For the longest time, I was certain I could ride out this terrible pandemic from the “safety” of Japan. However, situations can change drastically in the blink of an eye. While writing this post, I am still in denial that I am leaving in only three days.
Just as things were beginning to make sense here, I was forced to purchase a one-way ticket to even more uncertainty back in the United States. I lost a job, healthcare, new friends, and a home. I will risk exposure to the virus while taking the shinkansen to Tokyo and flying to Dallas then Charlotte. Lately, I haven’t been able to get much sleep because I am so anxious. The past few days have been a whirlwind of phone calls to the electric, gas, and water companies, dealing with my supervisors, designating a tax representative, and selling my belongings at second-hand stores. From the date of my resignation, I have five days to vacate my apartment. The paranoia of forgetting something important is too real.
Change is hard even when you know it’s coming. Unexpected change is chaotic and disorienting, especially when you’re watching the world fall apart on the news and social media. Sometimes it feels like I’m forgetting to breathe, my body physically resisting doing what needs to be done. Everything hurts, and I am tired. It will take time to process this tragedy. That is okay—I am learning to be patient and understanding with myself.
While going home is the best decision for me, it’s still difficult. I love this country, and my routine was finally comfortable: I figured out how to snag meetings with busy teachers and explain confusing grammar points with pictures and silly gestures. I was participating in more school events and building rapport with my students and colleagues. It’s hard for me to think about the children who enjoyed English wondering why I have not returned to school. Even though I was planning to resign in August, losing out on this last semester with my students is heartbreaking.
My life outside of work was also improving. Fun fact, I’m not the best at socializing. It took a lot of searching, but I eventually found two solid groups of friends who I connected with on a very deep level. I met some lovely fellow ALTs, and I will forever be grateful for our Japanese study sessions/catch-up dinners, weekend hiking trips, and Pokémon Go Community Day get-togethers. Even the foreigners I saw less frequently were kind to me. Everyone rallied together during the COVID-19 outbreak, and I can’t fully express my appreciation for those who helped me move and settle my affairs. I will also miss my friends from the local Japanese Sign Language Circle. They opened my eyes to Deaf culture in Japan and patiently helped me learn not just one but two new languages. They even asked me to teach them some English and American Sign Language. Even though the last month’s worth of meetings was cancelled, we all kept in touch via the Line messaging app. From this experience, I am confident no matter where I go or what language barriers persist, there will always be kind and sincere people worth getting to know. I will treasure these memories with my friends and schools forever.
I recognize I am mourning, but I do not have time wallow in the gravity of my situation. In reality, I do not even have time to write, but here I am, sitting with my laptop on the floor of my near-empty apartment, which now feels a lot less like home and a lot more like a Leopalace. (If you’ve ever rented from Leopalace, then you know what I’m talking about.) I’ve thrown away so many things I wanted to keep but couldn’t afford to ship. I want to cry, but I can’t. It seems like my body is switching to autopilot. This happens nearly every time I go through something traumatic. But eventually, I know I will “wake up” again and let myself feel. Fortunately, I have the support of my family, boyfriend, and friends. I have received so much love and kindness I don’t know what to do with it all. Once I’m back and things settle down, I truly hope I can repay everyone for their help.
If I want to stay so bad, then why am I leaving? Surely, it’s safer to stay put when you have healthcare and a stable income. That’s what I thought as well, and that’s what I told myself for weeks. But Japan has not taken effective measures to contain the spread of this virus. Compared to other nations, very few patients have been tested. While many people don’t seem too worried, I have asthma and know I have to do what I can to protect myself. Being around children and teachers at five different schools seemed like too great of a risk for me. I was relieved when Abe closed schools across Japan for one month. However, even during the closure, ALTs and full-time teachers in my city were forced to go to work even though we had nothing to do and no lessons to teach. Our staff rooms are poorly ventilated and many teachers came to work sick. We easily could have worked from home, but Japanese law prohibits that of government employees, and no one wants to disrupt the system even when the rules don’t make sense.
My board of education also refused to grant ALTs special leave for the coronavirus. If we contracted COVID-19, we would be forced to use our limited paid holidays and then take unpaid leave for as long as it took our bodies to recover. The doctor’s note granting unpaid leave would cost 5000 yen on top of the bills for treatment. Even as infection rates continued to spike in Tokyo, the city’s board of education remained determined the next school year would start as planned. The day children were scheduled to come back to school, ALTs had still not received safety guidelines in English. Last week, when the embassy alerted U.S citizens in Japan to return home or remain in the country indefinitely as flights continued to diminish, we asked our supervisors if they could help us should we be unable to travel. This was a huge concern to those of us with contracts terminating in July. Our supervisors could not guarantee our safety or offer any kind of assistance. Being jobless, homeless, and stranded in Japan did not sound like an ideal situation.
To make matters worse, when I requested five of my twenty days off to social distance during the first week of school (so I could avoid crowded entrance ceremonies), I was told our contracts were changed to reduce our paid leave from twenty days to five days for our remaining time in Japan. This was outrageous because we signed a contract in August that was to be valid for one year, and the board of education wrote up a new one without telling us. They did not inform us of any of these changes, so ALTs were blindsided. With everything combined, I decided I no longer felt safe working for a government office who communicated with employees so poorly and used the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of us. After consulting with several people who have more experience than I do, it became clear they did not care for our wellbeing whatsoever.
However, the six of us who quit did not go down without a fight. After expressing our concerns to our supervisors, we reached out to CLAIR, a government body who helps oversee the JET Program. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, they can investigate and admonish our BOE for their treatment of ALTs so that future teachers receive better working conditions than we did. During a global crisis, I still cannot fathom the actions they took against us. When I continue my job search back home, the first thing I will ask in an interview is “how did you support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?” Always remember your worth and fight for your human rights.
I will be sure to post updates once I am back in America. For now, stay safe everyone.