Where Were You on March 11, 2011? One TEFL Teacher’s Experience in Japan.

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The images are unforgettable. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan. The vast devastation that resulted may only be matched by the destroyed lives left in its wake. Most of us watched the destruction from the safety of our homes—a great distance away from the reality of that nightmare. As TEFL teachers, surviving a natural disaster isn’t first on our minds when we sign up for our first job overseas! However, there were many TEFL teachers that ended up doing that very thing—surviving the unthinkable—in Japan last spring. A few BridgeTEFL graduates found themselves among that number. We asked Nick Rogerson to share his story with us. We appreciate his willingness to give us just a glimpse of his experience and the effect the event had on his life. Nick graduated from the July 2009 IDELT™ course here in Denver, Colorado.

What initially drew you to teaching English in Japan?

I felt drawn to the culture. It was new, exciting, and mind-expanding. I’d always heard a lot about Japan, and when I found out that there were a great number of opportunities available—and native speaking ability was the main credential—I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to explore. And, of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that Japan has more or less the most desirable culinary tradition in the world—and words can hardly describe how much I love great food.

Where did you live and teach in Japan? What was the community like? Did you feel like a part of the community or more of an outsider?

I taught and lived (along with my girlfriend) in Hitachinaka City, which is an average-sized city in Ibaraki prefecture. It’s a rural area, known mostly for farming and production. The largest economic force in the area was the Hitachi plant nearby; sadly, no dirt cheap TVs to be had. It was a coastal town, which was nice, so we occasionally took bike rides to the coast, and the town was small and pleasant by Japanese standards. Since the community was small, we stuck out—and as a result were able to become a part of the fabric of the community in a sense. We were able to become regulars at several small restaurants; I really enjoyed being the town foreigner. Being a foreigner in Japan can be great at times (when you are treated to drinks and meals all the time just for being blonde) and also difficult (when you find that Japanese people are very private in some ways and it’s tough to break into a social scene). I found mostly pleasure in being a part of the community, but I also know that it would have been tough without my girlfriend being there with me.

Before the earthquake happened, what were your plans for the rest of the year and after you finished your teaching contract?

We would have stayed until mid-June under our normal contract, and following this would have been a large backpacking trip all around Southeast Asia. We had planned this trip for months, and had been looking forward to it for even longer. After, we planned on coming back to America to attend graduate school.

Where were you when the earthquake hit? What were your initial thoughts? Can you describe what that day was like?

I was walking to school through my neighborhood. At first I thought it was just wind; it was loud, and I couldn’t feel the ground moving because I was walking. As it got larger and larger, I was more and more panicked. Truth be told, I was mostly worried about the fact that I couldn’t make sure my girlfriend was okay.  She was teaching in a town about 30 minutes north of where I was. The feeling was awful, but at the same time, uplifting. People banded together, everyone was running around making sure that neighbors and friends were okay; it reminded me what a wonderful and caring country Japan is. The day probably should have been more of a nightmare than it was. It was a personal nightmare for me because I hadn’t heard from my girlfriend for quite some time, but we were in an area that was lucky in the sense that it wasn’t hit anywhere near as badly as it was further north. But we were comfortable and felt safe in the period following the quake. For this, we have to thank the people responsible for distributing food and water. They did an amazing job—there was water and food in the community center no more than a couple of hours after the earthquake.

Why did you decide to leave Japan and go back to the USA?

The decision to leave was a nightmare in every way. Far too many complicated emotions were at play, and I don’t think I could accurately explain them, even if I were to try. But we felt so many different tugging interests: our concerned families and friends at home, our kind employers who not only helped us through the disaster but had also given us employment and help navigating Japan over the previous year and a half, our students (we never even got to say goodbye), and the fact that our time in Japan was not close to finished, we weren’t ready.

For you, what was the most difficult part of this disaster?

I left Japan on terms that were not my own. This was the most difficult part. It was a heartbreaking decision. I didn’t get to say my goodbyes, prepare myself mentally, and I felt like the life I loved had been ripped from my hands. We had very little access to reliable information, and had to make a really tough decision, completely in the dark. And it was a very painful process.

What are your plans now? Do you think about going back to Japan to teach English? Or another place in the world?

I am currently in graduate school studying Philosophy. I am not teaching EFL, but I employ the methods I learned in EFL training and my Japan teaching days all the time. I am nowhere near done teaching EFL, and I’m nowhere near done traveling. I want to go back to Japan as soon as I can, but as of right now, I have nothing super-specific. I can say with some confidence that my next international EFL teaching will probably be in Ethiopia, where I am a director and co-founder of an NGO children’s home for orphaned and vulnerable children—set to open in the capital, Addis, in the next few months. I will definitely be going there and doing some EFL teaching and teacher training.

January 23, 2012