Friday 14 September 2012

In Defence of the ALT II

Book Two – Larry Cotter and The Tiresomely Predictable 
Series of False Expectations

So Larry got his life together, to an extent. The trauma of the unfortunate pub wedging incident scarred him to the point where he was no longer able to consume alcohol or eat pork. And while psychological blocks are rarely good, in this instance they helped considerably with his weight.

He was still on the hefty side of normal, but was now able to navigate his way round large pieces of furniture with relative ease. Tapping into this new found confidence he went to uni and got himself a degree in something-or-other.

SFX have improved immeasurably since
Hitchcock first filmed The Birds.

Upon graduation he found himself, at the age of 21 (don’t do the maths), with frankly fuck all in the way of salable life skills and a few grand in debt. So he got himself a job as a Recruitment Consultant. This was much less fun than it initially sounded.

What did sound fun, though, was what his mate Kirsty was doing. She was on the JET Programme in somewhere called Kanazawa and looked to be having a great time. On his increasingly frequent Facebook stalking sessions he noticed she had tons of time off and was sticking up photos from her trips all around Asia. That looked like a pretty sweet deal. He checked the Programme’s website and felt that its aim, ‘to promote grass root internationalization at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education,’ was both pithy and right up his street.

Internationalization and exchange, eh? Larry could manage that. And his degree in whatever-it-was was exactly what they seemed to be after! The foreign language education bit might be trickier, but that looked like only one part of it. Indeed, the least important part. Looking at the JET Life page on the website, it made no mention of teaching at all. Lots, though, was made of Japan being a ‘country of contradictions, as famous for manmade feats of engineering and design as it is lauded for the close ties of its people with nature.’

In all honesty, Larry had never heard anyone laud Japan for anything, except perhaps an icily determined commitment to tentacle porn. Maybe the ‘close ties with nature’ was meant in a very literal sense? Still, the prospect of seeing ‘the pristine winters of the Northern shores of Hokkaido or the tropical islands of Okinawa,’ during the school holidays was certainly appealing.

And look! On the ‘organizations’ page there was even an elucidatory conceptual diagram indicating all the many, many, many organizations involved in the JET Programme and the interlinks between them and their various interactions and connections and bubbles and coloured boxes and liaisons and arrows and organizations and connections and arrows and boxes and arrows. What could be simpler? Larry was sure that it all translated into a clear set of priorities on the ground.

Japan - also lauded for its ruthless efficiency and
streamlined business practice

Reading the suggestion that a ‘one year term on the JET Programme could be just what you are looking for to broaden your horizons and take a different step in life,’ finally made up Larry’s mind. Just a year, that’s all they seemed to want. A year to explore Japan and broaden his horizons, and hopefully those of any Japanese people he might happen to come into contact with. He got a form, filled it out and a matter of mere months later was interviewing in a hotel in London.

They seemed to want to know what he knew about Japan. “Nothing!” he boldly replied, “That’s why I want to go.”

“And what would you do if a teacher made a mistake in class?”

“Well, it depends on the teacher, really.”

“Thank you Mr. Cotter. If you’d like to take this risible grammar test, we’ll let you know.”

Larry was glad they’d only asked him one question about teaching. He knew it might come up, but clearly this was much more about the exchange business. Even the ‘teaching’ question hadn’t really been about pedagogy (a word he’d just learned on the journey to the interview) but about conflict resolution in the workplace. While recruitment consultancy was getting pretty dull, he’d at least managed to pick up that much. Frankly, if it was just for a year, it didn’t seem worth the effort to learn much more about teaching. He was sure the training would cover all he needed to know.

And what training! Pre-departure there were a couple of days in London where he was able to meet many other JETs from his home country, get drunk with them, and make clearly unkeepable promises to keep in touch and set up a Japan-wide ALT five-a-side league. He also attended a workshop on flower arranging and saw a karate demonstration. Good times.

Disappointingly, however, there was nothing on bonsai.

Then it was off on a JET plane (not jet plane, JET plane! Ha! Larry like that line a lot, and used it on several occasions. It did seem to work better written down, though) to Tokyo. This was all very swanky. The Keio Plaza Hotel, no less. He got to meet more ALTs going to the same prefecture as him, and get roaringly drunk. But what with the jetlag (JETlag! He used that line more than once as well) and the hangovers he couldn’t remember much of the actual workshops.

It seemed very important that all three of the sponsoring ministries got their money’s worth though. Home, Foreign Affairs, and Education. He remembered that much. His job was to get a good impression of Japan, take that impression back home when he left, and in between times do something in schools. One third each. Lovely.

He also remembered a speech from a Japanese guy with pretty decent English. This guy sounded so enthusiastic about getting Japanese students to speak English! And he really seemed to think that Larry and the other ALTs in the room were the key to doing that. It was reassuring to know that everyone was so on-board with it all. Speaking English! Yay! There was also a video featuring a camp Englishman fingering a lab coat ('Mmmmm. Science') and a hatchet faced harridan haranguing a class of students over their failure to pluck their own chickens. Larry found that funny. He was sure he would have some better ideas.

But then Larry was off! Off to his new home. He was a little nervous, to be sure. Even more so when he realized that the people picking him up from the airport had decided a sign with his name on wasn’t sufficient, and that they’d also make a metre square picture of his face by blowing up the photo he’d attached to his application form. The one in which he looked like a recently escaped criminal. Still, they obviously meant well. These little miscommunications would soon get ironed out…


  1. Please tell me Larry ends up being a headhunter in Japan...

    1. Unfortunately not. Though that would have made a far better ending than the one I actually came up with.

  2. at least it was a picture of you. Mine was a 10m long banner at the town office - with a color picture of a Disney princess beside my name. Unfortunately I came wearing a dark colored suit and glasses and not tafeta and lace with butterflies flitting around my flowing locks.

    1. A picture of me? What on earth do you mean? How could you have possibly got the impression that this was in any way autobiographical? ;)

      No, not me, thankfully. Just some other poor bastard in the same prefecture as me. Worst thing was you could see the collection area from the luggage carousel, so he had to stand looking at a massive, badly copied picture of his face for the aeons it took his bag to turn up.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I'm really confused now. I thought the exercise bike was the ALT and exercise was language learning, and Larry was Japan...

    Did I totally misinterpret?

    1. No, that's pretty much bang on for part one. Thanks for the summary for the slower kids at the back.

      However, it was hard enough work stretching the metaphor out for one week, let alone two. Remember that this is all hanging off a very (very) loose Harry Potter parody, which should be a warning not to expect too much in the way of internal consistency...

  4. "His job was to get a good impression of Japan, take that impression back home when he left, and in between times do something in schools."

    Once upon a time, I read something similar to this in a publication put out by the beloved CLAIR. Will take a few days to grab that quote (unless anyone reading this blog can find it before then).

    Until that time, here's something that echos my last comment in terms of being officially invited (by the Ministries) while not feeling welcome on the local level. Tolerated, maybe, by not really welcome.

    "Promoting Japan: One JET at a Time. Emily T. Metzgar. March 2012 .... International Relations (CLAIR). The 25-year old endeavor has been ... suggested the purpose of JET was to force local governments to. “open up their gates to foreigners..."

    Essentially being told by a local government official that even though contract may be a contract...local rules override and the mayor runs the town.

    A lot of JETs may go through the program, but I don't believe results are really what the ministries were hoping for. And now that the Internet is around, it's kind of hard to pretend that Japan is such an outstanding place.


    1. That's the single most depressing irony about the whole thing; that a scheme notionally set up to promote international communication and understanding is so completely undermined by a complete lack of intranational communication and understanding.

    2. it. In the CLAIR publication, "The Jet Programme, Ten Years and Beyond" circa 1998, there's a bit where 'George' Hisaeda says something like, "From the viewpoint of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Jet Programme is significant as part of Japan’s national security policy and that the youth who participate in the programme return to their respective countries and become sympathizers for Japan…highly deliberate and even artificial efforts are required” - or something pretty damn close.

  5. Christ, story of my young life, minus the Internet nonsense (94-97).

    1. That, and leaving university with thousands in debts, and my father lent me exactly what exchanged into 4.5万 to last me a month outside of Tokyo. Laughs are on him: flew home for his funeral within four months (poor taste, I know). I know even then I came because I wasn't well-adjusted...

    2. Yeah. As I said, a tediously predictable tale, unfortunately.

      All except the funeral. I'd just started a new contract at a new school and my granddad died. Annoyingly the funeral is the weekend before Golden Week, so I can only get enough days off to almost literally fly out, go to the service, and fly back again. Not the best of starts, so I explain all this to my supervisor with the usual insincere apologies for the inconvenience.

      There's no clear indication if he's listening or not (which I later learn is completely normal for him), but even so when he turns to me and says 'Please bring back pictures of your trip to show the students,' it was pretty clear how highly he valued me as a human being...

    3. To be fair, as much poor communication as I had with superiors on JET, I was treated better there than any job I have had in Canada before or since: bank data-drone, ESL teacher and unionized public school teacher (from which I am on leave). My two J-bosses offered to lend me money for the ticket to the funeral (NB: would have been their own), but I was happy to borrow the one time from my brother who has 'sold out'.

      The ALT job is absurd, and many J-teachers were evasive, and I was too young and inexperienced to be any help (which was probably the point...), but all things considered, my town did well by me. I am perfectly aware that is often not the case.

  6. As long as I can still look forward to a Kancho-as-Quidditch allegory, I'm happy to let you keep redefining who and what Larry means however you please. :)

    1. Getting dangerously close to the snitch as anal beads there. What's with it with you and the butt-sex recently? ;)