Contract Ripping: The Stages of not signing a second year in the JET Programme

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Well, it’s the big move-on-out week here in Tottori. It’s been a surprisingly painless affair, considering how, just last year, moving out of Vancouver led to a panic attack-cum-heat stroke that left me curled up on the road in my suit. It’s very easy this time around, owing in many ways to the fact that I’ve lived out of my suitcase this whole time (I’ve been giving other people the phrase “living like a monk,” though that’s surely too kind, since monks are much cleaner). Still, as I put things away, I feel the emotional memories in them: the goodbye letters from Vancouver friends I brought with me, the information packet from the Tokyo orientation, that shirt I went out all night in and rendered unwearable.

It all connects, though nothing hits me quite the way, today, my contract for a second year here in Tottori did. It’s a nice big stack of papers, some thirty pages, dictating the boundaries for which I’ll live my life the next year—when to work, when to rest, how many holidays, where to take them, how much money I can spend on them; how to dress, what to say, who to say it to; how to continue being a surrogate citizen of Japan. It was all laid out for me. Everyone thought I was crazy when I decided not to sign it.

And holding it in my hands again for the first time in months, I remember how close I’d been to signing it. That in the wave of emotions and fear that gripped me, I almost let everyone around me decide where I was going to give a year of my life. In the sudden upsurge of emotions, I’d throw back a string of iff’s to try and puzzle out a way of staying: well if I went to elementary school twice a week; or if I could actually have a place in lessons; or if I had more time to work on other projects; or if I could eat with the students; or if the staff weren’t so cold… Until you reach a point of telling yourself, “you know what? You can build a tower with all these iff’s, and it still won’t hide the fact that something here isn’t working.”

I shredded the contract.

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In all of this, the past month and a half, I’ve been looking ahead without paying much attention to what’s going on around me. And it’s only this week, when everything’s getting boxed up, that I’ve started noticing the major shift I’ve gone through: after months of worrying about what a move like this would do to my students, I stopped thinking about them at all.

And this one becomes hard to say. Because there were two stages of my post contract turn-downage. The first stage was the guilt of saying no, mixing with the fear the Great Wide After, where I felt like I was letting everyone down by leaving. This is a by-product of the immense Japanese patronage, a nagging sense that so much work has been placed in bringing you here, in making you feel welcome, and that only staying for one year is a bit of a backstab.

When I turned the contract down, I was brought into the principal’s office and drilled for a good 15 minutes about why I was leaving; even though I held firm on the grad school alibi, I kept getting asked “is it your family,” like the only way they’d really accept my resignation would be, I suppose, if my Mom was dying? And the whole time I kept wondering, when are they truly disappointed to see me go, and when are they mostly just considering the start-up costs associated with Liam 2.0?

And I started to feel really bad. When fellow JETs gave me a vaguely perplexed look with their “only one year?”, I felt socially compelled to give a long shrug, a wide smile and a “I know, I’m weird” response. I had to blame me. I had to take account for my flightiness and lack of patience, while ignoring the complete restrictions and very difficult students that certainly weren’t encouraging a second year.

I just needed to be the best ALT and get the most out of Japan that I could in my final six months. And it was spring, cherry blossom sickness gripped the nation, I’d been having a whole slew of adventures; everything was going so well with teachers, and I was becoming Super-Sensei for a good proportion of my kids. I was reaching a level of fluency, and felt myself by proxy turning into a sort-of Japanese citizen here. It was falling into place, and I knew what I was about to give it up; I felt it in my blood, and started to pull towards staying a second year.

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Until the milk started curdling. Till all my favorite teachers left, the life of the school changed completely, and a number of very cruel vindictive students started taking over the classroom and getting to me. In a flush of characters that even GRR Martin wouldn’t have the guts for, 18 of the school’s friendliest (and often most English-comfortable) teachers left, and the ones who came in didn’t have time for the Gaijin that was on his way out anyway. All of this was gradual. But it started a slow transformation that’s left me bitter and cold.

And so while stage 1 was all about feeling that not signing was my fault, stage 2 was increasingly about how it was all their fault. Their at first meaning the kids, then the administration, until eventually roping in all of Japan. Feeling increasingly like the wounded party, the one who was systematically ignored or infantilized, who could have gone so many miles if he’d been given a few inches. First I lived for the weekends, then I lived for the future, lived for getting out of here, becoming essentially unresponsive to all Japan had left to offer me.

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All while doing the full pageantry of a leaving JET: taking a slow, sad smile at my elementary schools while I said my final goodbyes; telling all of them effusively how wonderful Tottori is and how I’d never forget them. None of this is exactly untrue, but I wasn’t feeling it, even when there’d be a sudden show—a crying student at my farewell, a teacher who’d sit me down and genuinely want to know my plans—of how much I’d been loved, how much I’d truly be missed. And I’d just get a dull pang leaving each school, that this would be the last time at Suetsune or Karo, last time I’d watch those kids with their orange packsacks hold hands crossing the street, last time a group of girls would wave from the bandroom at me.

I’ve never been so unsentimental leaving a place. Normally I become the crinkly-eyed grandfather, finding meaning and memory in everything: “here’s where I met them for the train,” “here’s the corner I first threw up.” Here, nothing, even for the big things—sunset by the sea, the starlight in the fields.

And so on the very final day, I pull into the school with my parents, and half the school comes out with a big banner “THANK YOU LIAM SENSEI,” the band starts a marching tune upstairs, and the teachers are waving furiously, some crying. Mom’s crying too as we pull away and I make sure they see me waving at them. But I’m silent and dry-eyed, biting at my cheek and holding this aggravation close because at least I’m feeling something.

And this is the end to the year I’m still calling, more-or-less, the best I’ve had so far?

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I’m still unable to completely unpack the emotions tied to that, though I did leave with a lingering thought. “Jeez, why couldn’t they have shown that on the normal days? On the darker days? On any days that wasn’t the one I finally said enough was enough?”

And maybe it’s a cultural divide. Maybe somewhere along the way connection lines were crossed and I no longer understood what my school was trying to tell me. Maybe 12 straight years of bullying and isolation means that I’ll still choose a hard shell and ironic smile over confrontation and maybe, even, a loving reconciliation.

I’m not ready for reconciliations yet. Not ready to tell those kids who know exactly how to cut me, “take me at my all, fuckers,” and still be the best ALT they’ll ever have. And I’m not quite mature enough yet to be open and gregarious to adults who don’t say good morning back when I walk in the staff room.

Am I running from these problems? Or was I always only ever meant to stay a year? Am I burning out, or am I just being pushed towards something more right? I wish I could have cherished these last months a little more. But in the end, even though I only shredded the contract this past week, I refused to sign it six months ago. These decisions had been made for me ages ago. And so when I shredded the contract, I should have been able to give up this resentment that’s dogged these last two months; should have been able to recognize that somewhere between that feeling and the guilt that came before it, there was some kind of healthy in-between.

But I can’t. So I’m running.

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