Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why I chose the JET Program

After a much  documented epiphany in the summer of 2011, I decided that I would be quitting my job and moving to Asia  in the summer of  2013, no matter what. At that time, I had no idea what I would be doing, but I had some options.

I could move abroad:

A)   As a student (Graduate school, foreign language study)
B)   As a professional (English teacher, some awesome ex-at gig)
C)   As a tourist (Blow my savings hopping from country to country)
D)   A combination of two or more of the above

All of these came with pros and cons.

Going abroad as a student is expensive, and although it can be rewarding, it is a costly way to acquire new skills.

Getting a job would be ideal, but that also depends on the kind of job. I had no desire to teach English forever, or become a corporate drone working 12-14 hours a day like some of my friends in Tokyo and Taipei. Come to think of it, I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do professionally. So the chances of me finding that dream job, the one that satisfies desires I don’t even know I have, seems unlikely.

Being a tourist was probably my least favorite option. This is by far the lowest bang for your buck. Traveling is expensive, and it does not guarantee you a transformative experience. You could easily blow through thousands of dollars traveling to every country in Europe, but learn very little and the cultures and societies into which you have briefly inserted yourself.  On the other hand, you could get extremely lucky and end up meeting great local people who help you land your dream ex-pat job, but the chances of that are slim, and that is an expensive gamble.

Going through these options I immediately ruled out tourism, since I wanted to some assurance of acquiring new skill sets and credentials. I also immediately ruled out graduate school, as I had no idea what I program of study I would select, or how, specifically, a graduate degree would advance me to the next stage in my career. (Tip: if you can’t answer that question, you are not ready for graduate school).

Foreign language study (Japanese or Chinese in my case) was a likely option.  I even visited the Mandarin Training Center at NTNU in Taipei on my trip in March of 2012. At the time, I was seriously considering moving to Taipei by fall of 2013 and starting my Chinese study then. But….I also didn’t know how acquiring Chinese language skills would play into my career. It seemed that I wanted to move to Taiwan more for the watermelon drinks, trendy fashion, and cheap food  rather than advancing my career, and saw Chinese language as a means of obtaining said drinks and food, rather than a necessary skill.

So it looked like I was going to Asia as a professional.  But where, and how?
I started researching opportunities around Fall of 2011, and I narrowed down my possibilities to the JET program (teaching English in Japan), a teaching program in South Korea, and an internship with an NGO in Cambodia.

The NGO gig  in Cambodia was by far the most interesting, and really aligned with what I had been doing professionally in the U.S.. I considered JET and this South Korea gig as back-up in case Cambodia fell through.

But all that changed when the application deadlines approached.

JET had the earliest application deadline, November 2012 for departure set in August 2013. The deadline snuck up on me so fast I had to scramble to get my application together and overnighted it to the embassy in DC. I almost didn’t even apply due to the stress in assembling my application. However, it was ultimately my partner who encouraged me to apply, even as a back-up, because if I missed the deadline I would not have another chance to apply until next year.
So I did.

When the South Korea application deadline came up I was ready, because it was almost identical to the JET application, so I had everything I needed to submit it on time.

I interviewed for the position in South Korea via Skype while I was at a house party in Dubai. I sat on the floor of my friend’s living room while everyone drank alcohol (’s illegal) and played loud music on the patio.

I interviewed for the JET program at the Portland Consulate. I was nervous as hell when I went in, but somehow the interview was surprising fun, and I walked away feeling a renewed sense of interest and enthusiasm for the JET program.

The Cambodia application had the latest deadline. I began filling out the application after returning from Dubai and Pakistan. During that process, I was required to provide an outline of my finances and expenses in Cambodia so that I could be considered for a scholarship, because the internship stipend was so measly (even for Cambodia).  Through this process I realized the this internship was going to cost me an overwhelming sum of money, even with a scholarship and stipend, so I was really forced to consider how much value I placed on living in Cambodia and acquiring experience with this NGO.

Ultimately I was accepted into all the gigs, and I ended up choosing JET. It was a tough decision, because I really wanted to go to South Korea and Cambodia, but here was my rational:

  1. JET paid the most. Not only would I be able to live comfortably in Japan, but I may even be able to save money.
  2.  Because it’s Japan. I have always had a place in my heart for Japan, even since that visit to the Ushiku Daibutsu in 2002. I always wanted to know what it would be like to live in Japan, and now I would get the chance to do that.
  3. I was planning on traveling in Japan anyways. If I had done the gig in South Korea or Cambodia, my original plan was to still go to Japan for three months on a tourist visa and write my novel in Hiroshima (my favorite place on Earth) as well as visit a few cities I have not explored (Aomori, Sapporo, etc). By doing JET I would have the opportunity to write my novel in Japan (my novel takes place in Japan so it is important that I be there while writing it), and travel on the weekends and holidays…and get paid for it!

Honestly, I’m not proud to admit that money played a huge factor in my  decision. It sounds very superficial, but to all those people who constantly ask me “how do you get money to travel?”  - this is how:
I make smart financial decisions.
I don’t work for free or for measly amounts.
I save money.
I make sacrifices.
Sometimes that means that you can’t take the cool NGO gig in Cambodia, or be a language student in Taipei, because it would eat into your savings.
But is does not mean that you continue working your cushy 9-5 job in the U.S.  and never take risks because of uncertainty.

There is a delicate balance involved in achieving your dreams. There are times when you takes risks and times when you play it safe and times when you do both at once. I took a risk quitting my job in the U.S. this June, and I am taking a risk moving abroad, but I’m not putting my bank account in jeopardy doing so, and to me, this is the balance. 

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