Sunday, October 03, 2004

International Stressors
Allow me to admit that my judgements of my successor in Japan may be a little harsh. I have now been reliably informed that, upon her return to England, she became a much more pleasant and balanced person, so many of her actions may be blamed on her lack of adjustment to life in Japan. However, I still have to say that I think if she had reached the point where she couldn't go to work anymore, she should have made up her mind to just go home, rather than continue to live in a place that apparently made her quite miserable. It's one thing to want to stay and tough it out; it's another to stay and waste an entire 5 months of your life under false pretenses while earning a salary you don't deserve. But then, maybe that's just me.

On the subject of the effects the stress of living abroad can have on some people, though, Bill Poser wrote in with an account of a "foreign expert" American teacher living in China who suffered a true mental breakdown to the point she had to spend time in a mental hospital and then eventually be sent home. This does bring up the very real point that many people do not adjust well to living abroad. It is a very stressful way to live, and not everyone can do it, which is something that teaching exchange programs and universities wishing to hire "foreign experts" have to keep in mind.

Being raised as a good over-intellectual, before I went to Japan, I actually read a book on the history of the JET Programme, Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program. One of the more interesting things I remember from the book was the section on how the application process developed over time. Originally, people just had to fill out the paper application, and were either accepted and flown to Japan, or not. But in the first two years or so, (my memory of the exact numbers here is hazy, and I don't have the book with me right now,) 3 people committed suicide. The program then instituted the interview stage of the process, in the hopes that a panel of interviewers might be able to more accurately figure out who would be able to handle stress. Many questions in the interview, or at least in mine, still have to do with how one would respond to such-and-such large cultural difference likely to come up in the workplace or in life in general. I was also asked what methods I had discovered to help me handle stress and culture shock during my semester abroad.

Obviously, there is no sure-fire way to identify who will be able to handle the stress of international living and who won't, particularly if the applicant has never lived abroad before, but it is something people going abroad, and organizations hiring such people, need to think about a lot. Perhaps people should also be encouraged to think about what they would do if they find things are truly not working out for them. Some might find contemplating such an issue to be a bit pessimistic, but I'd prefer to think of it as being realistic. I really did mentally map out an exit strategy while living in Chile, which I fully intended to follow in the event that my stress-induced vomiting bouts did not end, and in some ways, I think that helped lessen the stress to the point where I could get better. There are just some times when going home should no longer be seen as failure, but as necessary. It is not necessarily the person's fault; not everyone in the world is meant to meld seamlessly with every other culture, nor is a person always guaranteed a perfect, or even satisfactory, work/living arrangement abroad, particularly when going there sight unseen.

I think I'm rambling. In the end, my moral is this: Living abroad is stressful, and we all need to realize this. Therefore, there may come a time when a person needs to choose to either deal with their stress adequately within the stressful environment, or acknowledge that they can't. Anyone thinking of living abroad should try to take "Be prepared" as their mental motto.

/opinionated two cents

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