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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Experiences in Crossing Cultures - Andrew Edsall (USA/Japan)

There are countless reasons that people leave their country of origin for new horizons, but every decision, every journey is unique.  In this new Flophouse series some of the people I have had the pure pleasure of encountering over the years have kindly agreed to share their experiences and explain, in their own words, how they ended up so far from home, learning a new language and building a new life on a distant shore.

The Expat Experience by Andrew Edsall

Passion is like fire. Fires can die out when they have too little fuel as well as when they have too much. It is only when they are provided appropriate amounts of fuel and ventilation can they burn forever and be controlled. Sometimes the fire can grow out of control; other times it can be blown away into tiny embers. Regardless of how a fire ends, it all starts with a spark. The spark that lit my fascination with Japan occurred in the late 1980s. I was still a young child, but I always watched the evening news with my parents during dinner. To the best of my memory, this was a very interesting time to be watching Japan. While the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are considered to the symbol of Japan’s recovery, the late 1980s were the peak of Japan’s economic might.
Nearly a decade later, my mother noticed an advertisement in the local paper offering a scholarship to Tokyo to ten high-school students from New York, Jakarta, Paris, Sao Paulo, and New South Wales - which had sister-state agreements. After applying and going through several interviews, I was one of 40 students sent to Tokyo for a year. During my stay, I lived with several host families and attended a prestigious boys high school, where I played kendo. While there were many challenges, I learned a lot about Japan and myself. Japan is often portrayed in the West as a country where people don't show their emotions or feelings. During my year, I discovered that this was not the case at all; different cultures display their feelings differently. There are some feelings in Japanese that are extremely difficult to express in English. I also developed a hearty appreciation of kanji characters.
Before my initial experience, I was under the impression that all Japanese were genius-level smart. However, the longer I spend here the more I realize that this is not the case at all. I went intent on learning as much about Japan's superior math and science education system... of course, these intentions lasted until I cracked open my math book and realized that not only did I not understand the language, but I didn't understand the math problems either. I spent the rest of my year studying Japanese intensively - both at home and school - and I was a member of the Kendo (Japanese fencing) team. At the end of the year, I had developed a number of friendships (even today) and acquired a command of about 500 kanji characters (roughly a quarter of what is needed to be considered fluent). Even after I returned home to the US, I knew that I wanted to return to Japan.
While culture shock is often discussed, the impact of reverse culture shock is often greater. After spending a year in an exciting city of millions, returning to a small town of 12,000 was a very strange experience. During my last year of high school, I had a number of decisions to make regarding my future; however, I resolved to return to Japan as soon as possible. Rather than studying business and hoping for a transfer to Japan, which could take years or never happen at all, I decided that the best way to return to Japan was to do it on my own. After spending my first year at a community college, I transferred to SUNY Albany, which had a Japanese Studies program. While there I minored in Business and continued to interact with the Japanese community on campus.
As graduation neared, my goal still seemed to be far away.  I was unable to return as a study-abroad or under the JET program. To make matters worse, the US economy was in a rut from the collapse of the Internet bubble and 9-11. I found a company that hired recent graduates and sponsored their visas to teach English in Japan and passed the interview process in New York City. I returned to Tokyo in August 2002 and have been living here ever since.
I spent the first three  years teaching English and studied Japanese in my spare time. While teaching was fun at times, I could not see myself doing it forever. When I passed Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) I thought that I would try my hand at Translation. I was fortunate that I studied Japanese history intensively, because it led to my next position as a translator at a museum. I realized that while I had some amazing experiences, I did not like the solitary nature of translation and I wanted to be able to express my own opinions, not merely be a mouthpiece for another. Finally, to be a proficient translator (or anything for that matter), one really needs to specialize in a certain field (law, engineering, medicine, etc.). Without this specialization, you’re on the lowest end of the food chain and pay scale, to gain that knowledge requires experience. And to gain that experience I decided that I would earn my MBA and enter the world of business.
The MBA program was challenging and I learned a lot about the subjects, others, and myself. The professors and classmates were great and it has really expanded my network and knowledge. I recommend to always keep learning and doing new things - both in a personal and professional environment. While an MBA might be the right solution, I would say that one should consider their personal and professional goals; goal setting is a critical skill necessary for the long-haul.
During the MBA program, I was introduced to an alumnus who was looking for someone to run an internal IT project. I made the move and continued to learn and grow. The project required me to wear many hats, so there was always more to plan and execute. Unfortunately, the company’s bottom line was greatly impacted by the economy and I found myself unemployed in early 2009. After graduation, I spent the summer applying to companies and attending career fairs; I have a lot to say about my experiences then, but that could easily be the subject of a book - not just a short blog post. Eventually, I tapped into the MBA network and joined a Tokyo-based headhunting firm and specialize in the Technology sector. This has been quite rewarding because there is variety, the opportunity to meet many people and impact lives, and while I am not an engineer, I love technology and am responsible to find the engineers, sales executives, and back office members to make technology firms successful.
When the intense flame of passion has died down to coals, one needs to add fuel to relight the flame. Having achieved my original goal of returning to Japan, discovering the next goal and acting has not always been easy, but nothing worth doing is easy. While my life in Japan has not always turned out as I had originally envisioned, it has been interesting.


Pure Dog said...

Interesting -- my best friend is half-Japanese, and has reported similar feelings of dislocation in both places. I commend to you, in general terms, the book "Turning Japanese" by David Mura, if you've not read it.

Jean-Jacques Auffret said...

Very interesting and living post. I really admire people ready to move to country that are so remote from their culture of origin as Japan. But in case one succeeds in escalating the language wall, the result seems to be an extraordinary mind-opener.

The counter-cultural shock is also a very interesting -- and sincere -- part.

Last, "never stopping to learn" is a motto I could not agree more with.

Unknown said...

I do thank you for a best part of your life and life’s experience you share with us.
Apparently, your mind has been influenced while watching the evening news.
What was so fascinating concerning Japan ?
The economic grows, the culture, a so different world ?
I ask you this question because your mind has been changed deeply and probably for your life.
Everything you did was oriented to live in Japan.
Nevertheless I can understand you as this culture is the most appreciated ‘as tourist’ around the world while the French ones are the worst !
I do not invent this, it is the result of a study from Expedia, a travel agency.
Hotel’s rooms are cleaner after using them, very polite, respectful, discreet, ect
Japanese people is really different from any other ones, don’t you think ?

Hoping all is fine for you after the earth break !

All the best