By: Adrianne Ridder
My study abroad experience changed my life. I had a strong desire to return and see more. While I was in Osaka, I tutored some of my friends. It was pretty entertaining because I was also learning English and Japanese at the same time. I heard about the JET program from an information table and study abroad fairs. “The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program seeks to enhance internationalization in Japan by promoting mutual understanding between the people of Japan and those of other nations. The Program aims to enhance foreign language education and promote international exchange at the local level through the fostering of ties between Japanese youth and foreign youth alike” (http://jetprogramusa.org/about/). It sounded like a great opportunity, so I went for it!
This time last year I was stressing over filling out this extensive application to teach English abroad in Japan. Having lived in Niimi, Okayama, Japan for over three months now I can easily say every effort was worth it.
Two years ago I studied abroad in Osaka and fell in love with Japan. I knew I had to go back someday, though I hoped for longer than four months. Now I can confidently say I could be living here for up to five years! Though we will see how long I actually stay. Of course upon planning my adventure, I had my fingers crossed for a city close to my friends and was honestly a little disappointed to find out I would be living in a rural area. At a 3.5 hour drive from Osaka, I remained optimistic remembering a trip from Denver to Grand Junction was roughly 4 hours on a good day.
I have been back to Osaka a few times now, and as much as I love the Osaka vibe and all those familiar faces, I actually find it easier to live in this smaller town. Since I lived in a little town called Elizabeth in Colorado, I feel like Niimi is more like a city. Well, that’s my American standard.
My Osaka friend who was with me at the time I arrived was rather concerned about where I would be living and working. I guess, compared to a city, there’s not as much shopping to do; however, I have come to love this town. Niimi still has many stores, bars, restaurants, a university and karaoke. It also comes with a beautiful, tree covered mountain-scape and a wide, calming river. It actually kind of reminds me of Colorado in many respects. Not to mention, the people here couldn’t be nicer! I already have several local friends and every day I continue to meet new people. Niimi is also special in that it has 11 assistant language teachers (ALTs), including me. They are great for good fun and English-speaking support.
There are also many local events and activities to participate in. I practice judo, but we also have access to kyudo, karate and kendo. We can join our school’s clubs as well. As part of my position I also assist with a weekly English conversation class with other ALTs. It seems like there are countless events in the area too. When I first arrived, we attended Uraja, a dancing festival in Okayama. Every weekend following, different cities had their traditional firework and dancing festivals that are unique to each area. Recently, I had the opportunity to smelt iron through the night and watched a samurai parade.
My schools are awesome! I work at two middle schools and one elementary. My base middle school has grades seven through nine with a whopping total of 57 students. It is very obvious this school and my elementary school are in a rural area. The views are stunning though! Especially looking over the rice fields. In contrast to this experience, I teach 9th grade at a middle school in Niimi with just under 400 students. I have a lot of fun with all my students. The elementary kids always want to play and are far more confident in speaking with me, whether it is in Japanese or English. My city middle schoolers say hi all the time and for some reason demand moonwalks whenever I pass by. I danced once. Just once at sports day practice to appease their interest in making me look ridiculous. I felt I looked pretty cool. My country middle schoolers are still a little shyer, but their humor always gets me!
I would say the most shocking thing for me about this experience so far was seeing all the life skills taught in school. At Elizabeth High School we had life classes such as cooking, sewing, and taking care of a family. Aurora, Colorado, where I am from didn’t have such classes. Here, they have all of these classes at the middle school level in both of my schools. In elementary school, they learn how to ride a bike following traffic rules, swimming, and know how to use stilts and ride a unicycle. The latter being most important in my opinion (haha). Schools here also do not hire janitors or lunch staff. It baffled me that students and teachers take care of it all, as an interesting contrast to what I am used to in the United States.
I would have said my greatest struggle so far would have been the language barrier and steep learning curve being immersed has created…if it weren’t for the unfortunate experience of being stung by a wasp. It turns out I had a hive on my door. Luckily I had help from my boss and neighbors to take care of the hive, so it’s all good. This also brings up the frightening fact I quickly began to realize: there so many big bugs here. Honestly, the language isn’t too bad. In my four months abroad I picked up enough to get around and meet new people. Many locals also like to practice English. My English-speaking teachers are a great help too. I’d say it’s more of a strong desire to quickly learn something which takes patience.
I am so happy with my new life as a teacher in Niimi! I can’t wait to see where this adventure leads me.
—Adrianne Ridder is an alum of Colorado State University having graduated May of 2015 with a degree in Marketing. She is currently employed as an Assistant Language Teacher through the JET Program in Niimi, Okayama, Japan.