By Lanie Olmo
But he eats them anyway.
“It doesn’t stop me eating them from time to time. I risk my life to eat apples,” says Noah, a second-year ALT placed in Hachinohe, earning himself the honor of being one of the only true citizens of the largest apple producer in Japan.
But fear not, dear readers, for Noah can still partake in the delight that is apple products. “Anything cooked or processed I don’t have a reaction. But when I eat raw apples, peaches, and cherries, my lips start itching. It’s more annoying than lethal. I just avoid it.”
Hailing from Chicago—
“Not from Chicago, but the surrounding area. Donalisa will give me crap if I say I’m from Chicago.”
—Correction. Hailing from the Chicago area, Noah traces his interest in Japan and the JET Programme back to university.
“In my freshman year of community college, I took Chinese and Japanese because I wanted to learn another language. They were both interesting but my Chinese professor kind of sucked. I didn’t really learn anything in Chinese, so I continued with Japanese. That’s one of the reasons, but also the relationships. I want to be a diplomat, so I’m really into international relations—and the relationships between Korea, Japan, and China are really interesting.”
Like most who study Japanese at the university level, Noah had the chance to study abroad for nine months in Kobe. However, Kobe is a much bigger city than those in Aomori.
“Much, much bigger.”
After his first exposure to Japan being a big city with a vibrant, exciting life, transition to countryside Aomori would be a shock to some. But not to Noah.
“I wouldn’t say it was a shock, because my college is University of Illinois, and that’s in the middle of nowhere. I was already used to the rural life in that aspect. The main difference between Uni and living in Hachinohe is that there’s no young people here. Which is a downer.”
A sad but true reality for not just Aomori, but most of the rural areas of Japan. A symptom of both the lure of large, metropolitan cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and the declining birth rate. Despite lacking the grandeur that larger cities can offer, Aomori has many of its own unique charms that Noah has grown to love.
“I really like it here. The people are very nice. There’s a lot of places to go out at night and drink. The shinkansen station is right there, so it’s easy to travel around from Hachinohe.”
Noah notes that Hachinohe in particular boasts hosting many a festival. (And we know how much Japan likes its festivals.)
“There’s Enburi, Sansha Taisai, and even Tanabata is pretty big here. In Tokyo or Kobe, there wasn’t too many festivals where the entire community gets involved. It’s a very tight-knit community here. Everyone seems to know everyone.
“It’s one of the bigger cities in Aomori, but it’s oddly very tight-knit. Everyone knows each other. You go somewhere, and someone knows you.
“More so the Japanese community than the ALT community. With the ALT community, I feel like it’s expected, because it’s a small community that you already fit into from the beginning. But with the Japanese community it’s very surprising because Hachinohe has about 200,000 people, but if you talk about people you know, someone knows them or they’re connected in some way.
“Whenever I’m out with some friends and we talk to people, they either graduated from one of our high schools, or they know one of our teachers, or they were students of our teachers, or they were a former teacher.”
As he speaks about his life and time in Hachinohe, Noah speaks a lot about the people he’s met there. It becomes clear that Noah treasures the relationships he makes.
“I think one of the things I’m lucky with in my placement is that there’s a lot of younger teachers, so we go out drinking often. We’re pretty close. One time we went on a trip to Morioka, which I heard doesn’t really happen with teachers. That was fun. It was drunk talk, but there’s a possibility of a goodbye camping trip soon.
“I’m glad to get placed in a private school where the transfers [of teachers to different schools] don’t happen so all the teachers are close. You can get into that groove if you can speak Japanese. I think studying Japanese in college was a good decision on my part. It helped me to get into the community.”
Now Noah is at the point where he’s established good, close relationships with his teachers. But was it was easy to create those connections when he first arrived?
“It’s definitely a struggle with the language and cultural barriers. I think with my teachers, they were all actively trying to get me involved. For me it was pretty easy to be like, ‘Yeah! I can speak your language, we can get along!’ That made it easier for me than some of the other ALTs from what I’ve heard.
“Honestly, I think placement is so important to your experience on JET. Your school and work environment is probably one of the most important aspects. If you have a bad work environment, no matter how good everything else is, it sucks the life out of you.”
Noah’s wisdom rings true for many participants of the JET Programme. Like many jobs, the work environment can make or break an employee’s experience. For people working in a foreign country, this is doubly so. It’s isolating enough to live in a foreign country where you may not have many connections; when your job also isolates you, life can seem quite bleak.
Thankfully, Noah has not had to dwell on such matters. He’s enjoyed his time in Aomori, and he looks forward to taking all that he has experienced here and using it in the future.
“When my contract ends in July I’ll be heading back to the states. Hopefully I can find a job in Chicago, but I’m looking around the Midwest. While I’m working I’ll be studying more for the foreign service officer test. That’s also a really long process, longer than JET. We all know that the JET process was very long. It’s a lot of waiting. I’ll need a job to survive while I get ready for that.”
As mentioned earlier, one of Noah’s goals is to become a diplomat for the United States. When he achieves this dream, will it take him back to Japan?
“I do hope to be placed in Japan at least once. I’m hoping that my language skill increases that possibility, but I’ve also heard stories where you speak a language but you’re never placed in the country, so it’s luck. Very much luck.
“I’ll enjoy myself wherever I’m placed. It’s a matter of how much I’ll enjoy myself. If it’s in an East Asian country I think I’ll enjoy myself more because of my interest in the relationships there. If it’s a European country I’m sure I’ll like it, but at the same time it’s like, well, it’s not my field of interest.”
Now that Noah has gone back and forth between Japan and America a few times, and will be in America for some time, he’ll be leaving behind a second home. Noah talks about the potential homesickness for Japan, a place he’s come to love.
“I think I will [miss Japan]. I’ll definitely miss the people. I still miss the people that I met in Kobe. I’ll miss cheap, good ramen. It’s one of the things I missed the most when I went back from study abroad. And also convenience stores. Convenience stores are so nice here. They’re just not in the States…
“I don’t know how we get it so good here in this country. I’ll miss it.”