Senpai Success Story #5: “It’s ok to fail; it’s not ok to give up!” – by Amanda

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

As I sat down to write this, this came to mind: Life is literally a collection of lessons, and what we decide to do with them is up to us. This qualifies every experience I’ve had and the ones yet to come. However I’d like to add that just because they weren’t your lessons doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them and I’ll gladly share my own lessons with you. 

It’s perfectly ok to fail

My sophomore year, I can positively say I was an awful student. I did my work sometimes; I tried to wing it in class to mixed results; I wasn’t particularly concerned about learning kanji. To be fair, I was working six days a week as a waitress after class. Often times after returning from work I was too tired (mentally and physically) to do much of anything. However when I quit (it’s also ok to walk away from toxic jobs) I was able to devote much needed time to catching up to where I needed to be to pass the class. Play money is nice but you are paying for school, there’s no need to fall behind in your classes because of your job. School comes first!

The next hang up wouldn’t arise until I studied at JCMU (Japan Center for Michigan Universities) the Winter Semester of 2016. Originally, I had passed with high enough marks to make it to Level 3, the class that continued where I had left off in Tobira. However, this victory would be extremely short lived as I realized I couldn’t keep up with the pace after a mere two days. With tears in my eyes, I asked to be moved down to Level 2, repeating my sophomore year. 

This was a blessing in disguise. The workload was significantly lighter as I remembered a good portion of the grammar points for each chapter, making my homework all that much quicker. This ‘edge’ left me with extra time that I filled by sitting at my desk, filling page upon page of box paper, relearning kanji. I also devoted time to my internship where I taught English to elementary students every Tuesday. My weekends consisted of exploring towns large and small without the help of a phone. (If you get too lost, just run into a コンビニ (convenience store) and ask where the nearest station is. They have maps behind the counter.)

When I returned to the States, one last challenge awaited me before graduation: my internship. My senpai from way back in my second year worked for HIROTEC AMERICA and insisted that I apply. I was extremely apprehensive to do so; my Japanese was serviceable for everyday conversations, iffy in a business setting. After threats of driving to my house -roughly an hour away- and yelling at me for squandering the opportunity, I scheduled my interview two hours before the start of my classes. After an interview where I had to prove I not only had a grasp of the language but was also willing to learn so much more, I got the call about a week later while I was in class. My supervisor and senpai, Kasia, was adamant I gain experience before settling on a career choice. And boy am I glad she did as this internship not only taught me about Japanese companies but also about myself. Tasked with translating a speech, I would read and reread the same one day in and day out. In fact, parts of that speech are still burned into my memory. Much to my dismay, the 7 page document was only roughly translated by the time my internship was up but with it came a lesson: translation is not easy work. The experience left me with new found respect for professional translators but did not scare me away from continuing my own studies.

The importance of self-awareness and goals 

After HIROTEC AMERICA, I graduated from Oakland University with a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese Language and Literature with a minor in Sociology. My parents pushed me to pursue a graduate degree but I took a gap year. I decided that I wouldn’t waste time just enjoying not being in school anymore, instead I worked during the day and studied Japanese on my own at night. My goal to pass the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) was achieved that December, freeing me to focus on studying for the Math portion of the Graduate Record Examination. Both of these were achieved by setting goals and knowing how I study best. First, I work better at night; it’s quiet and the sun isn’t there to shine directly in my eye. Secondly, in order for me to remember readings, stroke order, etc. I need repetition. Writing kanji -音読み and 訓読み- and then kanji combinations where those readings are used helped immensely. Occasionally, I would work out directly before sitting down to study. Besides being a healthy lifestyle, I felt that it helped me focus. Lastly, studying needs to be followed by sleep, nap or otherwise. 

 As for goals, all goals need to have exact dates. Simply saying that you’ll finish a book in the month of July, for example, isn’t specific enough. The more nebulous the time frame, the more likely you are to slack off. Additionally, keep track of your progress by giving it a physical representation. I use an old-fashion wall calendar because I know I’m awful updating the calendar on my phone or computer. There were follies with that too. At first, I was planning my days (i.e. September 26th, Chapter 4 review) but quickly started ignoring it after a week and a half. What works for me now is getting to whatever I get to in a day and marking what I’ve done on my calendar. This can also been a great tool for tracking how much time you’ve been devoting to studying as well as seeing how far you’ve come. This is just one method, what works for me might not work for you; and that’s ok. Remember: it’s ok to fail! It’s not ok to give up.  

Compare (within reason)

Lastly, I want to leave you with something I still struggle with to this day. Going into language isn’t the easiest thing to do in the world and, accordingly, we judge ourselves harder than we need to. When first starting out, don’t look at your senpais and wonder how easy it is for them to read or speak like I did. I can answer that simply: they studied. A lot. Hours and hours of practice. Mystery solved. When I first started, I had the hardest time saying ~くなかった. It rolls off the tongue now but believe me when I say I practiced saying it for days until I got it. 

In short, comparing is like walking a tight rope and on either side is an endless pit. Don’t put yourself in a bad headspace comparing yourself to others, focus on yourself instead. If it seems easier for someone else or you feel like you’re falling behind, take a step back and a deep breath. This is you realizing you have more work to go. Those are the people who you should ask for help, start a study group. You’ll most likely learn some new tips or end up borrowing different textbooks from your cohorts.

What am I up to now?

Currently, I’m a paralegal and a graduate student. Although I don’t get to use Japanese at work, I still get to help people so I’m happy. My major is International Relations with the post-graduation goal of working for the State Department, more specifically the American Center in either Osaka or Nagoya. Unsurprisingly, I still study on my own. Even though it sounds boring, I love sitting at table and studying. It’s relaxing in a way. My textbooks live on my dining table and desk. I even have workbooks at my desk at work so I can practice when I have down time. Outside of the traditional rout method of learning kanji, I play a lot of video games, read manga and short novels in Japanese. When I can’t sleep, I study vocab on Memrise and browse posts on Hellotalk. Even though I’m completely tone deaf, I like to learn songs that not only push me to speak -sing- faster but also understand phrases that don’t necessarily follow the rules taught in books. Lastly, for my goals I’m keeping the list extremely short. Since the JLPT is given the first Sunday of December, I want to take the N2 December 1st, 2019. Secondly, I want to feel prepared for the test by November 3rd, the last first Sunday before the test. 

Japanese is one of the many subjects that no matter how good you get at it, there’s always more to learn. Some may find the thought extremely pessimistic but I find it to be one of the most hopeful thoughts. I know I’m never going to have all the answers, which is actually a relief. I believe that life would be infinitely duller if we weren’t always learning something new. 

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