Living as an ex-pat can sometimes feel like being 90 years old.
JET, Year 3
Of the 2695 current JET participants from the United States, 1114 are on their first year. 760 are on their second year. 425 are on their third. I am among those in this third category.
The numbers for the US are very similar to everywhere else; by the third year, half of everyone you knew is gone. Depending on your location, it could be more or less, but nobody is getting away without losses. Even at the end of my first year, when most of my friends were sticking around, some of the JETs who’d been here longer than I had were heading home. At the end of every year, people leave, and there’s not much you can do about it.
At least in Miyagi, and probably amongst most JETs, there is a consensus that spending one year in Japan isn’t enough. The people who head home after one year usually have some issues they need to work out, or they had other plans that only allowed them a single year. One of my friends left because her relative was dying. Another because she were getting married.
But two years: that’s just right. You’ve spent the first year learning the ropes and getting used to life in Japan, and then you get to spend a year living it. Enjoying everything as if it’s your life. It is, after all. Where the first year had events coming at you from every direction, the second year reminds you that there is an order to it. You expect certain things to happen. You know what to do when your school has an evacuation or when you should get suited up for a ceremony.
Skipping to fourth and fifth years, there’s this unspoken feeling that they’re planning on staying in Japan for a long time. It’s not necessarily true, but there’s a kernel of truth there. Indeed, most of those who do go back home after their fourth and fifth years still maintain some strong connection to Japan.
Going back to the third years, well, they obviously fall right in the middle. Not quite in the camp of “Japan is this little jaunt” and “Japan is my life and home forever”, people on their third year basically come somewhere in the middle, perhaps deciding what they want to make of this experience.
I was once talking to a friend about hobbies, and why almost all old people have hobbies. He quite bluntly said, “If they don’t have hobbies, they die.”
“But, why? Why do they need a hobby to live?”
“There’s nothing else permanent. Friends and family—fleeting. Hobbies won’t go away.”
“But there are so many people in the world. Their grandkids will be there, if they have them. They can join clubs. There’s always more people.”
I was naïve. Still am, in many ways. Because the number of people in the world don’t matter if it’s hard to relate and connect to them.
I’m feeling that now, albeit on a smaller scale. A large number of my friends have left for their respective homes. They’re not dead, sure, but their presence is no longer felt on a daily basis. The people who replaced them are similar, but not quite there.
In 2013, I came with about 20 others to Miyagi. We were a huge group. Down south, I spent my time with a couple people who came with me. We also had an older sempai, a second year JET. And while he was a good friend and fun to hang out with, I couldn’t connect with him quite like I could connect with the people who came with me.
Why? He was only a week older than me. Our interests aligned and he was a good person. But, in that extra year, he’d become familiar with the place. Sempais could show you the world, while equals could experience it together. There’s a connectedness to having a shared experience.
I imagine that this feeling is what many old people feel, with their friends dying off and the younger crowds of people with different backgrounds coming to surround them. In a lesser form, of course—I wouldn’t dare think otherwise. Yet, grounded in similar soil.
This year is going to be my last. I’m not staying on JET for a fourth year.
That doesn’t mean I’m done with Japan—I’m still deciding what to do, as any third year might. But I’ll be taking a break from the ALT life when this is over. No more JET. The end of an era.
I will however be focusing on my hobbies, as any old man might. And perhaps the start of my full-time game development career.
Who knows? Life’s long and I’m still young.