Vivian Lu graduated from the University of California, Riverside where she majored in Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. While in college, she studied abroad in Hong Kong and Japan.
After graduating, she felt like the most natural thing for her to do would be to work overseas.
She accepted a job in Japan and is currently teaching English at two middle schools* in the Aichi Prefecture.
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Tell us about your job.
To be exact, I am the native English teacher. I’m the assistant who doesn’t teach for the test but is there as an aid that is in charge of creating activities, worksheets, and games about what the Japanese English teacher has taught.
I also serve as a sort of ambassador for my country by teaching students about American holidays and culture.
Often I am a speaking partner for the students, so they have a chance to hear what native English sounds like and practice their pronunciation with me. What I do each day varies.
What’s it like teaching English abroad?
What I have realized is that it is not difficult to teach someone with little to no knowledge of English. It only requires more patience and energy.
I also do private tutoring on the side where my students range from elementary school kids to adults. Some are learning English for the first time. Others have some background.
What I find to be difficult is teaching a student who has no interest in learning the language, which is what you will encounter at school quite often.
In extreme cases, you’ll find that their disdain for English will turn into contempt for you, which can be difficult.
Do you speak Japanese in class?
In the beginning, I tried acting like I didn’t speak any Japanese. I only spoke English, and what the students didn’t understand, the Japanese English teacher would translate.
It allows students to practice their listening skills. It also forces students to use English when communicating with me.
As the job goes on, I find myself starting to use more Japanese in the classroom.
Describe your experience in Japan.
Japan isn’t a hard country to live in as it has the image of being clean, safe, convenient, and friendly, which is usually the case.
I haven’t encountered any major problems while working and didn’t when I was studying abroad here.
Japan, like the majority of Asia, is a homogeneous society, and within such a society, foreigners are easy to spot which can cause some dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, these are things you must endure when choosing to live in this country.
How’d you prepare before applying to teach abroad?
You only need three things to look good for teaching abroad.
First, it would be nice to speak the language of that country.
Second, it would help to have some teaching experience in the form of tutoring or what not.
The last thing would be to show that you can survive abroad.
A big reason as to why people quit right at the start is because they weren’t ready to be sent to live in a place completely different from what they know. I found that this was where my study abroad experience came in handy.
What was it like making new friends?
I think my life consists of me always making new friends. It started with going away to college and needing new friends.
Then, I studied abroad twice and had to make new friends in both countries. While teaching English in Japan, I started off in the Okayama prefecture and ended up in the Aichi prefecture where I had to make friends again.
All I can say is that it is tough and draining, but in the process, you’ll meet people who make it worthwhile. The cool thing about my life is that I have met so many people from all over the world!
Are you ever homesick?
I felt homesick once in the beginning when I was dropped off at my apartment in Okayama. When I was looking out the window; I saw rice fields for the first time.
Laugh all you want, but this was a huge shocker for this LA girl. I was not ready for the countryside life.
And due to some visa problems, I arrived late and didn’t get to have my training with everyone else. My training took place a week later with one other person who wouldn’t be near my workplace.
I knew I would only make things worse by moping around. So I think by the third or the fourth day after moving in, I rung the doorbell of a girl who lived nearby, who was working at the same company as me and asked her if she wanted to grab dinner.
I will admit that sometimes when I’m on Facebook, I feel a sense of missing out on things happening back home, but that is normal.
How has your job impacted you?
Teaching English abroad has opened my eyes to the world and made me care more about how the education system works.
I think the most touching experiences are when you have students who will brave it all and try their best to have a conversation with you in English. It’s also great to see your students improve.
What was your biggest surprise about teaching in Japan?
It is sad, but I was shocked by the low interest, low level, and little resources available for teaching English in Japan, particularly the countryside.
I have never taught in the major Japanese cities that most people know of, but I assume that the schools are better than the countryside.
Would you suggest teaching abroad to others?
Being able to live abroad and familiarize yourself with a culture different from your own is an invaluable experience.
I have encountered and experienced things most people my age will never know. I have stories on top of stories to share, but this is also because I put myself out there.
It is a low paying job that sometimes, doesn’t offer much of a challenge. Also, everyone has heard the pains of being a teacher, being treated as a forever foreigner, etc.
Therefore, I can only recommend this for people who want to do this. I know individuals who have made it work as a long term plan, though from personal experience, I don’t recommend it. If you want to do this as a short experience, then go for it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am currently in my third year which may seem like a long time to some people and a short time to everyone else.
I know individuals who have done this longer than me who probably have way more insightful things to say.
These answers are opinions formed from my experience. Please remember that everyone’s experiences will be different.
*Middle school in Japan is equivalent to 7th, 8th and 9th grade in the United States.
Presently in Japan, by law, English must be taught as a subject starting in middle school. English activities (songs and games) are required for 5th and 6th graders, but homeroom teachers of younger grade levels can introduce English if they want.
This interview was condensed and edited.