Coronavirus: An ALT’s Letter # 2

In order to understand the impact of Covid-19 on our friends and the schools in Japan, we reached out to current ALTs from Minnesota to get their observations. As usual, every situation is different and things can vary from prefecture to prefecture. Here is the second letter with a downloadable link of the PDF at the bottom:

Hello!

I’m up in Aomori, and as I’m writing this, our prefecture just had its first two cases of COVID-19 confirmed last night. To be honest, we were kind of sheltered here for awhile. Despite being some 7,000 miles closer to the virus’ origin, I was living a relatively normal day-to-day life while my American friends and family told me about event cancellations, restaurant closures, and supply shortages. Hearing about it and how it contrasted with my daily life sounded almost surreal. I’m an elementary school ALT and while the kids haven’t been in school, the 6th graders did get their graduation ceremony, and we’re now only 2 days away from what would normally be spring break anyway. Outside of work life, the differences had been even harder to discern. I still attended some 送別会 (going away parties), attended most of my regular weekly activities, and have had a routine night life of karaoke and socializing. Although, just this past weekend things seem to have taken on a different tone, and it’s all gotten a lot more serious.

With last night’s news, all of my weekly classes and gatherings are on hiatus. This includes my community activities like kickboxing and ballroom dance, as well as my ALT-organized gatherings like Dungeons and Dragons and trading card games. We had discussed beforehand that this is what we should do. After all, if one of our schools gets it, the most obvious way it could spread to the other schools is through the ALTs. Of course, this is for the better, but I don’t really know if I’m 真面目 enough to replace all of my recreational time with independent language study. It’ll be interesting to see what I’m doing with my free time after a few weeks of this.

The elephant in the room is definitely discrimination though. I’ve been to two businesses now where, as I approach the door, someone rushes to meet me, crosses their arms in an X, and says 駄目. Maybe it made some sense at the bar I went to last weekend; they could have reasonably thought I was a tourist. Although, they also could have asked. Instead they told me the bar was full (it visibly was not) and recommended the bar next door (which was closed). It made less sense at the eye doctor yesterday. I and another ALT have been trying to schedule an eye exam for getting contacts so that wearing masks isn’t such a headache (having constantly foggy glasses is no fun). As we walked through the door, the receptionist walked around her desk and stopped us in the entryway. I told her I wanted an eye exam so that I can buy contacts. She told me they don’t sell contacts. I said that’s fine, I just need a document with my prescription that I can show to the contacts store at the mall. She repeated that they didn’t sell contacts, and then talked over me telling me where there was another eye clinic. We just walked out. These recent experiences have been supremely frustrating. I have to say that up to this point I have experienced very little in the way of discrimination here, and that includes my previous study abroad experience. However, this rapid and sudden change in attitudes makes me think about what may have already been lurking just beneath the surface, and having thoughts like that is very depressing. Still, I do know that I have many Japanese friends who are vocally anti-discrimination, so I’m not worried about being wholly marginalized or anything to that extent. I’ve taken a kind of しょうがない tact to these experiences, but one of my Japanese friends in particular was fairly incensed about it and others have sympathized. So I do feel supported by my community in general.

Finally, returning to the topic of education, with cases now popping up in my prefecture, the situation is undeniably worse than it was when classes were initially canceled. So does it really make sense to start the school year? I’m certainly not panicking, but I think I do have to start entertaining thoughts about what might happen after another month without classes. How will this affect the kids’ education long-term? Is my contract in danger? I’m not sure, I certainly hope not. Despite some frustrations, I have no desire at this time to return to the US prematurely.

Anyway, that’s more or less the situation here! I didn’t intend this response to be as gloomy as it probably comes off, but with the news and experiences of just the last 48 hours I’ve had a lot to think about, and this email helped me organize those thoughts. I hope that things take a turn for the better soon, in Japan, America, and around the world.

Sincerely,

An ALT

One comment

  1. I’m glad you shared your experience with businesses. While I was there in 2000, I had some issues with the locals in Tochigi telling me (the foreigner) to go back to my country, Idiot, and stop taking jobs away from the Japanese. Not everyone is there is open to the JET program staff, which is why it is important to behave responsibly while representing your home country, to minimize some of this sentiment. After hearing those things myself and returning home, and then hearing more of the negative comments about immigrant being unwelcome in the USA, I had a bit more compassion and relatability to their situation (the one’s with green cards). Hopefully people remember more of the positive times of their experience, and not focus on the negative.

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