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Why I Quit Working at a Bank, and Moved to Japan.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt comfortable traveling.No matter the country no matter the reason I could go there and things would just work. Growing up, my parents always made sure my sisters and I traveled. We often traveled to Chile to see family. Even our home in the Midwest felt like another country sometimes: Listening to Inti-Illimani while making lefse, enjoying  empanadas on the Fourth of July. (Just kidding, we always hand-made our own burgers) So when it came time to choose whether or not I would study abroad during my university years, the answer was a resounding yes! I had to go! There was no question of if, only where.

So I decided in the fall of 2006 that I would study for one semester in Japan while living with a host family. The problem was, I needed 1 year of formal Japanese language study and I only had 5 months to do it. Now, this might have been where someone else would have said, “ok, nevermind, I’ll stay in the dorm” but instead, I picked up a copy of the text book and over one winter break I studied a semester’s worth of material, passed into the spring semester term, and secured my place in the homestay program.

Little did I know then how much of an impact the decision to take that textbook home would have on my life. One and half years later, diploma in my hand, I finished my undergraduate studies with a double major in Finance and Japanese.

My work in the financial industry did not begin with any major signing bonus. I started as a teller. A small but vibrant financial institution in the midwest which really took active measures to put its people first, we prided ourselves on our down-to-earth, familiar style. When people would come in to make a transaction or seek advice, we would find some way to strike up a conversation and connect at a level deeper than just dollars. Once, I’ll never forget, a man told me about his bean sprout business. “Business is tough.”, he laughed.

The interesting thing about working as a teller is that you know how much money everyone has. Sometimes I would open up an account to hundreds of thousands of dollars; Other times, only a few tens. However, people with only a few tens of dollars were the ones that we really got know the best. Many of them came in almost every day just to warm up, have a conversation,  withdraw $5 or deposit $5, and feel human again. I felt like I was doing something much more meaningful with my life than just cashing checks. Some days, my voice would almost completely be gone from talking to customers so much. I learned that no matter the figure, every person has an a story and I was honored to have been  a part of their story for even just a day.

But Japan just would not get out of my head. Always in the back of my mind I kept wondering, Should I go back? One option was the JET program. I liked how the CIR job sounded but I couldn’t make up my mind if I should apply or not. So, I reached out to my good friend for advice and he told me he had applied the year before but not been accepted. This was it, I thought. This was a sign that we needed to apply to the program together. “You give it another go, and I will to”, we agreed. So I wrote my application, received letters of recommendation, and even made my way to Chicago for the interview all without telling my coworkers or boss.I even went so far as to disguise my trip to Chicago as a trip to see family in Wisconsin. I thought, the chances of me getting into the program are so slim anyway, why even bother?

So, you can imagine my surprise when the acceptance letter arrived. Suddenly I had a very big decision to make: Make use of my business degree while continuing to work my way up in the organization or cut all of that short and move to middle-of-nowhere Japan (because the job location certainly wasn’t Tokyo!) where I would start using my Japanese major to help further sister city relations and intercultural communication. Mind you, at this point I hadn’t seriously studied or used the Japanese language for about two years. It was a major opportunity but also a major risk. Why give up a great job? When I imagined 10 years down the road, working at the same job, I would be living in the Midwest, most likely with a big house, stable income, working a management position, near family and close friends. However, on the other hand, everything was unknown!  Unfamiliar job, unfamiliar people, unknown future. I think back to that time, those days when I was trying to decide, and when I wonder how I ever made the decision I did, what really sticks out is me thinking to myself “What if something is there that I am missing?” “I need to know!””I need to see!” Here was this opportunity in front of me, I needed to take it.

My boss could not have been any more supportive when I told him. “I’m happy for you”, he said to me. On the last day of work he called everyone together and we took a group picture. It’s one of those amazing pictures where everyone’s personality shines through and it makes me smile to this day.

5 years later, I’m still in Japan. I can say without any doubt that there are few decisions in my life that were as pivotal in the making of who I am today as the decision to quit my job back in 2011. I have grown strong in my own skin, become a great listener, made even more amazing friends, and even met my fiancé!

I am not an advocate for being risky always. When faced with important decisions, many times safe is really better than sorry. What made this decision different was that it was surrounded and based in a passion and curiosity for a country, language, and people that just comes naturally to me. I am not an advocate for being risky, but risks surrounded in passion and curiosity are risks worth taking because passion and curiosity never fail, they only guide.


 

Thank you for reading! For those of you curious about my friend, he also got into the program and he too is still in Japan to this day! Also, I still bank at the same financial institution I worked at many years ago. They still have wonderful people working there and I am so proud to have been a part of their team. 413391_10100145446171557_994596006_o

Language Independence: English Wednesdays

wednesdayLiving abroad can be an overwhelming experience. Trying to adjust to the culture, the religion, the food, and the language takes time and causes frustration. Fortunately if you have a guide who has been there before to show you around, you are strides ahead and sure to come away from the experience with a positive impression. Unfortunately, the reliance on a guide can be crippling to your independence in that country. How can someone who spends an extended period of time in a foreign country ever expect to learn the language and gain independence while at the same time enjoying all the benefits of a guide?

Two experiences come to mind. One, the year I spent in South Korea. Two, now as I play the role of guide in the United States.

Continue reading

The New JLPT: Review & Essential Tips

Japanese, long noted for its high level of difficulty, has become increasingly difficult to master this year with the onset of the new Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) format.

Background

In the past as is the case still today, the JLPT was divided up into several sections based on reading, grammar, and listening.  However, whereas in the past your passing score was based on your overall score, this year’s test-takers will need to pass every single section in order to be awarded proficiency in that level of Japanese.  What this means is that in order to pass the exam one must be proficient in all levels of Japanese (except speaking).  In other words you may be a fantastic reader and have a high level of kanji-recognition, scoring high in the first section; but should your ear be green and unaccustomed to spoken Japanese then your chances for passing are slim. Slim still are your chances should the opposite be true.

Another change that has been made this year is the addition of a new level between the old level 1 (the most difficult level) and 2.  This change means that the JLPT now offers 5 levels of proficiency examination.

This year I have had the privilege of being in South Korea for the summer where the test is offered twice a year (as opposed to only once a year in the United States).  My aim was 一級 (ikkyuu), the highest level of Japanese proficiency. Note: Ikkyuu is now known as N1. Continue reading

Top 10 Ways NOT to Start Learning a New Language

In an effort to assist any learner of any language get started in their exploration of said language, here is a list of the top 10 ways not to go about beginning your studies.   This list has been formed out of 10 ways that I tried to learn new languages but then failed epically.  May you not make the same mistakes that I did.

Easy Language?

Easy Language?

10) Easy Phrase Books. Unless you intend to kill your desire to learn any language right from the start, I suggest you steer clear of such books as these.  Books that offer 101 easy phrases in ____________ (insert language here) are sure ways to get frustrated and give up.  The content is often scattered and colloquial, filled with phrases that are at a level far beyond that of the beginner or even intermediate learner.  I have picked up books in Japanese and even Spanish and been befuddled as to the content.  Oftentimes, such everyday phrases are so wrapped in complex grammar structures and vernacular that there is no way that any learner could actually learn any of the individual parts.  For example, in Spanish

Could you speak more slowly? Puedes hablar más despacio, por favor?

If you speak Spanish already, you don’t count.  Please take a minute to imagine yourself completely incapable of any expression in Spanish, and your pronunciation is horrible.  How can you be expected to learn anything (as a beginner) from such a phrase?  The book this was from has no explanation on what any of the words mean, nor is there an explanation on conjugation of verbs etc.  It is a dead-end for language learning.


Language Absorbtion

Language Absorbtion

9) Repetitive Drama/Cartoon Viewing. I once had a friend who, in his attempt to learn Japanese, watched anime…a lot of anime.  In fact, he had so convinced himself that he could learn Japanese simply by listening and absorbing the language that he watched over 100 episodes of Naruto or One Piece before he decided to call it quits.  What was his result?  Very basic listening skills at best, and right next to zero comprehension when it came to grammar and building his own unique sentences.  Though, admittedly, his vocabulary was okay (unfortunately limited to such phrases as found in cartoons, however.) Continue reading