By Harrison Gordon
Hey there, Aomori! This month’s spotlight will be focused directly onto your new GMA Editor in Chief, Amanda Addey-Jibb of Shichinohe. So let’s follow her story and enjoy her photos as she gives us a look into where she came from, how she keeps challenging herself here in Japan, as well as her love for a certain martial art and how it has helped her feel at home in Aomori!
So, I’d like to start off by asking about your pre-JET life. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, which is probably the biggest city on the east coast of Canada (the Maritimes, as we say). I lived there until I was 13, and then we moved to Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, for one year because of my father’s work. Then, we moved to Pointe-Claire, another suburb just outside Montreal.
Montreal is a really small city geographically, and only like 1.5 million people, so it’s easy to include the surrounding cities in “Montreal” because they are all on a small island together. It makes the city seem bigger, and to outsiders we get to say that we’re from “la ville de Montreal.” Win-win.
What did you study at university? What were your interests?
So in CEGEP (2 year college between high school and university), I studied film production, because my 11th grade math teacher made me hate math so much I completely changed directions. After that, I initially applied to English literature in university for a little change of pace, but realized after a semester that my true love was film and I didn’t want to continue in lit. So I switched into cultural studies, which is a mix of film studies and cultural theory. Basically this consisted of studying the holy trinity – Marxism, feminism, and Freud – and its applications to the study of film, television, art, some literature, cultural movements, and other modern cultural productions. It was really interesting and challenging to write about, because the entire goal was to come up with ideas and ways of thinking that were completely new. But the downside is it’s really not useful for anything other than film criticism and continued academia.
Luckily I also minored in East Asian studies, with a focus on Asian Religions and Buddhism. Honestly I was sort of forced to take a minor to graduate and this seemed really interesting, so I did it. And it was. Tibetan Buddhism was probably one of my favourite classes from university! Though most likely least useful in daily life. In any case, that combination of English major and Asian studies minor seemed like a decent fit to lead me here.
As for interests, sadly I didn’t do a lot of extra-curriculars in university because I was working and living alone while holding a full course-load. I graduated in the typical three years so it was over in a flash! In elementary and high school I did competitive swimming, but after like 7-8 years of that, I saw that I was far from going to the Olympics, so I quit.
After university is when I finally joined a martial arts gym and started to get back into shape.
It sounds like you had a general interest in Asia and Asian cultures, was there anything in particular that led you to Japan/the JET programme?
Honestly it all kind of came together quickly. I was stressing out about what to do with my degree, thinking about travelling, and considering teaching abroad. Then, a friend of mine in a class dealing with Japan’s 1990’s economic bubble burst told me about JET specifically, because he had been planning to apply himself already.
I think as I took more classes and got more interested in Japan, it just made sense. I applied on a whim, but by the time I actually graduated I was pretty sure I wanted to go, just from doing more research into the program itself and Japan as a whole
Coming in on JET, what were you hoping to gain from your time here?
Japanese language skills for sure! I only started studying about a year before I arrived. I took the N5 about 6 months into learning Japanese. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to learn Japanese since high school though, so now it feels like I finally actually started doing the things I had wanted to do since I was a kid. (The same goes for martial arts).
Also I think a big thing about moving to Japan to teach in another country for me was about just proving to myself that I could do it. For me it kind of feels like no big deal, I haven’t really hit that culture shock yet, but for a lot of people in the world this would be unthinkable. I think putting myself in “uncomfortable situations” and trying to see how I’ll react is something I’ve been seeking out more lately, and moving to Japan on my own is a big part of that.
Moreover, I wasn’t even sure I would like teaching before I got here. I was pretty worried about it honestly. I graduated from university and didn’t get into the program for the first year (I was an alternate), and I couldn’t find a job in a relevant field that whole time, so I was feeling a lot of insecurity as to my skills and value as a worker. But being able to start at my first real job–the beginning of what could be a career, if I continue with teaching after JET–and not only enjoying it but also being pretty okay at it, has helped me grow in a lot of ways that I can’t necessarily put into words.
During the time that you’ve spent teaching here so far, what are some of your favorite memories with your kids?
Initially, lunch time with my students was so awkward and I totally dreaded it because of our mutual low language levels (my Japanese and their English). But as time went on, of course we got more comfortable with each other, and I learned some of their interests. So now I think some of my favourite moments are just hanging out at lunch with my sannensei, especially after kyushoku, and talking about boys and girls and kpop together. We had a lot of fun just being silly and fangirling over idols and discussing who is secretly dating who in the school, so those are some of my fave teaching memories so far!
So, you had mentioned putting yourself into uncomfortable situations, what kind of situations/activities have you sought out in Japan so far?
Well, honestly just trying to talk to more people in Japanese is one of them. Or talking to more people in general! I know I come across as a really outgoing person, and I am, but I am still pretty shy to start talking to people I don’t know. I get nervous to talk to teachers at school, or at Brazilian jiu-jitsu practice.
I still remember being super nervous to ask another ALT in the area to hang out the first time. I met her and we were both brand new, and I plucked up the courage to say, “Hey do you wanna go get McDonalds with me?” Like a date! It was great.
But just doing simple things like remembering to say hello to everyone when you walk by them in the hallway, or smiling at strangers when it’s easier to look away, are a few of the things I’ve been forcing myself to try to do every day. And overall I think it makes my life more enjoyable.
When I think of a compliment to give or comment to make or question I want to ask someone, I try hard to make sure I follow through and do it, even if I feel awkward and fumbly. I think that’s the key to how I make most of my friendships and keep communication alive. Anyway, maybe that’s off topic but I think even the little challenges are important.
Could you talk a little more about doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Is that something you had started back home, or picked up once you got here?
I started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu almost two years ago now, in Montreal. I had always wanted to do some kind of martial art or self-defense training, but never got around to it. I realized I had gained a little weight in the previous year or two, so I joined a gym and went for it. Jiu-jitsu is one of those sports where most practitioners who stuck with it will tell you it completely changed their life. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but what I love about jiu-jitsu is that it’s for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a 280lb bodybuilder or a 110lb junior high school student or somewhere in between—you can succeed at this sport. It has a really tough learning curve at first because it’s such a technical sport, and without that solid base of technique you’re going to feel like a baby being passed around from person to person. But once you get the hang of it, you begin to learn all sorts of things about how your body moves, and you become particularly aware of how your body moves in relation to other people. I like to think of jiu-jitsu as a human puzzle, because honestly it’s more mental than it is physical at first, but it’s still a great workout. I think any kind of martial art instills in you a certain kind of discipline and confidence that other sports never quite gave me in the past.
When I arrived in Japan I had little hope that I would find an actual jiu-jitsu gym here so I settled for doing a little judo now and again in Tohoku town at one of my schools. Judo is great, but it’s very different, and it was like learning to walk again for me. But a few months ago I happened to strike up a conversation with an American from Misawa air base, and he told me about Ohana BJJ. I got someone to let me on base to go to their practice one day, and it felt like home! There is a huge and ever-growing community of grapplers on base, and they run classes every Monday-Thursday and also have open mat training time from Fri-Sun. They also have a kind of training partnership with Kazumaru, Misawa’s Japanese jiu-jitsu team, who train three times a week. So now I train with both Ohana and Kazumaru, depending on the day, and it’s really great to be exposed to both American styles and Japanese styles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Plus practising with Kazumaru means that my Japanese gets some practice, and a few of my students even train there too! Both teams have a very different vibe and approach to the sport, but both are warm and welcoming of newbies. It’s a really good atmosphere for learning and training and making friends. Both also have some really strong competitors! I have yet to compete, so I haven’t yet claimed a team, but I’m hoping to maybe rise to the challenge this summer.
It’s very interesting and strange to be part of the foreigner community in Misawa, and yet also not really belong on base. I am the only non-base person (and non-American) there, so it’s a bit weird sometimes. But honestly, the coaches and other athletes all work really hard to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. They make sure that Ohana really means family there, and I think that’s the main reason they have so many dedicated athletes that train every single day.
It sounds like you’ve found a really great support system here with jiu-jitsu, and you mentioned before that you haven’t yet felt bogged down by culture shock, but have you had any difficulties adjusting to life in Japan? Or perhaps living in a relatively inaka/countryside setting?
I think the biggest struggle I’ve had is dealing with money, honestly…..I always thought of myself as responsible, if a little bit of a reckless spender, but here it seems like my money disappears! I keep finding things to spend on, some of which are totally worth it, like travel, and some of which are not, like material stuff. I feel a bit like an irresponsible child lately, BUT overall, that’s one of the great things about living in the inaka! If I was in a big city I’d be eating cup ramen every day.
But on the flipside of your question, for now I find inaka life really suits me. I love it here! The air is so clean and the fish is delish.
Apart from the fish, what types of foods have you indulged in or set out to find while here in Japan?
I have yet to eat anything still alive (I’m talking squid, octopus, etc), which would be pretty cool to do. I’d also like to try that fugu from down south one of these days. Otherwise, since I’m a pretty terrible cook, I actually really look forward to kyushoku every day! We get some pretty great meals in the Kamikita area in my opinion; sometimes weird, but usually delicious.
So, a huge thanks to Amanda for being my first interviewee, and I’m sure we all look forward to the future GMA issues that she’ll be putting out in the upcoming year. Starting next month I’ll set up a system in which I pull a random ALT from a different Aomori region each month. So check your inbox, because next month it might just be you!