What’s it like to be an Asian JET?

by Ana Santiago

Note from the writer: This is an edited version of a welcome letter I wrote for incoming JETs in my prefecture. I preferred to use the first person point of view as my experience as an Asian JET born and raised in the Philippines does not reflect that of the entire Asian JET community. Still, I wish you will find something meaningful here.

Like anything else, being an Asian foreigner in an Asian country has its good and bad moments. I’ll start with the good. 

I blend in.

I am five feet tall and have dark hair, so I don’t particularly stand out in a crowd of Japanese people. I never get uncomfortable stares from strangers nor am I treated as some kind of local celebrity. While others might enjoy the special treatment that comes with being a foreigner in Japan, I like being able to do my daily activities without attracting unwanted attention. 

I find comfort in cultural similarities. 

I adjusted pretty quickly to my new life here, especially to my new workplace. I would say that there are more similarities than differences between Japanese and Filipino work culture, and that made my adjustment a fairly smooth process. 

Home does not feel so far away. 

Yes, I still get homesick but the thought that Manila is just a 4-hour flight away from Tokyo is comforting. And because of the distance and relatively cheaper plane tickets, I can come home anytime there is a long break at school. 

Now, onto the not so good things.

I sometimes feel left out. 

I’ve sat through countless meetings where they discuss information specific to JETs from Western countries for hours, and then briefly mention something about the Philippines towards the end. Most ALTs in my prefecture (and I believe in most prefectures) are from the US, Canada, and the UK so it makes sense. But it feels alienating and not to mention extremely unproductive to be in a meeting that is not even for you. 

I am seen as the uncool foreigner.

I came across a question on Quora about the opinion of Japanese people on Filipinos and it simply said: there is none, because like other Southeast Asians living in Japan, Filipinos are the uncool and invisible foreigners everyone just ignores. That response was written by one person but it still hurt. Especially when I recall the many times people ignore and dismiss me when I say I’m from the Philippines. When white foreigners say they are from a Western country like the US or the UK, people’s eyes glisten (not exaggerating, I’ve seen it way too many times) and they get all excited. I never get that same enthusiastic response when I say where I’m from. People just hit me with a “Oh you’re from the Philippines? Cool,” and then move on to the next person. 

I get a lot of questions about my English. 

“Why is your English so good?” “I didn’t know Filipinos speak English!” “Oh English is not your first language? Is it difficult for you to speak English?” Honestly, it sucks that I constantly need to explain and answer these puzzling questions about a language I have spoken my entire life. But, on good days, I see them as an opportunity to share a little something about where I’m from. Sometimes, I would throw in a little bit of my country’s history (colonization, yo) with a side of, “Fun fact: English is spoken in over a hundred countries! Yup, not just in Amurrica.” 

And back to the good things!

Being an Asian JET strengthens my sense of self.

Being an Asian JET allows me to discover what is unique and wonderful about myself and where I came from. It has also helped me trust my abilities and develop self-confidence.

There is a cool community of Asian JETs!

My prefecture has an awesome JET community but I find that there is little support and not a lot of discussion about the API experience here. And that’s where API AJET comes in! I gain a lot from my interactions with friends I’ve met through this group. We share books and music by API writers, discuss our love for bubble tea, and have intelligent and humorous conversations about our experience of being an Asian foreigner in Japan. 

Overall, being an Asian JET has been a great experience for me. There are challenges and difficult days, but there are also personal victories and good, exciting days. I first wrote this as a second year after a tough first year in Japan trying to make sense of what being an Asian foreigner in an Asian country is. Now I’m in my third and final year on the program and one thing I learned is that in the end, my JET experience is what I make it. And despite some hurdles, I’m choosing to make it awesome!

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