"To know the road ahead, ask those coming back."
One of my great pleasures is to give advice to future travelers. It's a big boost to your confidence when you know someone who's been there and can give you the straight story. The key person in my decision to come to China was a past graduate of my university. He visited my class and talked about his exciting career in the trading business, where he made money and got to travel around the world. Shanghai was his top pick in today's global economy. If I had slacked off and skipped class that day, who knows where I would have ended up?
Actually, I do know. I was very close to surrendering my dream of traveling to give up and become a real estate agent in Hawaii. A 6-week real estate licensing class vs. 3 years of law school, it was the easy way out. If I had gone through with that, I would be going to work every day dreading the coming downturn in the housing market. Instead, I'm studying Chinese and enjoying my front-row seat watching the fastest-developing city in the world.
Through my parents and friends who follow my adventures, I get inquiries from people about how to go abroad. In travel, there is no such thing as an unimportant detail. Every tip, every website can make a huge difference in someone's life. Know where to find the right information, and the impossible becomes possible.
The daughter of one of my father's co-workers was thinking of going to Japan. Here's my e-mail to her:
Dear ____ ,
Happy to help. The good news is that the JET program isn't the only game in town. Aeon and ECC are both supposed to be reputable companies. Nova has a really bad rep on the Internet, but they hire almost anybody. Despite the bad press, I have two friends who worked for Nova and liked it. Read the latest gossip on ESL Cafe. After a year in Japan, you can change to a better job. Gaijin Pot is where to look for jobs once you're in Japan.
The general advice is to avoid Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. They're the most expensive. If you work somewhere else, you'll be able to save more of your salary. Many teach English in Japan or Korea to pay off student loans. Insider tip: there are more people from Hawaii in Fukuoka than any other place in Japan. It's a medium-sized city in Kyushu.
I don't think getting a teaching credential is necessary. Most companies don't require it and will provide some training. The work itself is pretty easy once you get some experience. You'd be much better off taking a Japanese class for the summer. I wish to God I'd studied Chinese before I came over here.
Teaching English is actually only half your job. The other half is answering questions about America. Or many times, defending America. All they know is what they've seen in movies, so I have to constantly remind my Chinese students that not all Americans carry guns and take drugs.
I'm not sure how bad it is in Japan, but racism is a big problem in China and everywhere else in Asia. Most English-teaching companies in Asia require you to send a photo with your resume, a blatantly prejudiced request. Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians get turned down for jobs all the time. It might be a good idea to send your resume without a photo. Write on your resume that you're a U.S. citizen and native English speaker. That forces the company to call you or even better, interview you. Either way, they get a chance to hear you speak English before possibly rejecting you.
The first month in any foreign country will always be the hardest. Try to stick it out. That being said, ordering food by pointing at pictures gets old fast. The 4 priorities are: job, apartment, studying the language, and making friends. Once you get those four down, everything else will fall into place.
Japan is better than other places than Asia for a first-time expat. It's clean, developed, great food, companies provide health insurance, etc. I can give you advice on finding English speakers anywhere. This sounds really ageist and sexist, but if you need someone who speaks English, go for young women under 30. They're more likely to speak English than any other group. I've asked young men so many times, and they can't. Ditto for old people. Studying English is popular among the young, and I think women are better at languages than men. I was the only boy in a lot of my English classes. Most of my professors were women, too. I majored in English Creative Writing.
You can definitely make a career out of teaching. A lot of foreigners come abroad and never leave. Easy job, saving substantial money, the glamor of living abroad, and local celebrity status (especially if you're white and in a smaller town). On the flip side, there are a lot of foreigners who don't teach for long and move on to do something else. Part of it is the snobbery they get from expats with professional jobs, i.e. "English teachers are just backpacker trash."
Some of the foreigners who enjoy the benefits above are what one of my friends call an LBH = Loser Back Home. That's the ugly, gross, overweight, geeky guy that women back home would've deemed untouchable. But in Asia, he can score a hot girlfriend and a good-paying job just for being white.
You may not have thought about this, but dating can be a challenge for Western women in Asia. Almost every foreign guy I know has a Chinese girlfriend. Some Western women complain that they can't compete with the slim, ultra-fashionable, sometimes more subservient Asian women. Asian men can find Western women too strong and independent, so they avoid them. These are broad generalities, but I know plenty of single Western women as evidence.
My route to getting a job in China is a long, twisted story. Read my blog to get all the gory details:
My adventures in China start in September 2005. Scroll to the story on the bottom, and read your way upwards.
Feel free to ask me any questions. I'm all for helping people to travel. No education is complete without it!