“You are so brave.”
That was one of the first things we were told at our pre-departure orientation some four months ago. More than a few eyebrows were raised and looks were shared among our small, fledgling group. It was the first opportunity for the Assistant Language Teachers on the JET Programme leaving from my area to meet in-person due to ongoing restrictions, and we were hungry for information about our upcoming placements. Don’t get me wrong, the speaker was excellent – a seasoned JET who shared timely advice to guide us through the first steps of our new adventure – but being told our decision to come to Japan to teach English one and a half years into a global pandemic was brave? My thoughts started racing. As we sat in our socially distanced seats, masks firmly in place and overheating from the lack of air conditioning, I started to wonder if waiting an extra year had been long enough. Perhaps things will be back to normal by 2022? Surely by 2023, the stars will align, and we’ll all be able to go about our business as if 2020 didn’t really happen…?
But it was too late for these what-ifs and maybes. By this point, I had fully committed. I had already handed in my notice, ended my lease, sold my car, said my goodbyes to my family, and celebrated with my friends – there could be no cold feet now. We were finally getting into Japan, and that meant we were willingly agreeing to go through a rigmarole of extra steps to get here – including a 15-day stint in hotel quarantine.
I had heard horror stories of quarantine experiences from those back home – entire apartment buildings locked down, sometimes waiting days for essential supplies. Unsuspecting backpackers confined to their hostel rooms, police officers patrolling outside. Even stories of those who had gotten fed up with their time inside and planned daring and dangerous escapes – think ropes made of bedsheets and parkour down fire escapes. Needless to say, I was a little nervous. What was the experience going to be like for us?
I think the foresight of knowing what was coming helped. Those leaving at the same time as me shared tips and advice over Discord, and we jokingly suggested ideas for a “Quarantine Bingo” card. I made sure to pack the essentials to keep me going – tea, coffee, and my favourite snacks from home, plus my Switch (and Ring Fit Adventure!). I thought back to those whose lives had been temporarily uprooted, suddenly finding themselves in their own quarantine situations, and was grateful I had time to prepare. The last few weeks were a mad rush of cleaning, packing, and saying goodbye. We had (more) paperwork to fill out (in triplicate!), a $250 PCR test, and a 5:40 AM flight ahead of us. It was really happening.
After arriving at Haneda airport, we spent the next five hours handing in paperwork, doing a saliva test and waiting for results, clearing immigration and customs, and taking a private bus to Shinjuku. We had made it to our new home for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t too shabby, either – a four-star hotel, with views to boot. I called my humble room “The Spa”, and made sure to work in some self-care time around British Council Zoom calls and staring at the workers washing the windows of the next building over. Bath salts? Check. Face masks? Check. A cheeky chuuhai or two, fresh from the JET kiosk? Check, check, check.
The self-care time was important, but (at the risk of sounding corny) it was our JET family that really kept me going. The first day, the Discord was abuzz. Were you Mt. Fuji side or Sky Tree side? What time could you go to the kiosk? How about laundry day? And is anyone ordering room service tonight? We slowly figured things out and got used to our routines. There was the sense of euphoria from bumping into someone near the lifts. The excited waves and nods in the line for the kiosk or temperature check. The sound of the doorbell announcing that someone has left you their unwanted tea or juice. And the flurry of messages when people heard the rustling of bags outside their door – what would our next meal be? (Dear god, not the balsamic chicken – ANYTHING but the balsamic chicken.)
To say that time passed quickly wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Some days passed quickly, and others seemed to drag on forever. But, as all things do, eventually our strange time trapped together came to an end. Finally, the elevator would take us past the third floor. Stepping into the hotel lobby, I felt like Bambi taking his first steps. Am I making too much eye contact? Am I speaking too loudly? Or not loudly enough? My voice sounded strange to my ears. It took me a while to get used to hearing it again.
Perhaps the hardest part of all came after our quarantine. We were readjusting back into society, but it wasn’t the same society that we had left.
Our hotel bubble had burst, and we were suddenly thrust into a new world that seemed brighter, louder, more beautiful, and exciting because of it. Fast forward to the present, and we’ve all gone our separate ways. Despite this, our JET families are growing as we slowly meet those who came before us and welcome those who come after. But I won’t forget those who came with me on my journey. They gave me the courage to be brave.