First and foremost, I need to give a hat tip to Ardent Lee, who calls his bilingual (J/E) blog The Sleeping Sun. He wrote a post last week that struck a chord with me about the painful first steps of trying to get your career started when you don’t have any experience, and the very fact that you don’t have any experience seems to be preventing you from even getting your foot in the door.
It’s graduation season at my university. In addition to wishing our students well, I’ve recently been having conversations with friends and colleagues about our career aspirations and motivations. As a result, Ardent Lee’s post, which he called Job Hunting: An Endless Cycle, came at an interesting time, and made me think back to my original plans when I was a student. I wonder what ‘university-me’ would make of the mid-career life I’m currently living, and my original decision to study Japanese?
So, buckle your seatbelt– it’s story time.
“Mukashi mukashi, aru tokoro ni” is the classic way to start a Japanese children’s story, with the same story-telling effect that you might feel if you heard someone gently deliver the line “Once upon a time, in a certain place…..”. The neat part about this story is that, although my post-university career took me out of my hometown to Asia for ten years, I actually now find myself living in the same city, roughly 20 years later.
For the sake of clarity, my career has essentially had four phases:
5 years in Japan (exchange student, JET CIR)
5 years in China (English language industry, working for Japanese company)
5 years as an international student advisor at my home university
4 years managing undergraduate student services in a faculty office.
The thing I find fascinating now is how ‘tidy’ it looks when I put them in a list like that. The reality is that each and every stage has been layered with uncertainty, setbacks and difficult decisions. The path looks straightforward in retrospect, but I don’t think there’s any way that I could have planned things in advance.
It’s worth noting that, before university, I only knew two Japanese phrases, and absolutely zero Chinese. My goal in university was to study a ‘different’ language because, while I was interested in continuing with the French that I had learned in high school, I thought that it would be more useful to do something completely different.
‘Something different’ started out as Arabic; however, I ran into a roadblock after studying Arabic for a year and realizing that the program was too small, and that it was unlikely that I would be able to gain any real fluency after completing the other courses that were on offer.
It was only when I was going into my second year of university that I made the decision to switch to an Asian language. I had heard great things about the University of Alberta’s East Asian Studies department’s ‘intensive courses’ that would allow you to concentrate a year of coursework into a single semester–10 hours of lecture time per week, and an additional 3 hours of lab time per week with another instructor. After asking for a ton of advice from people about choosing between Chinese and Japanese, I finally landed on the decision to study Chinese.
After satisfying myself that I had made a rational and well thought-out decision, the university unceremoniously sent me the following letter:
Cancelled? I don’t know that I ever found out the reason; however, working in a university environment now, I can understand that the department probably had to make a decision to allocate resources in an efficient manner. Chinese study was by no means a popular choice when I was a student. For whatever reason, the course was cancelled and I had to make a different decision. Having boiled my decision down to Japanese and Chinese, it seemed like fate was giving me a gentle nudge to give Japanese a try.
I’m so glad things worked out the way they did, because I had a wonderful experience studying Japanese at the U of A. I’ve taken little bits from each of my teachers, and that experience continues to inform many of my philosophies of language learning. Through my degree, I was able to do a summer homestay program at Hokkaido National University, as well as a year-long exchange to a Shizuoka National university. At the end of the day, I graduated with an honours degree in Japanese Language and Literature.
After completing my degree, I followed in the footsteps of a few of my senior classmates and worked as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) on the JET program. Living in the Northeast (Tohoku) area of Japan was a wonderful experience that really pushed me to a satisfactory level of Japanese fluency. Through my job, I was able to work with visitors from all over the world who came to the town where I lived for JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) programs; I had the good fortune to participate in an international Japanese/French science camp, and had the opportunity to take Japanese kids on trips to France and Canada. At the end of it, I felt like I was perfectly poised to get an ‘amazing’ (not really sure what that meant) job in one of the big cities. I would have stayed longer, but the nature of the JET program at that time was such that three years was the longest you could continue your contract.
Put simply, the ensuing job search was one of the most humbling and valuable experiences in my career. I was sending out applications and getting some interviews, but soon enough, I started to realize what was happening— companies were, in different ways, basically saying something that added up to: “Yes, I see you are a native speaker of English who speaks Japanese very well, but we also have Japanese applicants who are returning to Japan after studying and working in Canada. I see that you are very comfortable organizing events, communicating, and doing general translation and interpretation……. but…コホン…do you have any……………..other……..skills?”
Other skills? I wasn’t good enough to be a professional interpreter, but didn’t I have something to offer the marketplace? What was happening?
It was at this point that I started to hear from other friends who also came on the JET program as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) three years prior, who were getting jobs in the IT world in Tokyo. What I had missed was that many people who had come to Japan without Japanese skills, but with a background in something else (Computer Science /Math /Business /Teaching /Finance /etc.) and had now built up sufficient Japanese fluency to get interesting jobs.
At that point, I made a really risky decision and decided to move to China to teach English and begin learning Chinese. I have to be honest, many of my biggest allies thought I was completely mad, and thought that I was giving up everything that I had earned with my degree in Japanese. I can’t count the number of times that someone ended their condemnation of my idea with some sort of off-hand comment that ended with “and for what? A job teaching English? You could have had that in Japan if you wanted. You’re a fool.”
But that’s just what I did– I moved to China and thought back to the people that had been successful ‘on the ground’ language learners in Japan, and tried to emulate some of their strategies. I enjoyed teaching English to children and adults (IELTS spoken language training), and ultimately learned enough Chinese that I could work in an office— it was only then that I was able to make use of my Japanese and found a job in the sales department of a Japanese company that was targeting western companies in the Chinese market.
It’s worth noting that I saw the same type of phenomenon in Beijing for Mandarin-speaking foreigners developing their careers. The number of foreigners that speak decent Mandarin is actually quite high– when you combine that with the kind of salary that many foreigners are asking for, I don’t really blame companies in China for carefully considering how many Chinese staff (some with impressive language skills) they can hire locally.
And so it goes—- along the way I met my wife and we moved home to Canada and had our son. At the very beginning (i.e. before my son was born), we had actually made a plan to move to Korea so we could both be foreigners at the same time (my wife is from China). I was able to get a job as an English teacher in Korea (I thought I could pull off the same plan that offered a path forward in China); however, while the Korean government granted me a working visa, they asked my wife to stay behind in China. The worker in the consulate told me that I would be able to make an application for her to join me after I had established myself in Korea.
We were newly married at the time, and decided that the opportunity wasn’t worth the sacrifice of living apart. That was the beginning of our decision to come home to Canada, although the move didn’t come to fruition for a few more years.
It’s interesting how my career continues to evolve in ways that only seem to ‘make sense’ when viewed through the rear-view mirror. Coming back to Ardent Lee’s post about job hunting, I think it really is an “endless cycle” that continues to evolve throughout one’s life and career. All you can really do is make the best decision you can at the time and try to keep moving forward.
One of the things that I like about working in a university is that I get to see people going through their own experiences that share some similarities with my career path: international students trying to make a life in Canada, which may already be the the third or fourth county they’ve called home; Canadian students considering study abroad or international work experience– it’s fascinating to see all the different kinds of ‘international’ careers are possible.
Scott McLeod’s graphic novel Understanding Comics isn’t about job hunting; however, he cleverly weaves a mountain of wisdom into the story, including an amazing description of the evolution of a successful comic artist’s career, including the spots where people typically quit. It’s a great read on many levels, but I find that one part of his commentary is good advice for all of us:
Learn from everyone.
Follow no one.
Work like hell.
I think my younger self would have been surprised that I ended up coming back ‘home’; having said that, I think that it’s amazing to see how much ‘home’ has changed since that time. I can now say with complete confidence that it is quite possible to live an incredibly rich ‘international’ life while living in most North American cities. On the other hand, the corollary to that is that you can live a very comfortable/English/western life in most major cities in the world.
If we’re wanting to live more ‘international’ lives, the world has shifted in a way that makes the travel portion of the equation less important.
I do have some opportunities to speak Japanese and Chinese at work when we have visiting delegations; however, language study has become a primarily personal ambition for the time being.
I’m not sure what the next stage of my career will be, but I’m still fascinated by the question of what exactly constitutes ‘the hard part’ of language acquisition, and how learners can be supported. In my current role, I’m also very interested in the transition that takes place between high school and university, and how those students can best be supported.
Job Hunting: An Endless Cycle 就職活動：無限のサイクル
Source: Job Hunting: An Endless Cycle