I'm an English teacher and have just moved back to England from Spain. Fortunately the weather hasn't been too much of a shock! Hope you enjoy reading the reviews :)
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You get to know a new and interesting culture, you learn to cope on your own with new situations
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This is going back a whole decade now, slightly worryingly! In 2000 I went to Japan with the organisation ‘Lattitude,’ which was known as ‘Gap Activity Projects’ at the time.
Initially I was asked to fill in a form listing 3 countries I’d like to go to for a six month placement. I chose Brazil, Mexico and Japan, although actually I only really put Japan down because I had to pick something. My heart was set on Latin America but alas, it was not to be. Bizarrely, I was told that I couldn’t go to either of my first two options because I didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, but that my third option would be no problem whatsoever, despite my distinct lack of Japanese.
Anyway, I got over my initial disappointment and started to get excited about the idea of going somewhere so far away for 6 months, at the tender age of 19 (I didn’t think it was tender at the time, obviously!) I worked for 6 months to save enough money and then spent from March until August out in Japan, which, by the way, is something I highly recommend doing.
The idea was that I would be doing voluntary work in a home for the elderly in a small town called Nishio on the main island of Honshu. As it turned out, I was paid fairly generously for a position that was supposed to be voluntary- in fact, I had enough for a trip to Thailand at the end of the placement. I was also provided with accommodation, which I shared with a fellow gap volunteer I had met for the first time at Charles de Gaulle airport, before the flight.
Work at the home was enlightening interesting and sometimes, I admit, downright disgusting! I take my hat off to all those people out there who do this type of work for a living, because it certainly isn’t easy! In fact, I gained some insight into exactly what I was letting myself in for on the day of our arrival, when we were given the grand tour, and handed a ‘useful phrasebook’ which had been put together by the only staff member who spoke any English. It was filled with expressions such as ‘shall we go the toilet?’ and ‘can I cut your nails please?’
Fortunately the staff were very supportive and absolutely lovely to the two of us. We were often invited out to dinner, cherry blossom parties, karaoke evenings and various festivals, of which there were many over the summer months. They also helped us a lot with working out what we should be doing to help and were very patient, even though neither of us spoke a word of the language when we arrived. Our shifts were never too taxing. We worked from 9 to 5 on the second floor of the home, where people lived who were perfectly fine mentally but needed some physical help. Amazingly, several of them were in their late nineties, and the eldest lady was 101!
We were given the opportunity to try working on the third and fourth floors too, and I ended up working for one day a week on each of these floors and the remaining days on the second. The third seemed to be mainly for people with physical problems and the fourth for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The fourth was quite frightening, actually. The lift had a security code on it, so that patients couldn’t leave without the staff knowing. Similarly, the fire exit was blocked off with a bed- dangerous in a fire, perhaps, but it worked in preventing patients from running off down the road in their pyjamas.
Lunch time was a particularly entertaining time of the day on the fourth floor- on a daily basis, one lady sat spitting some sort of seeds across the room, a man would walk around in circles with a plastic cup stuffed inside his nappy and another, very sweet, old lady sat pulling a card repeatedly out of her handbag and then replacing it. It turns out she was a day care patient who needed to be able to remind herself that her son was coming to pick her up at the end of the day.
As you can probably gather from how much of my experience I’m able to recall 10 years later, I found it to be a very worthwhile experience, and one I’d highly recommend. In fact, after feeling so disappointed about being given my third choice initially, I ended up loving Japan so much that I changed my choice of degree and studied German with Japanese instead of my original choice, psychology. As a result of that I went back to Japan 4 years later, to study for a semester in Tokyo and live with a host family. So, anyone who’s trying to convince their parents to let them take a gap year before university can just tell this story to them. It’s not just a chance to take a holiday for a year. It could change what you end up doing with your life, and that’s not just a cliché!