sad I’d miss out on the orientations, but everyone I’ve talked to swears they’re a waste of time and a total snooze fest. If they were anything like the orientation I attended in November, I must say I’m inclined to agree! Nothing against JET – I’ve just never really been a fan of sitting on my ass and listening to people talk for hours on end, no matter what the subject matter may be. So as it turns out, “no orientations” was a good thing too! And if you’re like me and worried missing orientation will set you back, don’t. This job was much easier and much more fun than I could have ever imagined; you’ll pick up on it in no time!
This one could be applicable even if you’re not an alternate, though I’d say being an alternate certainly increases the odds. The first few days after my arrival, my supervisor and a translator from the BOE took me around to be introduced to my schools, start a bank account, get my car, and get a phone contract, among other things. We had a lot of down time in between these activities and they always left the decision up to me as to where to go. This may or may not have resulted in many shopping sprees and trips to Sushi-Ro… I also feel like, since the other new JETs were settled in at this point, my supervisor was much more available to answer any questions I had and ensure I had a smooth transition.
Being a late arrival also resulted in a lot of attention from the other JETs in the area. I know many alternates fear short-listers adopting elitist attitudes toward them, but my experience couldn’t have been further from that. In fact, I got the feeling that the other JETs felt bad about my situation and were therefore extra nice in order to make me feel welcome! They took me to a local restaurant for a little welcome party my first Friday in town and also all pitched in to pay for me at another event that same weekend. So all in all, I’d say being the new ALT on the block is like being the “mysterious transfer student” in an anime – everyone is looking forward to learning more about you!
From Zero to Hero
Another possible perk is that you could be viewed as a sort of savior. Though that may sound a little intense, I’m not exaggerating! I was upgraded because my predecessor decided he wasn’t going to re-contract with JET at the last minute. This left my schools and local BOE in a tizzy as they scrambled to find a suitable replacement. When I met everyone at the BOE and my schools in person, one would think I had just walked on water while balancing the Holy Grail on my head, a basket-full of kittens that I had just saved from a fire in tow. Their relief at having me there was obvious. Though I did nothing more than accept a job and then show up and do said job, everyone was very excited to have me there. It took months for that excitement to wane and eventually become normalcy. And I definitely think that initial excitement was amped up on steroids because they had to wait for me to show up.
If you’re an alternate upgrade – especially a late upgrade – chances are that your schools were either left ALT-less for a while or thought that they might be. You may wonder why it’s such a big deal for them to be without an ALT – I mean we are assistant language teachers, after all – but I think ALTs play a vital role in the schools. I say my job is like being the “cool aunt”; when I show up to class, it’s time to actually have fun learning English. Even when I don’t have any classes, being there seems to lift the kids’ spirits. We ALTs are symbols of the awesomeness of cultural exchange and so our presence alone has power. Just by showing up to work you’ll probably be loved by all, students and teachers alike!
And finally, I’ll wrap this post up by going into the most important reason for why I’m glad I was an alternate. (Warning: Cheese Alert!) Quite simply put, being alternated made me “want it” more! All that time spent with that proverbial carrot hanging on a string in front of my face led to an indescribable rush of joy when I finally got upgraded. I doubt I would have experienced that rush so intensely had I been short-listed from the get-go.
In the long run, I think it has made me much more appreciative of my experiences. There are many JETs who end up dissatisfied after the initial excitement of the first couple months wears off, but I can say with confidence that I have enjoyed the entire ride. The good days, the bad days, the days in which I’m stuck at my desk for eight hours with no classes – it’s all been an adventure. I’m so grateful I had the chance to experience this unique opportunity and I know I’ll take it with for my entire life. It made those three+ months in purgatory more than worth it and because of that time, I’ve been able to appreciate this “jet coaster” that much more!
And that’s why I’m glad I was an alternate!