Until my recent job, I have had unimaginable good luck when it comes to having a great boss. My prior bosses weren’t just amazing — they were all female, Asian, and extremely badass. Working so closely with such amazing role models on a daily basis not only inspired me to succeed, but also made me realize what good leadership truly looks like.
Takada-San: The Ad Executive
I remember when I first met Takada-san during my interview. She had a black suit on and a stone-faced expression. She questioned all of my credentials. She was hesitant and suspicious of this foreigner from left-field being offered a high paying position at a Japanese company. As I faced her at the interview table, I could feel her ice cold stare diving head first into my soul.read more
A Slice of Life From Japan: The Japanese English Teacher (JTE) I Will Never Forget
Today, I found a memoir-like post hidden away in the depths of my hard drive. I thought this little piece perfectly conveyed what it was like to teach on the JET Program, as well as introduced some unforgettable characters all JETs are bound to meet on the journey. It’s a long post, but if you can slog through it, it perfectly summarizes my unforgettable experience working with my Japanese English Teacher (JTE).
“You have to meet Uchida-sensei,” all of the staff at the school told me repeatedly. “He’s going to be one of the English teachers you work with. Plus, I think he’s about the same age as you.”
The last sentence was always said with a wink. The whole school, faculty and students included, were hellbent on bringing myself and this Uchida person together. Although I had yet to meet him, I could already feel butterflies in my stomach. Not only was he the only teacher in the town my age—he was male, and he lived next door. Although I wanted a friend more than a relationship, I couldn’t deny the very slim potential that perhaps maybe, just maybe, we’d click.
All of those dreams went out the window when I saw him walk into the office.
“Oh Uchida-sensei,” the secretary shuffled to him. “Mary-sensei from America is here, she’ll be your assistant language teacher (ALT).”
He was on crutches. His foot was bandaged. He wore a tracksuit, which I quickly learned was regular attire for Japanese school teachers aside from the standard suit. He had long, flat hair in a conservative cut. For a Japanese man he was freakishly tall and stood a full 6”2’, towering over the other miniature Japanese faculty and students like a friendly giant trying to fit in.
We smiled and exchanged a handshake. I found out his desk was directly across from mine. He told me he was from Sado Island, one of the most remote places in Japan. He was a fresh graduate like myself with a bachelors degree in German under his belt. Although teaching German was his ultimate goal, he remarked, toward the end of university he decided to become an English teacher. I smiled and complimented his English—it was actually pretty damn good.
Later I learned that Uchida was a strange character no one really understood. He was using a crutch because he ran barefoot on black, hot tar to chase his student, which literally burned the skin off his feet. At his welcoming party he shamed the principal by drinking too much and hurling on the train, repeatedly, in front of the entire faculty.
To me, Uchida felt like a clumsy Japanese person trying to fit into a strange society that seemed to naturally reject his somewhat naturally obtuse and eccentric personality. Much like his height and size, Japan and the education system had a hard time figuring out where he belonged.
Yet he tried so hard, so endearingly hard, that I knew someday he would become an excellent teacher—the stuff stories are made of. He was soft and forgiving, a pure and natural soul from the depths of the Japanese countryside that made him lovable, yet full of fault in his untouched naiveté. Although he didn’t always fit the mold that the Japanese school wanted, his determination and persistence is what kept him going—and was what drew my respect.
Uchida’s desk was directly across from mine. In Japan, there are no cubicles or walled offices—everyone is on one team, out in the open, exposed at their desks.
Although we were working at a Junior High School, there were moments where Uchida and I acted more like adolescent teenagers than teachers. Sometimes we’d accidentally lock eyes when looking up from our desk work, to which we’d quickly break our gaze and stare the other way. At first Uchida used to give me a ride to work (since he was my neighbor), but the cat calls and taunts we got from the students on arrival at the school felt like some sort of walk of shame in which our non-existent relationship was exposed.
“When are you two going to get married?” the class clowns would shout.
While I smiled and tried to joke about my Uchida love affair, he turned beet red and shuffled to the teacher’s room as quickly as possible.
Out of respect for Uchida, and to clamp down on any sort of suspicion that we were dating, I gradually refused his noble gesture of driving me to work and walked instead.
I can never forget my first class with Uchida, because it was that bad.
I knew nothing about teaching—and neither did Uchida. We were both teaching virgins, and when we were thrown in front of 40 adolescent junior high students, we were at their complete and utter mercy.
I had no idea how to grasp the attention span of 40 children for one hour. After yelling at the students to shut up and sit down, I was finally able to start some sort of English introduction lesson—which lasted only fifteen minutes. With twenty minutes to spare, Uchida and I had no choice but to tell them to read chapter one of their English textbook in silence—which they didn’t. Instead, the Japanese version of “Uchida and Mary sitting in a tree…” ensued, and we were thoroughly humiliated.
As the classes continued and we began to understand the overall concept of keeping a child entertained via English learning, the Uchida & Mary team was born. Our silly English skits kept the students entertained, and eventually they began to view us as this young and awkward duo that, although difficult to explain why, were meant to teach together.
Uchida and I never stepped over the teacher or friend boundary, but we had a special relationship that was hard to put into words. As time passed we began to smile at each other rather than blush and look away, and gradually we learned more about each other. He loved German and spoke it fluently, but he had never been to Germany—although it was definitely a lifelong dream of his. He soon found out that I was a Japanese major and, though taboo to do in our school, began to speak Japanese to me outside of the classroom. Even today I can vividly remember all of the words he taught me:
“Mary, your Japanese is bacchiri!” he gave me a powerful thumbs up with a smile.
“Bacchiri?” I cocked my head.
“Uh… that means you’re even better than sugoi (amazing)!”
“Hey Uchida-sensei,” I asked during one of our lunch breaks. “How do you say ‘depends on’ in Japanese?”
“That’s a tough one…” he put his hand on his chin in deep concentration. “There’s ‘nani-nani shidai’ and then there’s ‘nani nani ni yoru’… it really depends on the context.”
He took out a piece of paper and began to explain these grammar concepts to me in Japanese.
“Oh I don’t want to bother you,” I smiled and waved his gesture away. “If you’re busy it’s fine, just wanted to ask.”
“Don’t worry Mary,” he smiled back. “This can be considered teaching practice.”
The longer I lived in Niigata, the more I learned about Japanese society and the more I began to withdraw further into myself. Japanese people were absolutely selfless in their actions and poured all of their efforts into upholding a society of rules and honor that literally ruled their lives.
I was baffled the teachers at my school worked until 11 PM every night.
When I discovered that many of my teachers were living alone in temporary apartments five-hours away from their families—and for three years at a time—I was at a loss for words.
In America I was taught that nothing was impossible. That family comes first. That you work to live, not live to work.
Uchida always got stuck driving me to different seminars around the area, mostly because he was the English teacher and thus it fell under his duties to chauffeur the foreigner. Still, those few moments in the car were the only times when Uchida and I were alone and we could talk openly, without the other teaching staff or students listening to our conversations. It was liberating, I could feel, for the both of us.
“You work until midnight every night!?” I shouted, alarmed.
“Yeah, there’s just so much work to do. I work on the weekends, too.”
I worked in the school and I was quite positive there was not that much work to do.
“So every weekend when I see your car gone from the apartment parking lot, you’re just at the school working?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yes, there are so many club activities and tasks to take care of. I’m truly exhausted.”
“You can’t take any vacation?”
I thought about my life in Japan, how utterly lonely it was. Although I befriended many teachers, their lives were so wound up in their work they had little to no free time for themselves—and heaven forbid they spend what precious time they had to accompany me, the foreigner, outside of the classroom. I was frustrated at the whole Japanese concept of life: living so far from family, working so hard and so long, essentially throwing away all joys of your life…
…and for what?
“Why?” I asked, frustration deep in my voice. “Why don’t you take a holiday, why don’t you take a break from your work and get a masters—or go to Germany? Isn’t going to Germany your dream? Just go, even for a month, a few weeks, a year…!! This is your chance, your life! In America I was taught that we can do anything, that life is full of opportunity and if we work hard enough we can achieve our dreams—and that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Japan was my dream, and I’m here! You can do the same!”
My burst of emotion was very un-Japanese and even Uchida looked alarmed. He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped with a sigh. After a few moments of silence, he turned my way and looked me dead in the eye with a smile.
I’ll never forget the next sentence that came out of his mouth:
“I can’t, Mary.” He spoke softly, sadly. “Unfortunately, I was born Japanese.”
I had nothing to say. I wasn’t mad, or sad, or even surprised at his short, yet concrete statement. It was like all of my frustrations and conflicts were explained with that one sentence and there was no possible way I could counter-argue it.
“As a Japanese person I have duties that are required of me. What I want doesn’t matter now,” he said firmly.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words I could mutter after my immature outburst. I was humiliated—and more than that, I felt guilty. Guilty of understanding so little about this place.
“It’s ok,” he smiled. “Anyway let’s go, we’ll be late for the meeting.”
I was extremely nervous. I hid in the hallway ten minutes prior to the most important class of Uchida’s career. The ministry of education was here to watch and assess his lesson–in other words, see if he was worth keeping as a teacher or not. A horde of government officials stood tall and harsh at the back of our English classroom, clipboards and pen in hand. I could feel my heart pounding.
“Mary,” Uchida found me. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want me to teach this class with you?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t more honest with you,” I started to ramble in my anxiety. “I should have helped you more with classes in the past, should have told you upfront that I don’t actually have an education degree. I’m sorry if I,” I paused. “If I let you down.”
“Mary, to be honest with you,” Uchida said warmly. “I’m only relaxed in the classroom when you’re there with me. When you’re by my side, I feel at ease.”
It was then I realized it. That he needed me not as a native speaker or even entertainment for the classroom. He actually needed me as a partner, as emotional support, as someone to lean on. Although we were a stupid amateur duo, we were still a team.
“Ok,” I pulled myself together with a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Uchida passed his test. He became a homeroom teacher. As the days drew on, Uchida began to receive more responsibilities and I somehow started to resemble an English teacher. During my final year at the school Uchida watched over his class like a father watches his own children. I befriended all of the students in the school and mentored children who were being bullied or suffered from domestic issues. Uchida and I finally laid down the foundations to teaching English, and our once haphazard classes were now stable, firm, and smooth.
“Will you sing with me at the English talent show?” Uchida asked me out of the blue. “I’m terrible at singing and I don’t want to do it alone.”
“Sure, that helps me out too,” I laughed. “What song?”
“A Whole New World.”
I flushed red.
Although our student’s never let us live it down, Uchida and I sang Whole New World together in front of the entire school. I’m sure few foreign teachers can put that on their resume.
On the last day of my two-year career at the junior high school, I gave a speech to my students in English and Japanese. I diligently hid the fact that I spoke Japanese from my students for two years, and when they heard me speak fluent Japanese at the podium many of them were in shock.
I choked back the tears during my speech. I could see my favorite students crying. It was an assault of emotions.
After the assembly I ran to the teacher’s break room to get a grip. I took deep, long breaths. I looked out the window to the empty school grounds, to the hot and humid blue skies of June.
“Mary,” Mrs. H, the other English teacher, came in with Uchida trailing behind and held a neatly wrapped package. “Uchida and I put some money together and got this for you.”
I carefully unwrapped the package to find an expensive, brand name travel sachel. It was in a color I often wore to work: red.
At that moment, it became too much for me. The break room was now a cloister of memories. The secretary teaching me how to make fried eggplant in the break room kitchen. The vice-principal and I nursing a cup of coffee to recover from the hangover from the previous night’s drinking party. Catching Uchida taking a nap in the lounge chair after lunch. I could hear my students laughing, the teachers shuffling around in their everyday routine to arrange classes, and the echoing halls of a school that had seen generations of students come and go. It was almost as if the school was bidding me farewell.
I began to sob. I apologized for crying in Japanese and Mrs. H told me it was ok. When I looked up I saw her crying. She was hard and stern, like a drill sergeant, so seeing her cry on my behalf was so out of character I was forever moved by the moment.
I looked up to Uchida. He looked lost, bewildered, like a deer in the headlights. He was the kind of person who never did the right thing at the right time. In his eyes I could see his emotions conflict with words to say, or not to say. Like we did two years ago, I broke the gaze in humiliation, tears in my eyes, and I let Mrs. H hold me as I cried. Uchida left the room.
It was the end of an era.
The Reality of Working as a Chinese and Japanese Interpreter
Are you considering a career as a Chinese or Japanese interpreter/translator?
Think again. And think real hard.
The Learning Process
I pulled up my collar. I strutted into the hallway, knockin’ down the door as I busted into my first interpreting class. I pulled up a chair next to the fellow Chinese students like a boss. I gave everyone a chin up, just to let them know that this little lady here could speak and read Mandarin. I just passed HSK Level 6 after only 6 months of study, and although I had lived in China for only two years I could pay my own bills, find an apartment, make friends and date the locals all without a translator. I was the shit.
Then, it happened.
I lost face.
Oh no, I didn’t just lose face… I felt like I had been shot down by multiple rounds of language bullets from the interpreting firing squad.
The instructor played the State of the Union speech by Obama and, he said, you’re not allowed to take notes. After playing the video for five minutes, he called on a Chinese student to immediately interpret said speech into Chinese.
The student interpreted it in perfect Mandarin–all without a stutter.
My jaw dropped to the floor.
The instructor resumed the video and I could feel my hands starting to sweat. If he calls on me, I’m going to crap my pants. I don’t know the word for deficit. I don’t even know how to say recession! Oh god, what’s the Chinese word for FBI??
“Ruo Lan,” the instructor read my Chinese name off the list. “Go ahead.”
I’ll save you the pathetic story of how I completely humiliated myself in front of an army of trained, Chinese assassins interpreters. Five minutes of Obama’s state of the union speech turned into, “Uh, America is great?” followed by my total loss of dignity.
And despite my efforts, I continued to lose face day, after day, after day. This is how I bonded with the other two foreigners in the class, and how we quickly became drinking buddies as we commiserated about our craptastic classroom performance. They both had degrees in Chinese–one even had a Masters in Chinese language, and was shooting for Master Degree number two. Yet we still lost, and lost hard, to the local students.
High-Pressure, Delicate Situations
After dropping out of my Mandarin interpreting program, I was instantly called upon to work as a Japanese interpreter for an advertising agency. You’d think that my traumatizing experience in class would send the message across that, perhaps, I wasn’t meant for this high pressure job–but I took the offer anyway. It was good money at a prestigious company and I was much more confident in my Japanese than Chinese. I’m sure it would be fine.
“Mary,” my CEO told me in Japanese as we faced three other British CEOs at a long conference table. “Tell him he can go to hell.”
Our negotiations to form a fair and stable agreement with our western partners was not going well.
“He thinks that would be disadvantageous for us,” I replied as my CEO’s response. I tried to be diplomatic, but I think my CEO’s expression conveyed his real feelings across the table.
Learning to deal with wild cards (like above) when interpreting was difficult, but by far the most stressful aspect of these long meetings was getting it right. Not forgetting words. Understanding everything.
Basically, think of interpreting as public speaking–but with a wrong answer. As with my case, if I misinterpreted something from my boss or the client, it would not only endanger the relationship between these two parties but also cost my company thousands (or even millions) of dollars.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
Interpreting Work is HARD
Many people think that being “fluent” in a language means becoming an interpreter or translator is a logical next step in terms of career.
While translation is a skill that can be honed with practice and hard work, interpreting requires the inherent ability to make split-fast decisions at the drop of a pin. Interpreting is instant word recollection, sentence composition and damage control (which you need if you forget how to say a word/phrase) all balled up into a one second decision making process. It’s not easy.
So no, being fluent (even extremely fluent) in a language does not mean you automatically qualify for interpreter status.
Qualifying for interpreter status means thinking fast on your feet. Real fast.
The Perks of Interpreting
Interpreting is not all doom and gloom. Despite my initial struggles as a Japanese interpreter, as I became more familiar with my industry (and also the specialized words) the clients and staff, I started to thoroughly enjoy my work. Being an interpreter rocks because…
Interpreting is stimulating. Everyday your abilities are tested and there are constant challenges. Basically, you’re never bored. To prep for your interpreting you’re constantly learning new words (and thus new material and information), which actually makes interpreters very well-rounded and knowledgeable people.
I was escorted to the conference table sporting my best black blazer, pencil skirt and pallet of make-up. The receptionist handed me an ice-cold bottle of water and nodded curtly, “the manager will be with you shortly.” She smiled warmly before exiting the room and gently closing the door.
I planted my elbows on the table, folded my hands and took a wide, but tall and defiant posture. I listened to a TED talk once about how body language alone can make or break your chance of getting hired. Retreating inwards and folding your arms and legs make a candidate look timid; however, sitting tall, lifting your neck, holding up your shoulders and puffing out your chest denotes confidence. I was going for the latter look.
Three women strutted into the office with a polite but tired smile. I must have been the third or fourth interview of the day. I stood up to shake their hand firmly and make a strong impression.
This was my eighth interview in one month since returning to the United States.
“We’re extremely impressed with your resume and your,” the woman coughed before continuing, “experience abroad.”
In other words, they thought I was goofing around in Asia getting drunk and teaching English.
“Yes, your language skills are most impressive,” the woman peered at my resume before making eye contact with me again. “But I must admit while having language skills is useful here, it’s not actually mandatory.”
Another way of putting it: we can hire someone without your language skills and get away with paying them less.
I talked up my other skills beside language. I worked in public relations. I had a degree in writing with experience to boot. I was in consulting with the big dogs, and I was capable of in-depth analysis and report writing.
Yet they were not convinced, and again I was not hired.
I was fluent in Chinese and Japanese with relevant and professional experience from overseas, yet employers in America did not want me. The only companies that appreciated my skills were Japanese (and we all know how that turned out).
Even a very famous Japanese game company (let’s just say they make Final Fantasy) offered me a job as a translator–but when I saw the pay, I was aghast. It was almost equivalent to minimum wage.
College continually shoved the lie down my throat that a foreign language would secure me a job. Going abroad and getting international experience, many counselors recommended, would make me a highly desirable candidate to employers.
Yet no one was hiring me.
Can Foreign Language Skills, Specifically Chinese and Japanese, Really Get You A Job?read more
I wish I could say that I did something cool, like randomly bought a one way ticket to Iceland and partied in Reykjavik for 30 days straight–but alas, my life is not that exciting. The last month was mostly sucked up by a web design class that taught me little, but did force me to build a website (I actually constructed a website for the boyfriend that should be up soon). I also spruced up The Ruby Ronin a bit in hopes that it will inspire and motivate me to write on a regular basis.
Like one of my favorite bloggers Rosie mentioned on her recent post, when you fall into monotony it’s hard to find inspiration to write. That’s exactly where I was–but I hope it will not happen again. I apologize, my readers.
Anyway, this post isn’t about the broken state I’ve been in for the last month–it’s about change.
After one year of living in the states, I’ve not only noticed differences in my new American surroundings, but also in myself.
Thanks to my life abroad, I can now…
1. Stand up for myself (thanks, China!)
In America we smile, say hello, ask how your day is and mind our manners by saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” In fact, almost all pleasantries end with the sentence: “Have a wonderful day.”
Pff, yeah right.
When meek Mary first went to China, she was kicked and tossed around like the newb foreigner she was.
My ‘please’ and ‘thank yous’ in Chinese were met with a grunt and a snort. When Chinese people cut in front of me in line, I sulked and let them butt in. When the taxi driver took the scenic route to up the meter, I merely paid the extra fee with a tear in my eye. The Chinese knew my weakness, and exploit it they did.
Chinese people are highly aggressive. Unless you put your foot down and stick up for yourself, they are not afraid to nickel and dime you. If you don’t persistently demand for your rights in China, then you simply won’t get any. Teary eyed Mary learned how to fight with the cab driver, she got the courage to tell the lady cutting in line to scram, and she even learned how to barter for discounts on fruits, vegetables, and her cell phone bill.
So now in America, instead of letting the server get away with charging gratuity when it clearly wasn’t stated–I get mad. I shove the bill in their face and say, “What the hell is this?”
Before, I would have waved the problem away and said it wasn’t worth the fight.
But China taught me that if you let people step all over you, then you’ll be at the service of others and never yourself.
2. Be More Considerate (thanks, Japan!)
When it comes to manners, Japan reigns supreme.
Although no one in Japan taught me how to be hospitable, I caught myself copying the Japanese without even thinking.
Always prepare a snack, tea or beverage when guests come over. If food is served, spoon out and distribute rice and other dishes immediately for the guests. If your friend/colleague’s beer or wine glass if empty, fill it up. When grabbing food from a communal dish, use the back end of your chopsticks (it’s more sanitary and polite). When in an elevator, push the ‘open’ button to let everyone else out first. After eating a meal at someone’s home, clean up (even if they insist you don’t have to).
In Japanese, there’s a phrase called “omotenashi“… which basically means: damn good hospitality. No one else is as considerate as the Japanese. They can read your mind. They know what you want.
Now that I’m in the U.S., I still find myself practicing these habits (and more) that I picked up in Japan–and I’m glad I did. It always pays to be kind and considerate.
3. Improvise in Any Situation
When you travel frequently, you have to be quick on your toes. Trains to the airport booked solid? Try a taxi. Rainy day ruin your tour to the temple? Find a show or museum to go see in the city instead. Can’t read the medication you need to buy? Call a local friend, or use your dictionary and limited English to work with the pharmacist at hand.
My ability to improvise has proved to be a golden asset here in the states. I can usually handle any curve ball thrown at me, mostly because living in a foreign country was like being hit with twenty curve balls on a daily basis. Whether it’s going to the doctor, paying your phone bill, or finding a new apartment–everything is a challenge where improvisation is almost always needed.
4. Learn to be at Peace with Solitude
When I moved to middle-of-nowhere Japan at the tender age of 22, I lived alone in a large apartment surrounded by rice fields, spiders, cockroaches and crickets that roared (yes, roared) through the night.
It was my first time living alone, and I was deathly afraid.
The loneliness I endured in Japan was tough. I was the only foreigner in my village, with my closest western connection being a McDonalds that was 2 hours away by train. I came to Japan with no friends. I spent many nights and weekends with only myself for company.
Yet I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because it made me one tough bitch. Once lonely and self-conscious Mary is now able to waltz into a bar solo, take a spot in front of the cute bartender and chat it up in Japanese. I’m now comfortable going to a restaurant alone, with nothing but myself and a book.
More importantly, I was able to travel solo and discover who I am, grow as a person, and become an independent and confident individual.
5. Be Open and Compassionate
Moving to a new country feels much like being a puppy lost on the streets of Manhattan. It’s a big world, there’s people out there to get you, and nothing is familiar. It’s pretty damn scary.
So now that I’m back in the states, I try to help out those from other countries so that they can settle into this big, scary place called America (cause god knows it still scares me).
I can’t even count the number of kind souls that helped me out in China, Japan, and all of my travels. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience alive.
While I don’t live in China and Japan anymore, or even travel half as frequently as I used to, the experiences from these places have forever changed me for the better.
As a Japanese/Chinese interpreter and translator, it’s a question I get asked a lot.
Those that are crazy or masochistic enough to venture into the realm of Asian languages often stop and pause when it comes to choosing from the two giants of the East Asian languages: Japanese and Mandarin.
Choosing a language is important. Gaining fluency will take you hours, months, and perhaps years of your life. It’s not something to take lightly and, if used for future work purposes, is definitely worth consideration.
Here are some important questions to answer when choosing Japanese or Chinese:
Which Language is More Difficult?
Chinese is easier than Japanese.
While Japanese and Chinese both use those crazy ‘kanji’ (hanzi) characters, Japanese poses a tougher challenge with its multiple readings for each and every character.
Chinese characters (usually) only have one reading, while Japanese characters have multiple readings.
Let’s take the character 明, which means bright in both languages.
In Chinese, 明 is read as ‘ming‘.’ That’s it. Even if it’s paired with other characters, such as the word tomorrow 明天 (ming2 tian1), it’s still read as ‘ming.’
In Japanese, this character can be read as ‘aka,’ such as in the word 明るい (akarui), which means bright. It can also be read as ‘ake,’ like in the word 明け方 (dawn). Yet again, the reading changes when we pair it with another character 明朗 (cheerful), where the character is read as ‘mei.’
For that one character in Japanese, we already have to memorize not one, not two, but three readings (and total, there are 13 readings for this one character alone). You can read more on here in regard to the history of why Japanese is so stupid complicated when it comes to reading Chinese characters.
On top of hard characters, Japanese has extremely complex grammar. In order to process Japanese grammar, you’ll have to rewire your entire brain to learn a whole new way to communicate. Chinese, on the other hand, has a very simple grammar system that is somewhat similar to English.
Japanese also has a far more complex set of words and grammar principles for polite and humble speaking forms. Learning to speak keigo, or honorific Japanese, is almost like learning a new language entirely.
Gaining proper fluency in Japanese is a lot of work. While neither language is ‘easy,’ Japanese has far more hurdles to overcome.
What Language is Harder to Pronounce?
The most difficult part of Chinese is, without a doubt, the tones.
It’s a unique linguistic trait that is non present in English or Japanese. While tones may be intimidating for some learners, dedicated practice with a native speaker will make you a pro in no time. I found the tones to be more of a fun challenge than an impossible obstacle.
Still, it’s not easy. I am not exaggerating when I say my first two months of Chinese language study were learning tones—and that’s it.
Japanese pronunciation is, actually, quite easy. Japanese is so easy to pronounce, it can make the language seem deceptively simple—but trust me, it’s not.
Which Language is More Useful?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each language:
The Pros & Cons of Chinese
Pro: Chinese is the most widely spoken language on Earth. More than English. If you speak English and Chinese, you will be able to communicate with a vast majority of the world (throw Spanish in, and you’re gold).
That makes Chinese pretty darn useful, eh?
Con: The abundance of Chinese people have created a fierce amount of competition in the mainland. In order to get ahead and win the money race, many Chinese parents have made English fluency a priority for their children. Thus, much of China’s youth have quite a good handle on English and speak it fluently. Believe it or not, more than 60% of international students at U.S. colleges are Chinese. That means on U.S. campuses alone, one out of every three international students is Chinese (and they most likely speak English better than we speak Chinese).
And what does this mean if you’re trying to work as a translator or sell your skills as a Chinese speaker?
Well, it means you’re competing with hard-working, English speaking, young Chinese people that are willing to work for half of your salary.
My second featured guest for the bi-weekly MyAsia Monday post is none other than my boyfriend, Richard. After laboring through four long years of med school, he’s currently a resident doctor at a local hospital. While he may be a doctor in title, he is actually a traveler at heart. During his last year of med school, he volunteered to work in India and Thailand on an exchange program with his school for his first foray into the land of Asia.
I always write about the far east (and sometimes southeast) Asia. For a change, however, I would like to write about a country in Asia that hardly gets any light on this blog: India. My boyfriend is absolutely in love with India, and his visit there only deepened the connection. I asked Richard if he could share his experiences in India as a doctor on the blog, and he jumped at the chance to post on here gratefully accepted 😉
First off, give us a little background about yourself (aside from the fact we’re dating):
I was blessed to have grown up all around the world. I lived in China, Scotland, England and Canada, which has given me a different perspective compared to most Americans on world events and life outlook. When I went to school in undergrad, my original interest was in computers so I double majored in electrical engineering and molecular cell biology. Looking back, I was probably headed to a traditional 8-5 job in tech or medicine until I went backpacking through Europe for a month with my friend from high school. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to design my career around a lifestyle of travel.
How did you get into medicine, what do you enjoy about it and what do you find frustrating?
It was a combination of parental pressure (my parents didn’t think a career in tech is stable enough), a tough job market when I graduated from undergrad in 2009, and a desire to work in some form in public health.
Medicine is, overall, a rewarding profession. It offers lots of avenues for personal and professional growth. Of course, seeing patients is the mainstay of the job and incredibly satisfying overall, but doctors these days can go into pharmaceutical companies, academic research, global public health, and even business/consulting. The biggest frustration is all the paperwork and dictates from the government. They’re really making it hard to practice pure medicine. I like to say that we spend half of our time documenting our work rather than seeing patients.
Appreciative patients can really make your day, but it’s definitely a negative when they’re unreasonable, demanding, or difficult. We’re all really trying to do our best and that kind of behavior makes our work harder. Another negative is the incredible sacrifices doctors have to make. They literally spend their best years (mid-20s) stuck in the basement of a library, work 60-80 hour weeks during and after training, graduating with $200k+ in debt but still face public accusations of making too much money. At the same time, we see our peers (and even juniors) from undergrad who rake in the actual big bucks in Silicon Valley or Wall Street.
My medical school (University of Minnesota) has partnerships with various hospitals and universities around the world that sponsor exchange trips to these places. They even subsidize part of the trip and give course credit for the experience! Normally the trips are 4-6 weeks in duration, but I signed up for two back-to-back trips to Thailand and India in advance (they’re close to each other).
As for why I chose India, aside from it having a partnership with my university, I have to say it’s due to the incredible diversity. I’ve always thought of India as a magical place quite different from the west. I wanted to see rare tropical diseases, eat incredible food, and see the amazing sights. It’s also incredibly affordable, which is an important point for a poor medical student.
So tell us about where you worked in India, what was the village like?
I worked in a large university hospital in Bangalore, India. You may know it as the IT capital, where a lot of outsourcing and consulting firms are based. I also spent some time in nearby rural community clinics.
How was the hospital, what did you do there? What were some of the main health concerns in India?
Health care is very different in India. There are so many patients to see and so few doctors that they’ve had to make compromises. There are no appointments to see doctors. Instead, everyone takes a ticket and sits in the large open waiting area. Each visit is of variable duration. As soon as they’re done, they kick you out of the room to make way for the next patient. The approach is very patriarchal. You the patient are told very bluntly what to do and what medicines to take. The doctor doesn’t hold your hand and explain the disease process as much as in America. They just don’t have the same emphasis on the “bond” with your physician. After all, doctors in India see 50-some patients in a single morning, compared to 10-14 in the US. As a result, each visit takes about 1-2 minutes.
The same goes for hospitalized patients. Wards are actually open wards with large hallways and beds side by side, separated from each other with a curtain. Patients have the option of paying extra for a private room. They take it well though, and accept the arrangement as a necessity to keep costs low. There’s not nearly as much VIP-ism as in America.
People in India are like people anywhere else. They have the same aches, pains, and complaints. Overall, I’d say there are a lot more people with advanced infectious diseases, which is in part due to poor sanitation, the tropical environment, and a tendency for people to delay care, in which those infections can fester for much longer. In the US, we tend to see the doctor at the earliest bump or bruise. Not so in India.
Any big shockers you experienced while working at the hospital?
Tuberculosis! It’s so easy to transmit this chronic bacterial infection just from coughing. In the west, even if someone tests positive for a previous exposure to tuberculosis (latent TB), they’re treated as a medical emergency and are put on long-term eradication meds. In U.S. hospitals, someone with active TB is put in isolation, and all health care personnel have to put on heavy-duty masks. Nurses really freak out almost as much as for someone with Ebola.
In India, they have open air clinics for TB patients. The doctor will sit calmly in front of a coughing patient without a mask. They don’t even have the concept of latent TB because in their words, “everyone has TB already”. Only those who develop severe disease are even considered for treatment.
Tell us about a fun memory you had there, something that has stayed with you.read more
The clock struck 5—it was officially time to head home and call it a day at the office.
Yet no one was leaving.
Japanese companies worry about local staff pressing legal charges for unpaid overtime in the U.S., so they order us to clock out at 5 p.m. Of course, I wasn’t complaining.
So just like I do everyday, I shut off my computer, grabbed my purse, bowed and announced to the office:
“O saki ni shitsureishimasu” (I humbly apologize for leaving early).
To which they instantaneously replied,
“Otsukaresamadeshita” (We know you are tired, thank you for all your hard work).
After my leave, my Japanese co-workers don’t stay 10, or even 30 minutes later—they don’t head out of the office until 10 or 11 p.m. in the evening.
For the past six years I have humbly excused myself from the office, drenched in guilt that I’m leaving hours earlier than my colleagues–yet also in wonder at how on Earth they could stay so long with so little work to do.
Today, however, it will finally come to an end.
I’m quitting my job with the Japanese government and going to work for an American university. As of today, I officially vow to never work for a Japanese company again.
I have been in love with Japan since childhood. I watched the anime, played the video games, drowned myself in its samurai history—I was crazy about the place. I self-taught myself Japanese in high school and continued my study of the language deep into university. It was my dream to live in Japan someday, and I knew with my cultural and language skills I could land a job at a big company like Toyota. Although I heard horror stories of overwork and discrimination at Japanese companies from fellow friends, I was confident I could be the exception. I knew I could make it in a Japanese world.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the reality of working at a Japanese company.
Perhaps you speak fluent Japanese and are wondering just what in god’s name you’re going to do with the skill. Maybe you’re dying to live in the land of anime and robots, so you cross the pacific and look for work in the motherland. Perhaps you’re just super unlucky and end up working at a Japanese company by fluke accident.
Whatever your reason may be, before you start a career with Japan you need to know what working with the Japanese is really like.
Ungodly Amounts of Overtime
In Japan it’s very normal to work late into the wee hours, no matter the industry. Employees often work 14 hour days, with one Japanese man confessing that he put in over 100 hours of overtime into his job—each month. In the rare auld times (the flourishing era of the 80’s and 90s) this overtime was actually paid, but now they just call it ‘service zangyou,’ or unpaid overtime. Basically, employees clock out at 5 p.m., but stay until midnight because it’s bad etiquette to leave before your superior.
They stay to keep the ‘wa,’ or harmony of the office. Japan is a very collective society, so they like to stick together and work as a team. Leaving before your superior, or even your senpai (seniors aka people that worked there longer/are older than you), is awkward.
I mean, if Tanaka-san leaves at 5 pm everyday but everyone else works until 10, then Tanaka-san is, essentially, a selfish bastard and doesn’t care about his fellow man. Screw Tanaka-san.
The only one who can get away with leaving early is the foreign English teacher, because s/he’s not a “real” member of the team—but that’s a story for another day.
Productivity Doesn’t Matter, so Don’t Work so Hard
The truth? There actually isn’t enough work to do until midnight. Since Japanese employees have to keep the wa and resign to their fate of working until the wee hours, employees usually spread their tasks out throughout the day and work at a snail’s pace. It’s not unusual for the Japanese to take 1-2 hours to send an e-mail or spend a week creating a simple powerpoint presentation. It’s no wonder, then, that Japan’s labor productivity is only 61% of the United States.
Plus, Japan isn’t merit based so even if you work hard and produce results you won’t be rewarded. Raises and promotions only happen through hierarchy and commitment to the company—in other words, you’ll get a real raise after you work there for 10-20 years. This is why Japanese employees seldom switch companies and often spend their entire life working at the same organization.
Big Bonuses and Job Security
Working 14 hours a day, staying late at the job for absolutely no reason and not being rewarded for your hard work? I know, sounds awful—but it’s not ALL bad.
At a Japanese company, you will most likely never be fired. Even if you suck at your job and spend half your shift sleeping on the desk, you’re still part of the big company family and papa company is going to take care of you. The retention rate at Japanese companies is much higher than other developed countries; however, the few employees that are fired by their company take it really hard; like, suicide hard. In Japan, getting fired is akin to being disowned by your parents—and since you spent your entire life working for the same company, it’s hard to jump ship and be rehired elsewhere. Sadly, for many salarymen in Japan, life ends with the pink slip.
The Japanese bonus is also a nice perk. If you google Japanese salaries, you may be alarmed at just how low they are. The average 35 year old male only makes 3,500,000 JPY annually (that’s about 30k USD with current exchange rate), and while living in Tokyo isn’t actually that expensive, salaries are still far below their American counterparts (about 45k annually, which feels like BS cause few of my friends are actually making this much, but anyway..). Women are even worse off in Japan: a 35 year old Japanese woman earns much below her male counterpart at 2,900,000 JPY annually (that’s about 25k USD at current exchange rate), so just being a woman will automatically give you a pay cut–but hey, but that’s also another topic entirely.
Anyway, the bonus makes all the difference. The average Japanese employee receives two bonuses a year (one in January and one in June) that, combined, can be worth half a year’s worth of salary. Many of my Japanese colleagues have admitted to me that, without their bi-annual bonus, they would not be able to make ends meet. Sadly, with Japan’s ongoing economic recessions, these bonuses are shrinking by the year.
The foreign English teacher, by the way, does not usually receive this bonus.
Don’t Take Paid Leave—Even if You’re Sick
My fellow colleague came into the office wearing a mask. He had no voice, was shaking with fever and could only communicate in short wheezes and coughs—but he wanted to prove to his colleagues and superior that he was dedicated to his job.
He was definitely too ill to work.
Later that day, he went to the hospital on his lunch break and got an IV transfusion. He returned to work two hours later and stayed until eleven in the evening.
And not surprisingly, the next day my American colleague and I were infected with his very same virus.
Yet it was worth it, because he proved to his boss and the rest of us he was serious about his job—or something.
Basically, Japanese people don’t use their paid or sick leave. Ever.
Even Prime Minister Abe is begging the Japanese public take a break from their crazy work schedule,read more
This isn’t a post about how great I am at languages. I’m not like some jerk on the internet claiming to achieve fluency in three months.
This is a post about the blood, sweat and tears I spent to learn Chinese.
I never thought I would learn how to speak Chinese: The tones, the characters, and the proverbs were frustrating. The task of learning Mandarin was daunting and overwhelming–and honestly, there were many moments I thought I was just not meant to learn this language.
Yet somehow, I did it. I learned Chinese in less than a year.
I believe with dedication, hard work and these seven steps, anyone can learn any language in six months.
Step 1. Move to China (for six months at least)
Yup. Pack your bags and go.
Undoubtedly, this is the most vital step.
For some, the first step may seem both emotionally and financially impossible–but trust me, if poor Mary from Utah can do it, anyone can.
I’m sure you could learn Chinese in your home country, but it would take you twice as long. Being in China not only gives you complete immersion, but it also puts your textbook smarts to use in real life situations.
I’m not rich. I don’t have rich parents and I definitely didn’t have a sugar daddy to pay for my tuition. I learned Chinese in six months because I had to—I didn’t have enough money to stay longer (honestly, a year would have been nice!).
But in my opinion, six consecutive hours of Chinese class everyday, from a trained professional, is worth the money.
On the bright side, China is (comparatively) cheap. Although I never had the joy of studying abroad in Japan due to exorbitant costs, China helped me realize my dreams of overseas learning through its affordable tuition and room and board.
As of today, tuition for 5 months of Chinese language study at China’s #1 rated university, Tsinghua University, is 12,000 RMB (2,000 USD) with a single dorm (a/c, internet/cable included) costing you 13 USD a day. For 5 months at Tsinghua, tuition and housing included, you can learn Chinese at the best University in China for less than 5,000 USD a semester (way, way cheaper than Japan).
Instead of hit the club with your foreign friends after class, hit your textbooks or see a Chinese movie in theaters with the locals. It’s going to be difficult exhausting restraint and making the books over booze decision, but unfortunately getting drunk all night and being hungover during class doesn’t equal to fluency.
No doesn’t mean never—just keep partying to a minimum. Instead, use that well saved party money to…
While Americans think nothing can top life in the states (why would anyone move abroad?!), I would like to list some reasons why Japan still tempts me to drop everything here and run back to its loving, but poisonous embrace.
The Convenience Store
The first thing I do when I go back to Japan is run to 7-11 or Family Mart, fall to the linoleum floor and sob with joy as that familiar door jingle rings through my ears and welcomes me home.
For those who have never been to Japan, you may think: “it’s just a 7-11.”
No, my friends. It’s far more than just a 7-11. It’s a joyous wonderland of food, beverage, entertainment and convenience all wrapped up into one little store.
At the convenience store in Japan you can literally do everything. To be honest, I don’t even know why other establishments even exist because the convenience store has it all.
The conbini (short for convenient store) in Japan has an ATM that accepts most of the world’s major debt/credit cards, performs domestic and international shipping and mailing, offers ticketing and vendor services and has full-blown printing services.
Oh yes, did I mention all of this can be done 24/7?
Aside from the services listed above, the offerings at 7-11 are immense. New onigiri (rice ball) flavors are offered on a daily basis, with bentos galore, dozens of attractive and unusual drinks at your beckoning, and fresh servings of oden and fried chicken at the cashier to go with your ‘limited time’ seasonal beer. If you happen to need hosiery, underwear, toiletries, books, magazines, batteries—you name it, the conbini has it.
This one is only 920 kcalories…
The Dark Side: Prepare to get fat. Those seemingly “healthy” bentos will beef you up in no time. Think that box of fish and rice is healthy? Take another look at the 1,000 calorie sticker slapped on there. All those tall beers and wasabi flavored chips you eat with it don’t help, either Constraint within the conbini is difficult—or damn near impossible.
All the Food is Amazing
I know. This sounds extremely one-sided and subjective, but it’s actually a fact.
I dare you—no, I triple dare you—to find a bad meal in Japan. It just doesn’t exist.
The Japanese people take pride in what they do, and food is definitely a high priority on that list. No meal is ever half-assed in Japan. Hell, even Japanese McDonalds blows its USA counterpart out of the water in terms of quality and taste. The freshness of the rice, the fish, the vegetables; the cut of the meat, the marble of fat on the beef, the temperature of your hands when preparing fish—these may all seem like minor details to the American eye, but it’s these key components that the Japanese focus on which makes their food so damn delicious.
The Dark Side: While it’s all good, Japanese food can get old. You can only eat so much sushi, noodles, and rice. After a few Japanese meals, you’re going to start craving exotic Thai curries or even a big stack of waffles. Although Japanese food isn’t bland, it definitely doesn’t take the gold when it comes to variety.
Ok, there is some crime. But for the most part, Japan is one of, if not the safest place on Earth.
In Los Angeles? Yeah, there have been a few freeway shootings in my neighborhood. Go home after 9? Maybe if I want to get raped and killed on the train.
America. Come on.
The Dark Side: Nothing. There is no down side to being safe.
Best Public Transportation in the World
I did not live in a big city when I resided in Japan. I lived in Nou, a small village with 10,000 people. I lived in the absolute boondocks surrounded by the sea, the mountains, and pretty much nothing else.
Yet I didn’t buy a car, nor did I have a need for one.
Even in a town with such sparse population, there was an extensive bus system and a railway. While the buses weren’t many, they still got me to and from a remote elementary school in the mountains, a seaside junior high school and back to my apartment.
Plus, I was only a two-hour train ride form Tokyo.
Just think about it: In Japan, you can go ANYWHERE by train. Anywhere. Even Nou.
I can’t even get to the nearest grocery store in America without the aid of a car.
This makes not only travel for visitors easier, but it also cuts down immensely on costs for residents by eliminating the need for a car.
The Dark Side: Bullet trains aint cheap. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto can run you 150 bucks. That’s like a plane ticket. Still, I think it’s worth it.
Before I moved to Japan, I kind of knew from movies and anime that Japanese people like to take baths. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and didn’t think too much on it; I mean, some people in the states take baths, too.
Then I realized that Japanese people don’t just like to take baths.
It’s a vital, necessary function of their day.
No Japanese person in their right mind goes to sleep without a dip in the tub. It’s like the ritualistic end to their day. Work, home, dinner, bath. That’s the dream.
My Japanese apartment came with a tub that looked like a giant boiling pot, like this:
In America we like to stretch our legs out and recline in the bath, but in Japan the baths are ‘deep’ and allow for total submersion of the body. Unlike the shallow baths in the States where you’re lucky if the water goes up to your ass and actually runs hot the entire time, the Japanese baths come with a control panel that remotely manages the temperature of the water in addition to a tub so deep, it covers you up neck to toe.
Needless to say, I became a bath addict. I converted into a bath-before-bed girl, and oh how I miss the loving embrace of that deep-dish tub.
Japanese people also make the bath an all-day activity by visiting their local ‘hot spring’ (onsen). Whether you want to bathe at home—or even better, in a public, natural spring with a bunch of strangers—Japan is your bath destination.
The Dark Side: While the bath is most commonly used to ‘wash away fatigue,’ it’s also used as a substitution for central heating. Believe it or not, Japanese houses are not equipped with central heating and they are C-O-L-D in winter. If you don’t take a bath, you might just freeze to death.
A place with Roman-esque baths, convenient transportation and a one-stop-destination called 7-11 where I can pay the bills, print out vacation photos, buy tickets to the concert next week all while getting dinner!?