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

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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

Hand-Writing All 1,947 Jōyō Kanji: Ten Things I Learned.

“The Jōyō kanji are the 1,947 most essential kanji in the Japanese language as designated by the Ministry of Education.  I hand-wrote them all.  This is what I learned…”

Waves of Kanji

Waves of Kanji

In an effort to improve my Japanese writing finesse and satisfy my nearly insatiable interest in Chinese characters I undertook the daunting task of hand-writing every single one of the 1,947 Jōyō kanji as included in this book.  I literally went through every single one of the kanji included in this reference book and wrote and rewrote them until I had gone through all of them.  The focus was on repetition and muscle memory, and maintaining the correct stroke order was pivotal to the entire exercise.

To set the record straight, I really enjoy studying kanji…really enjoy.  What to many is boring and impossible, I find meditative and relaxing, insightful and enlightening.  Within each kanji there is a story and a reason for its construction.  Every kanji is based in a history that is long and clouded and originates in ancient China making them living artifacts, speech relics that are as good today as they were one-thousand years ago.  Each stroke is carefully planned and, when performed in the correct order, smooth and natural to your hand. Continue reading

The Fundamentals: Accents & Mumbling

Cherry Blossoms of Spring

Cherry Blossoms of Spring

It was nice outside last Saturday so we headed outside to the park where we were joined by several other foreigners who were enjoying the weather beside a group of elderly and somewhat intoxicated Korean men playing Yoot… a typical spring Saturday in Seoul.   There were foreigners from the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, England, Mongolia, and Australia and we were all conversing in our native tongue: English.  Thinking back, what to an unknowing passerby (especially to a non English-speaking gentleman or lady) would seem like a gathering of identical English speakers, had turned into quite an eclectic group of expats.  Each of us, besides sharing the same language, were from completely different parts of the globe, brought up immersed in entirely distinct cultures… and yet we were conversing as neighbors that have known only one town would.

We talked about all things without pause.  There was no need to clarify meaning because we all understood each other perfectly well!  South Africa, New Zealand, England, United States, every hemisphere connected in a peaceful web of total connection in language.  Of course this makes one wonder about the wars have been caused simply by discrepancies in language and whether or not a single world language would really be a loss to humanity.  However, what has been on my mind for the last couple days was an exchange between myself and an Englishman.  As Spanish from Spain is to a Chilean, so too is English from England to an American: seasoned and distinguished-sounding, ancient and beautiful.   Continue reading

¿Que? My Spanish Improved In Japan?

Studying Abroad: Japan
Studying Abroad: Japan

In college I had the most amazing privilege of studying abroad and it was very definitely a life-changing experience.  In fact, I say now to anyone who is in college: “Do not hesitate for a moment to study abroad and do not let a  language barrier deter you from selecting the location you desire to visit most.”  Ultimately though, the purpose of such a trip ought to be language exploration and eventual acquisition.  As for me, the experience was in Japan.  Nagoya, Japan to be a bit more descriptive and it was during my time there, throughout all the lessons, meals with my host family, and interaction with the locals that not only my Japanese took root but–and quite unconsciously–my Spanish did grow.

It makes no sense…at first.

Language is a peculiar thing: Every word counts, rings, roars with its own ferocity and gentle grace; Grammar and how you use it plays a major role in the overall sound and feel of your writing; and finally, pronunciation tunes your ears and mouth into fine instruments of correct communication.

Language learning is a peculiar thing: As you learn one language you are reminded of others.  One word vibrates some chord that you recognize from deep in your language library…but it’s a different language;  grammar in one language builds off of previous grammar…but from a different language; and the words on your tongue dance in magical tunes all to familiar but completely foreign at the same time.

Why? Continue reading