Welcome to Limbo: Being an Alternate for JET

Here you are, you started your JET Program journey half a year ago, you sent off your application last fall, waited six weeks, made it through the first round of cuts, another month went by, had your interview, and have now waited patiently 2+ months for results.

You finally get the email, it starts off “You have successfully passed the 2nd stage of the screening process”. You want to run around the room and shout “I’m going to Japan!” until you read the next sentence. “You have been selected as an alternate.”

I got this email, and I knew I was supposed to be grateful that I was an alternate. It meant I wasn’t rejected outright, and there was still a real chance of going to Japan. But in some ways it was worse than just being rejected. Being rejected would have meant that it’s over and done with, and it’s time to move on. As an alternate, all that laid ahead was weeks – possibly months – of uncertainty. When will I get the call? How much time will I have to prepare for Japan? What I can’t go? What if I’m never upgraded at all?!

Being an alternate kinda blows. It’s the ultimate limbo, you’re not in JET, but you’re not out. You’re sort of treated like a short-lister (you get some of the same paperwork, get invited to a few events), but at the same time you’re very much not a short-lister. You get asked if you’re going to Japan, and all you can say is “I don’t really know yet.” While short-listers get all sorts of checklists and guides to pre-departure, there is no “Official JET Alternate Guide”.

So here is the Unofficial JET Program Alternate Guide from someone who went through it.

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The almighty piece of paper, part ni

Last time, I covered the first unspoken rule of paper in Japan (never throw any piece of paper you get in Japan away). This second rule is also unspoken and is possibly more important that the first

2. If it’s an ALTs word against a piece of paper, paper trumps ALT, always.

It really doesn’t matter how unofficial the piece of paper is. It could be something drunkenly scrawled on a napkin, but if the ALT says something that contradicts what’s written on a piece of paper, by God, that piece of paper will win. This isn’t a hard tested theory yet, but I am constantly collecting proof that ALT < piece of paper.

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A word to those reJEcTed

Apparently the US interview notification came out yesterday, and I thought I’d give those of you who didn’t make it past the interview stage this year some words of wisdom or encouragement or at least condolences.

I minored in Japanese and first learned about the JET Program in my sophomore year. I was an art major with no cash and a very strict curriculum, so JET seemed like a great alternative to taking out loans for study abroad and pushing my graduation back at least a semester. Also my Japanese professor expected all of us Japanese minors to apply. Okay, “expected” is a strong word, more like strongly encouraged us to apply, and would purse her lips in slight disappointment if you talked about going to grad school, or even worse, just going straight into a non-Japanese related career.

At the end of November, I sent in my application for the JET Program along with several of my classmates. As I stated in my first post, I thought I was a shoe-in. Well, at least everyone else talked to me like I was a shoe-in. I’m far too critical of myself to assume I’m a shoe-in for anything, which might have been the problem. Anyway, I was reasonably confident that I would easily make it to the interview stage. December and the holidays came and went, and finally it was late January. Several of my classmates received their notifications that they would be interviewed, but my email inbox was empty despite me refreshing the page every 2 minutes.

A couple days later I was sitting at work when an email from JET arrived. Finally, I thought to myself as I clicked to open it. But instead of a “congratulations” I read this sentence:

Unfortunately, we cannot offer you an interview for this year’s program.

Rejection in general sucks, but there was something especially stinging about being rejected for the interview. On the one hand, JET’s just another job, but on the other hand the application is so lengthy and the wait to hear on an interview is so long it’s hard not to get invested emotionally. Plus the fact that I knew several other applicants and that most of them were granted interviews made me feel even more dejected. And what’s perhaps the worst thing of all is JET doesn’t tell the rejected applicants what exactly they did wrong, so I was left wonder what exactly it was that earned me a “no interview” stamp.

So to those of you rejected for an interview: I was there, and I know it sucks. I was bummed out for a while and nothing made me feel better about it. Since I can’t magically change your results, I probably can’t make you feel better, but here are a few of the “upsides” of being rejected for an interview. Continue reading

The almighty piece of paper, part ichi

If you know me at all, then you know my favorite TV show is “The Office”, a mockumentary about the struggles of a paper company in Pennsylvania trying to keep afloat in an increasingly paperless world. My solution for Dunder-Mifflin’s woes are simple; move to Japan.

Japan loves paper, be it tiny bags to individually wrap every little cellphone charm you purchase at a depaato, or tickets from a machine because even at the post office you have to take a number, or just the massive number of pamplets and handouts you will get at JET orientation and subsequent conferences, paper is still king in Japan.

And since paper is king, there are two important rules to remember about it. Today we’ll cover rule one:

1. You must never throw away any piece of paper you ever get, ever.

I had forgotten all the times my Japanese professor in college who would randomly ask us to pull out worksheets that she gave us maybe 2 semesters ago, but when I arrived in Japan, I quickly remembered this unspoken rule. When I arrived at my BOE in August, they had me sign my contract, fill out my gaijin card form and gave me a few random things, one of them being my electric bill. The next week, my supervisor was going to take me to a shopping center to get me a cell phone, so I arrived at the BOE, and the following conversation occured:

Supervisor (roughly translated from Japanese): Do you have your electric bill?

Me: Um, was I suppose to have it?

Supervisor: Since it a piece of paper that you received from a Japanese person, you must be able to randomly produce it at any given time.

Me: Oh, sorry, I’m still new here, you know.

Supervisor: Daijoubu, but seriously, where’s your electric bill, it’s imperative to have it before we go get your cellphone. I can’t tell you why, it just is.

Me: I think it’s at my house. Can I bring it Monday?

Supervisor: I have a better idea, we’ll drive to your house and wait outside while you desperately search for it.

Me: Okay desu.

A couple weeks after that my supervisor came to my school one day and I had this encounter:

Supervisor: Rooren, Hello

Me: S’up, supe

Supervisor: All JETs must sign this Accident Insurance paper, from this pamplet [shows pamplet I don’t remember ever getting]

Me: [swinks eyes and tries to remember] Uh, yeah, I might have that.

Supervisor: ‘Might have it’?

Me: Yeah, I mean, it’s probably at my house with the small library of info I received at the JET orientation.

Supervisor: So . . . you don’t have it with you?

Me: Nope

Supervisor: You didn’t wake up this morning and just know that I would stop by and ask for this piece of paper so maybe you should bring it with you to school today?

Me: Well, you know I’m not Japanese . . . or clairvoyant.

Supervisor: No, I suppose you’re not.

Today’s lesson: Take that piece with of paper with both hands, bow, and make sure it never leaves your person for the length of your stay in Japan.

The JET Journey

There are any number of people on the JET Programme who apply during their senior year of college, are granted interviews with no problem, and receive the good news in April that they will be heading to the Land of the Rising Sun 3 months after their graduation.

This was sadly not my story.

I was in my final year as a Fine Arts Major/Japanese minor. I, along with several of my Japanese classmates, sent in my application for the JET Programme at the end of November. Frankly, I assumed I was a shoe-in; good grades, reasonably involved in school, very involved in the Japanese Program, they had to want me, right?

Wrong, in January I received a brief email informing me that I was not granted an interview. My journey to be part of that year’s JET Program was done. It was frustrating as hell to watch several of my classmates go on to the interviews, to tell them I was happy for them when really I was angry that it wasn’t me. More than a few tears were shed. The dreaded “What are your plans after college” question was answered with an “I don’t know.” My final semester flew by, my graduation came and went, and in July I bid farewell to a few of my good friends as I watched them go off to Japan without me.

In August, school started up and for the first time since I was 4 years old I wasn’t a “student”. A bit of a quarter-life-crisis set in as I applied for a few jobs, but I didn’t really pursue anything seriously. I helped my dad move to Canada, tried to help out my mother and grandfather, mostly I ended up hanging out with college buddies playing video games and watching movies. After I didn’t get an interview, I didn’t want anything to do with the JET Programme, but I had relaxed my stance over the months and determined that if application time rolled around and I wasn’t gainfully employed, I would apply once again.

Before I knew it, it was late October, and the only bright spot in my employment search was one call back from Barnes and Noble. That pesky JET Programme application came online, promising to whisk me away to Japan, make me a multi-millionaire (in yen, that is), and give me an experience few people have the chance to have. All I had to do was subject myself to the complicated, time-consuming, at-least-6-month-long application process once again.

It was a bit of deja-vu to apply again. I asked for letters of recommendation from the same two people who wrote them for me the previous year. Other than a few tweaked sentances, I sent in the same Statement of Purpose essay. I even mailed my application from the same Kinkos-FedEx location. To be honest, I was almost testing JET, to see if practically the same app. that didn’t get me an interview last year would get me in this year, so I could prove how random the whole process is!

In January, the interview announcements were out. Apparently adding the word “internationalization” to my SoP and listing my recent trip to Toronto, Canada as “inter-cultural experience” worked because I landed an interview. A few weeks later, I went before a panel at the Denver Japanese Consulate and had what I’d call an okay interview. I was nervous beyond belief (even though a lot of people told me I was pretty calm) and I completely bombed one question, but I wasn’t crying or anything.

Another six weeks passed (Everything JET does is roughly measured in 6 weeks increments) and I received my email from the Consulate in early April. With my mom holding my hand, I opened it up to read this:

It is our great pleasure to inform you that you have successfully passed the 2nd stage of the screening process for the JET Program and have been selected as an alternate Assistant Language Teacher.

What?! Alternate? What.the.eff? Even more egregious was the email saying that I could be upgraded as late as October. Much like the previous year, everyone I knew that applied was shortlisted (i.e. they were in) and I was put in a position that was in some ways worst than simply being rejected. I tried to remain positive, a good percentage of JET alternates are eventually upgraded, but whenever I thought of JET, it depressed me. What did I do this time, why am I not freakin’ good enough for this program? My former classmates made their preparations as April ended, and then May. No word from JET.

In mid-June, my mom and I were driving to Estas Park when I started to cry, talking about how depressed the JET situation was making me. She told me she didn’t want me to go, and I said that that was it, I wasn’t going to wait around for the JET program anymore. So that was that, no more JET.

That same day we went to this Native American shop where this woman a few years older than me was working. We got to talking and it turned out she had been working and living in Japan for the last 5 years, married a Japanese man and had a super adorable son (who just happened to have the same name as this guy from my Japanese class that I had had a terrible crush on). I didn’t want to think too much of it, but it sure felt like one of those classic “signs”.

That happened on a Friday, the following Tuesday, I was mowing the lawn when my mom came out to tell me a Denver number was calling my cell. A moment later the home phone rang; it was the JET coordinator calling to ask if I was still interesting in being on the JET program. “I think so,” was all I could manage.

And that was it, 20 months after my first application to JET, I was finally heading to Japan. Now the fun would truly begin.