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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 0: How I Got There

Coming up into senior year of college, I had too many credits. Taking just the courses required for graduation would have left me with only a single class in the second semester. The school wouldn’t discount me a semester’s tuition even if I finished early, and my scholarships vanished if I dropped to part-time student status. The only option I really had was to take a class in something that sounded like fun that I could get by without putting too much effort into in case I got busy.

Japanese sounded like fun at the time, even though I had no real hope of success: all previous efforts to learn a non-English human language had failed miserably. Why’d it sound like fun? In college, I watched a ton of anime, enough that I was starting to pick up certain words and phrases simply through repetition. It was really nothing deeper than that.

What I wasn’t expecting was to really like the language. It’s tremendously elegant. With the exception of kanji, which I still object to from a language-design standpoint, it’s a flexible, compact, powerful language that any computer scientist would be proud to have designed. It’s astonishing to me that it managed to evolve naturally. In any case, that class was fun enough that I got an A in it, a first for me in a foreign-language class.

My parents noticed all this as it was happening. They had been looking for a graduation present for me, and my success with Japanese inspired them: they would pay for a plane ticket to and from Japan, with the duration of my stay determined entirely by my own ability to pay. When they first brought this up to see if it was something I’d like, they suggested that I could find a job there and stay indefinitely.

To imagine my reaction, think exclamation points. Think cold, calculating ecstasy. Here was a golden opportunity being dropped into my lap, and I was not going to waste it. The process from there was simple, with each step proceeding logically from the previous. Determine that they don’t want just-graduated gaijin programmers in Japan, but they do want ESL teachers. Locate a monthly email newsletter with current opportunities in the ESL field in Japan. Draw up a resume, and send it to everyone in the newsletter who looked interesting. Make sure my passport is current. Conduct some phone interviews, get the seal of approval from a company. Wait while they scout their locations for an opening for me.

In the end, I got a phone call coming out of a final exam two weeks before graduation. There would be a position open for me in a month in a small town in Saitama. Was I interested? I walked down the path behind the CS building in the shade of the hill the campus is built on, talking on my cell phone with the company representative, and a giant grin grew on my face.

That thing just stuck there for ages.

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