By TIM HORAN
Armed with a degree in International Studies from The University of Kansas, Amanda Soelter expected culture differences when she accepted a position as a teacher in Japan.
After living in Japan for close to six months, she said those differences are “little things.”
“The food is completely different,” she said. “They drive on the other side of the road. The language is completely different. You expect that there will be someone that can help interpret for you but there are very few people that are comfortable speaking English there.
“I had to do a lot of drawing pictures and charades,” she said with a laugh. “I’m learning. The writing system is different. You can’t even guess at it. In Japan, even when ordering at McDonald’s I have to get the accent right or they won’t know what I am saying.”
Soelter was back in her home town of Abilene in late December on vacation from teaching English in Omitama. She has been in Japan since July as part of the Abilene Sister City Program.
“I didn’t really have enough Japanese when I got there,” Soelter said. “There was a huge group of people with the (Abilene) Sister City that helped me settle in and that helped a lot. I arrived during summer break, which was great. I got to figure out the grocery store and figure out my apartment and learn a little bit.”
Leaving Kansas in July didn’t give her a lot of time to prepare.
“I was trying to finish school,” she said. “I thought, I’ll get through finals and then I’ll think about packing. I was at a good point in my life. I had just graduated from college and this was a good time to start fresh. This was a big fresh different new start.”
Soelter studied German in college and said the most difficult part about living in Japan has been the language. When she visited a local part of Tokyo there weren’t a whole lot of people that spoke English.
“I meet a lot of foreigners,” she said. “Japan has a lot of people doing similar jobs as mine. But I didn’t meet a lot of Japanese people that spoke English, unless they were majoring in it. They would come up to me and say ‘May I practice my English?’ Of course, they spot you a mile away. They’ll see someone who looks like an American and they’ll go ‘Oh, do you speak English? Can I practice?’”
Omitama is a consolidation of cities, one of them being Minori, the original sister city to Abilene. The population is about 50,000. Soelter works with 750 middle school students, ages 12 through 16. Education past 16 is not mandatory in Japan. However, she said most students go on to private high schools.
“We’re preparing them for the next step and they’re much more independent at the next step,” she said. “We’re the last education before they make lifetime choices.”
She called the Japanese students “shy.”
“They don’t know my name yet,” she said. “I’m still pretty new. I walk by them in the hall and I’ll hear ‘Hello!’ way behind me. They do want to talk to me. They just don’t want to get too close.”
In her position, Soelter serves as an ambassador and she attends a lot of city and social functions with John Okajima.
“He was active with the (sister city) program since my grandparents were active,” Soelter said. “He’s probably quadrilingual and he’s a very charming man. I’m kind of his sidekick at these events. I’ll do a speech and he’ll interpret it for me. He’s introduced me to people that I probably would not have had a chance to meet.”
Soelter said she expected the Japanese schools to be high tech.
“Every class I walked into they had a big flatscreen TV in the corner but I have not seen one class use it,” she said. “They don’t even have a computer for me. I’m doing a lot with flash cards and drawing a lot of pictures on the board. I thought I would get a laptop and a tablet and I’d be wired for sound and that hasn’t been it at all. I’ve been doing a lot more with art and hands on. I have so many students you have to work off the cuff most of the time.
“I am an assistant and trying to be flexible with my teachers. They have me doing one day a week at the elementary and kindergarten level. That is almost like a variety hour,” she laughed.
The experience, she said, is preparing her for a career in teaching or something with the state department.
“But I have years of experience that I need and probably a couple more degrees between here and there,” she added. “I also do a lot of work with my students that is like speech therapy. I have a friend who is majoring in speech pathology and I find myself e-mailing her a lot with questions like ‘my students need help pronouncing this sound. What do I do?’”
Soelter has to decide soon if she wants to sign up for another year.
“I’m sort of grappling with that,” she said of staying another year. “I’ve learned enough Japanese to get around and order food but not enough to teach. I talked to a lot of people that said they stayed for two years and will never regret it. I’m still on the fence.”
When it comes to food, she said she will try anything.
“At least once and work very hard to smile and say, ‘Of course it was delicious,’” she said.