Interview by Angie Hawn
This month in Aomori Spotlight I bring you Sarah Shelnut from Kuroishi city.
Where are you originally from? What city, town, village do you currently reside in? What year JET are you? And anything else you feel the masses just need to know.
Originally, I hail from the Brew City, gently nestled in America’s Dairyland (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, for the uninitiated), and I call Kuroishi City in the Tsugaru area my home. I thought I was ready for the winter here, but wow, Aomori is next level. I’m a second year senior high school ALT who shows no signs of stopping, except to smell the cherry blossoms.
How are you involved with your Japanese community? Did you join a club or class? Do you volunteer, jump into festival season, or teach an eikaiwa?
I’m a self-proclaimed Jane of all trades! As is common, I head up my base school’s english club, but I also am a fairly frequent flyer of the calligraphy club. The instructor is an absolute gem, and I was even able to exhibit works at the school festival last summer.
Outside of school, I volunteer with my neighborhood’s community center, doing fun things like trick-or-treat with the local kids. Events have been sparse with the weather, but I’m looking forward to more when we thaw a bit.
Also in my neighborhood, I am part of the women’s volunteer firefighters. This essentially fell into my lap, but it’s an absolute blast and very humbling. Who doesn’t love the uniform? It has proven to be a very tough but rewarding way to immerse myself in my community and the people, as well.
While I’m still in the waiting period, I also donate blood every 16 weeks or so. I gave the staff in Hirosaki a bit of a startle since I’m American, but all in all, it worked out and I will be back in April to give again!
Besides that, I’m always looking for things to do locally, and my interest in kogin-zashi got me an interview in the paper after I attended a hands-on experience.
Why did you choose to get involved? What drew you to this activity? Did you want to try something new? Did you read about it when first researching your placement or get wrangled in by your JTE?
I choose to be involved because I always want to learn about people. Everyone has such interesting stories to tell, and I love both sharing my own and hearing from others. We as ALTs are also in such a unique position, traveling from all over the world to Japan, and we carry with us our individual tales and perspectives. We are able to open so many doors for people who may not otherwise have the chance to get out. In turn, we can also forward their stories to our friends and family, and sustain a really wonderful circle of exchange.
I was gently pushed towards calligraphy, although it admittedly wasn’t my first choice for school clubs. Regardless, I am pleased to partake as it has taught me a lot about my own character, and it’s really fun to connect with the students when they’re not practicing for their performances.
Pretty much all the bigger opportunities happened by chance. My very first attempt to be involved in the community went very poorly. Despite being eager and willing to learn, I was quickly told that since I’m American, I couldn’t do the things that would be required. I was so stunned, I even asked again to confirm what I just heard. Yep. It was just impossible since I’m not Japanese. Naturally, I was quite stunned, so I didn’t return to that particular activity.
However, I didn’t let that stop me. A few months later I was perusing the apple festival, and was recruited for the fire brigade. I was assured that I would be welcome, as there are other women who are foreign as well, and not to worry about a thing, especially not my Japanese skill. Of course, I was relieved, and accepted the invite. I am thankful for the woman who stopped me that day, because it’s been an incredible experience overall.
I live close to Inakadate, so this year I did both planting and reaping of the Tambo Art rice paddy. I highly, highly recommend doing both, as it gives you a deep appreciation for the people who do this for a living, but it’s also really enjoyable. Also, seeing something so enormous from to start to finish is super satisfying.
Lastly, I cumulatively donated over 3 gallons of blood in the US, so it was really important to me that I at least try in Japan. The first time I asked about it, my supervisor was quick to dismiss me, saying foreigners aren’t accepted. I said that other ALTs have done it, so she called the center to confirm. And so, the legend continues.
Is this a one time gig? Or something you do on a continuous basis? Is it a short or long term commitment? Are you gonna keep it up?
When I first arrived, I did calligraphy every Monday after classes. Quite a while later, I learned that the club met nearly every day, so I decided that I should definitely take it seriously. I visit about 3 times a week if my schedule allows. In the warmer months, I have the materials to practice at home, too!
This February is my official one year anniversary with the fire brigade! I believe I’ve attended less than 10 full days of training, socializing, and recruiting. It really doesn’t take up that much time at all, and usually it only is scheduled for weekends, so it works really well for me.
Donations at the Red Cross can be as frequent as every 6-16 weeks depending on what you donate. As for me, I do 400mL of red blood, which makes me eligible every 4 months. The process doesn’t take longer than about an hour, and who can say no to free ice cream and drinks when you’ve finished? As long as you fit the requirements, twice a year isn’t really asking a lot!
What have you gained from this experience? Good, bad, indifferent…I want to know it all.
I would argue you have nothing to lose! Everything has been a wonderful learning experience, though not without obvious frustrations and disappointments. There’s going to be people throwing banana peels under your feet, and while it’s unfortunate, it’s also a chance to reevaluate and manage your game plan. While I still harbor a bit of resentment about being turned away for my “gaijin disability,” I’ve taken it in stride. Besides, the naysayer in question ate a bit of crow when I participated in Kuroishi Neputa and made friends with his colleagues. Delicious Haterade has only fueled me with more motivation. If you ever think you’re losing, remember that at times it really is tactical retreat. Don’t give up just because one person was unpleasant.
What advice would you give to those who want to jump in?
Pick your poison, Nike or Shia LeBouf, but either way, JUST DO IT. You are simultaneously your own best advocate and hindrance.
If you don’t understand Japanese very well, call upon a school colleague or fellow ALT to help you out. Absolutely do not let your language ability prevent you from getting out and trying new things. If you need a buddy, there’s a ton of us! Don’t feel to shy or embarrassed to ask for assistance.
Be willing to put yourself out there. I went to my local sweets shop to work on cross-stitching while waiting for the train, and a woman approached me in English. Next weekend I’ll be working with a local kindergarten alongside the other ALTs in town. Simply by being present in the community, you can make great connections. Heck, one of my neighbors recruited me to help tutor her daughter in English, and that’s all because I said good morning while dropping off my trash.
Find and follow the Facebook pages and other SNS for your city and community centers. Get your LINE account shaking and network with people. There’s lots of great English resources available thanks to our colleagues, but there are still tons of opportunities out there, waiting for us to find and share them. You’re going to have to get used to looking things up in Japanese, which means you’re going to have to work a bit harder. I find that a lot of local people are quite shy and a bit reluctant to “bother” you with upcoming volunteer opportunities, so even sending out the occasional 「ひさしぶり！」 will net you a schedule update with the new friends you’ve made.