How I ended up in Japan to work and live

Written in May 2012, when I was about to quit my job and go to Japanese school and then Japan:

It’s taken me a long time to figure out what to do with my life career-wise and then how to make that happen. I think I’ve finally worked out what to do and now I have to pursue it. But for a very long time I didn’t know. When I got to college I signed up as a double English and French major, reflecting what I knew to be my strengths and my favorite subjects from school up until that point, literature/writing/reading and foreign languages (and even the latter I’d only realized in high school). But I really had no idea how to turn either of those into a career. I was leaning more towards the foreign language side, though, because that seemed more fun to me and also more unique. I figured many people could work with their native language writing and so on, but it’s a rare ability to be good at foreign languages. I felt I owed it to myself to dedicate more energy to that side. That’s why the summer after sophomore year I wanted to intern at a publisher of translated Japanese comics to work with translating and Japanese, but when I got there I realized my language skills weren’t good enough so I was assigned proofreading and editing work instead. I fell in love with it. I realized I loved working in publishing and this could very well be another career goal for me.

So after that publishing and being an editor seemed like something to try for career-wise, but I was no closer to figuring out how to put my foreign language skills to use too. I had been translating Japanese-to-English (and some Spanish-to-English) as a hobby since sophomore year, so becoming a translator and/or interpreter was sounding like a pretty good dream. The summer before senior year I looked up grad schools with translation programs, and found one in Monterey, CA that sounded amazing. By that point I had decided to focus on Japanese as my language I’d translate from, and I can’t say why it’s my favorite, it just is. It’s the one I enjoy speaking, learning, and working with the most, based purely on its own merits. Plus, it also seemed like focusing on that over French or Spanish would differentiate me more from potential translator/job competition. Anyway, so I requested an application from the grad school, and it included a language test. I looked at what would be required of me as part of that test and I knew that my Japanese level as it was then couldn’t handle it. There would be no way I could expect to be accepted and go straight on to that grad school after college without seriously upping my Japanese, and there was pretty much no way I could do that in one year at school with the resources my college offered.

As senior year drew to a close, I began to get serious about trying to find a job after graduation. I had begun dating my first boyfriend ever (Kirk) that October and, despite being the same age as me, he was planning to transfer to a new university starting the next year to do a different major so he would be in school for a while longer. Because of Kirk and our relationship I decided to limit my job hunt to inside Texas; if not I would have expanded the search to places like California and NYC (especially since I was looking for publishing jobs) and I would have also applied to programs that hire English teachers to work in Japan, like many of my Japanese class peers were doing. In fact, I asked Kirk if he’d be interested in applying to teach English in Japan with me upon his graduation and he told me that he would. That became the plan going forward: I wait for Kirk to graduate and work in Texas in the meantime, then we go teach in Japan and I magically acquire Japanese language skills just from being there, then go to that grad school. That was actually the reason I wanted to do that; I needed to become fluent in Japanese and so it only made sense to go to Japan and work there doing the only job I was qualified for. After that, my plans got a little hazy (“magically” become fluent, etc), but I had hoped it would all work out somehow from there. In the meantime, work in Texas using my English degree while honing my future plans, so I searched for local jobs I could do. Some headhunters called me about Japanese- or French-utilizing jobs a couple times, but once they found out I wasn’t fluent or a native speaker they gave up on me. It just reinforced that I needed to get to a higher level in the language before I could use it professionally.

Originally I wanted to move to Austin after graduation and work there, but 2008 was also right when the economy tanked so there weren’t a lot of jobs in general. (The comics publisher in LA where I’d interned laid off half of its staff shortly after I graduated, so even if I could have moved to LA, that was out too.) I pretty much had to stay where I could live with my parents and job hunt from there; I applied to jobs in other cities but non-local applicants aren’t exactly welcomed. It took me a few months just to get hired in Dallas, as a proofreader, and I was lucky to get that. But it was a temp job and I was laid off with most of the other temps after about six months, and then a few months later I was hired at a book publisher. It was my dream job, it was exactly what I’d been wanting: an editor job, in my hometown, at a book publisher!

I started there in July 2009, considering it both my dream job I’d enjoy to the fullest while I had it and something I’d happily give up when Kirk graduated college and we’d go to Japan together. To that end I applied to the JET program for a July 2010 start date since that was Kirk’s projected graduation time; I applied Nov. 2009 and interviewed Feb. 2010. I was applying for a CIR job (which requires Japanese skills), not as a teacher, but I had said I’d be open to working as a teacher too. Kirk was supposed to apply too (as a teacher of course) but the application is very involved, with multiple letters of recommendation, and he simply didn’t get all his materials together in time. So I applied alone, and we figured that if I got it he would apply with another company and try to get placed near me in Japan. (This is an extremely difficult thing to do even if you’re accepted to the same program; this proposal was very dicey from the start.) This was also my little sister’s senior year and she was applying to the program too. Both of us also took JLPT level 2 in Dec. 2009 (in accordance with me trying to get the coordinator job); she passed and I did not.

In early April 2010 I found out that I had been accepted to the program, as a teacher. Even though it wasn’t what I originally applied for it was still an honor. I then had a big decision to make: go ahead and accept, trusting that Kirk would get his sh-t together on his own and accompany me eventually? Or decline in favor of us applying together later to one program, where we’d have greater chances of getting placed together? I was extremely tempted by the offer because, again, this is the foremost program for this and all throughout college I had heard nothing but how hard it was to get accepted by it. Turning it down was practically unheard of. My sister had also gotten accepted. In the end, however, I said no; I couldn’t handle how sad Kirk sounded when I started talking like I was going to do it. I could see this ripping us apart and me being a world away and he couldn’t manage to get to me.

Instead we decided we would apply together in the fall for a different company, AEON (which had successfully placed a couple friend of mine close together, so we had high hopes it would do it for us too). We had an interview in October all lined up. I should also mention that our whole teach-in-Japan plan was predicated on the assumption that he would have a hard time finding work. Well, he didn’t. He took a digital forensics class senior year, loved it, his professor got him a connection, and he worked at a forensics place in Houston over the summer and gained experience. By the October interview, he had been there several months and was loving the work. He was less eager to give up a burgeoning career to go and do something that would appear pretty random on his resume, and would in no way be constructive to it. But, he also knew I’d been waiting for him and he was willing to follow through on what he’d agreed. We were all set to go to the interview in Austin, but then the night before we ended up deciding to throw out the whole plan. All of it–no more going to Japan together, no more teaching together. I didn’t want to teach, really–it’s just the best way to get there–and I didn’t want him to be miserable and mess up his resume. (He was laid off from that job after a year but was able to find a new digital forensics job in Dallas and move there Aug. 2011. His career is well on its way now, and he still doesn’t want to put it on pause.)

I was also becoming more and more intrigued with the idea of going to Japan to study… not to work. It seemed like the better way to maximize my time there; if I were working full-time I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time and energy left over to study, after all. But if I were a full-time student I could progress faster in a shorter period of time. (Since the new plan entailed me going to Japan alone, this would be good for a long-distance relationship as well; it would mean I didn’t have to be away for so long.) I began researching possible ways to do this around the end of 2010, start of 2011. I found several Japanese language schools to study at, although I had no way of predicting how long I would need to be in the country to make all the progress I needed to. I had wanted to do three months… then it became six… then maybe a full year! But I quickly realized the snafu in my plan: to go abroad to study as opposed to work, you need money upfront. And I wasn’t in school, so I had no access to scholarships or loans (the private language schools don’t offer any funding help). And I didn’t have money, or at least not enough, and I certainly didn’t have it on my dinky [book publisher] salary that hadn’t seen a raise since I was promoted to editor at an already low rate in Oct. 2009. So: find a new, higher-paying job and save up until I DID have enough money to go study. That was task #1. (Task #2: Save as much of the money I earn as possible. This is why I moved back in with my parents April 2011.)

Task #1 succeeded! (Task #2 has also succeeded, though I still don’t have anywhere near enough.) This is why I quit [book publisher] to go work at [wire company] in June 2011. Well, that, and I had gotten extremely burned out (writing every day is draining for me, and there had been not one not two but THREE people who disliked me trash-talking me downstairs over the years). However, increased salary aside, my plan backfired when it turned out I hated the wire company more than [book publisher], and did not get along with my boss at all. I yearned for my old boss at the book publisher and the whole atmosphere of the office there, so when another editor quit and my old boss negotiated me an even higher salary than I had at my new company, I jumped at the chance to come back, and did in Oct. 2011. However, this time for sure I knew there was already an end date in sight.

In spring 2011, while doing all my research on Japanese language schools in Japan, I happened to find out about the IUC program, a 10-month intensive Japanese language program in Yokohama administered by Stanford for American students, that begins every September. I then set my sights on that program as the one that I had to do, and vowed to apply for it in the fall. I also decided to apply for a summer 2012 Japanese language program administered by the college that now owns the grad school with the translation program. (Kirk and I visited that school April 2011, just to make sure I’d love it. I did–and we also had a great vacation!) I figured one year of these two programs and I’d be set for that grad school, or at least I hope so. Both the programs are extremely highly recommended and sort of like Japanese boot camp; by the end of the 10-month program you are prepared to do just about anything you want to with Japanese, including work in a Japanese office or conduct grad school-level research in Japanese. Or have enough mastery of the language to train to be a Japanese-English translator. It’s exactly what I need.

So fall and winter 2011 that’s what I was doing, working on my applications for those programs (gathering letters of reference and so on). The 10-month program included a Japanese ability screening test, which I took in February; I spent Jan. and Feb. studying Japanese every single day for that. I did more to increase my level in those two months than I had in the three years since graduation. It was amazing and I’m still very proud of that accomplishment; I had no idea self-study could be so effective but I’ve learned a new discipline. (The feverish pace stopped after the test, but I still go through a chapter in each of my two grammar books every weekend now, and practice vocabulary every day.) I passed the test and have been accepted into the program. I have also been accepted to the summer program and awarded enough financial aid (grants) to cover half the cost of it.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. I need funding to be able to do the 10-month program; it is exorbitantly expensive and the majority of those attending it are grad students with access to university funding and grants. I have none of that. I did not receive the one outside grant I was eligible to apply for as a non-grad student. The program is applying on the accepted students’ behalf to a multitude of other scholarships, and I do not yet know if I will receive any of those awards or if I will get enough to cover what I need to. I have been saving as much money as I can, in accordance with my plans, but it won’t be enough, it can only help. There is a very real chance that I won’t be able to do the program for the 2012-2013 year.

However, I am definitely doing the summer 2012 program. I’ve paid for it and purchased plane tickets. It was scary to commit before I knew if the 10-month program was happening but I had to or I would lose my spot. But in the case that lack of funding means I can’t do the 10-month program after this summer, I have a backup plan to get me to Japan in the fall anyway. I still don’t want to teach, but as a backup plan I’ve applied to, interviewed, and received and accepted an offer from a teacher placement program. If I go through with that, I’ll continue to save as much money as I can and re-apply to everything for the 2013-2014 year, hoping to get enough funding the second time around. I’m pretty much going to keep trying until I can do this; I feel a strong conviction that this is what I need to be doing with my life to best put to use the skills and talents I’ve been given. To do otherwise would be a waste.

As for Kirk… we will be long-distance during that time. It will suck, but he’s known forever that this is on my horizon, and we feel our foundation is very strong and we can handle this. He will also visit me halfway through my time in Japan. This is, by the way, why we’re not living together or engaged like other couples together this long might be. Well, that, and both of us just don’t feel ready to settle down quite yet. Both of us like our space and our independence and we’re not ready to merge yet.

Then, after the programs, after my Japanese is as good as it’s going to be, get an MA in translation with a focus on Japanese to English, and then look for a job as a translator. Will I really get a job after all this time, money, and effort… I have reason to believe, yes. Everything I’m doing is pretty much the best in the field. The programs are top-notch, the grad school is the best for this (there are companies that recruit exclusively from that school, and the professors and admin staff have amazing connections), and it’s all just going to be exactly what I need to do to launch me on a career as a translator. I talked to a recent grad of the school who also did both those programs and he’s employed; so is his girlfriend who graduated from the school too. Maybe Kirk will get a job in Silicon Valley and join me in Monterey while I get my MA; maybe we’ll stay in California or move somewhere else together after that (I’ll try to go freelance). It’s all sort of far off; all I know is that I have a feeling it’s all going to work out.

I mean, maybe. This is all really scary, especially the part where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing in the fall but I’m still quitting my job and spending some of my carefully saved-up money to go away for the summer and do a program. I still don’t know all the facts, I don’t know when exactly I’m leaving for Japan or where I’m going within it. I don’t have many details that people would want to know, and I’m basically taking a huge, giant leap of faith here and trusting I will land all right and I won’t end up broke and unemployed with no prospects. Um, fingers crossed.

So, four years later… what happened? I still achieved my dreams, just not in the way I thought I would, and I lost that boyfriend along the way (which I don’t regret in hindsight because we had other issues, but it’s still a little sad thinking about how I planned so carefully trying not to let me pursuing my dreams tear us apart, but in the end it did anyway). I’m still living in Japan, I didn’t get any funding from the 10-month program which was devastating at the time, I ended up working as a teacher to begin with and then moved into other work as soon as I could, I loved that summer program, I never went to MIIS (it’s just too expensive and I don’t need it), I passed JLPT N1, and I’m working both freelance and full-time in game translation and localization. And I’m single. Hah…