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.