My story, part two

I had three dreams to chase after

A TV miniseries changed my life. When I graduated from college with a BA in French, I was planning to return to Oregon, earn a teaching certificate, and teach French to high school students in my home state. What changed my mind was remembering something I watched on TV back when I was in junior high school (also called middle school). It was called Shogun. Starring Richard Chamberlin, and based on a novel by James Clavell, it covered a turning point in medieval Japanese history as witnessed by an English captain who was shipwrecked there. The movie portrayed the Japanese culture as exotic and the locals kept everything clean and organized, despite its barbaric aspects during that time period. As a teenager, I had never heard of manga, J-Pop, etc., though maybe we had a little anime on TV. Most of my impressions of Japan were from that miniseries, but it was enough to make me want to go there and see what the Japanese culture was like today.

I forgot to mention that I had had another dream since junior high, and that was to be a translator or interpreter. I interviewed a multilingual translator for Career Day. He read newspapers in several European languages every day in order to maintain his languages at a high level. In college, I used a short school break to fly to Monterrey, California to visit Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey (which went by a different name back then). MIIS has a two-year Master’s degree program in Conference Interpretation which I wanted to learn more about. Frankly, I didn’t want the lifestyle of an interpreter (working evenings and weekends, concentrating for hours, being social, etc.), but I did want the intellectual challenge of simultaneously interpreting from Japanese to English. Also, after mastering Japanese, I would have had to study in a Japanese university for a year or two before I was ready to enter MIIS, so the whole plan would have cost me too much money. Nonetheless, the dream was very strong when I graduated from college.

I still wanted to teach a foreign language. That meant I had three dreams to chase after (teaching, mastering Japanese for interpreter school, and experiencing Japanese culture). The obvious solution was to teach English in Japan. The problem was that teaching jobs in Japan were competitive, so I went to Busan, South Korea first for teaching experience for a year, then started my Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Portland State University. I ran out of money and was itching to go overseas again, so I quit PSU after a year, but I had earned enough credits for a post-bac certificate. The program was offered by the Applied Linguistics department, so many of my classes were in linguistics. After one more year of teaching in South Korea (this time, in a small town called Gunsan), I landed a job at a junior college in Nagoya, Japan, where I taught for three years.

Things went wrong in Japan. First, my Japanese was progressing too slowly. I had to speak English all day. I only knew textbook Japanese, not colloquial speech–much less the Nagoya dialect. When I went out to Japanese bars in the evening, I couldn’t understand what anyone said. So, I usually went out to westernized bars and restaurants instead, or I bought a bento on the way home and studied Japanese reading at home. Second, I thought I was losing my hearing, and I was only in my twenties! It was only after returning to the US that I found out that it was because of ear wax buildup, and I wasn’t really losing my hearing. Third, I was still homesick for my family and for the variety of restaurants and groceries in Portland. Discouraged, I returned home and started my current career in IT. I knew that I would only be able to find part-time work as an ESL teacher in Portland, so I gave up on teaching. But computers were another interest of mine, so my career change worked out all right.

In the next installments of “My story,” I’ll go into more detail about my life and teaching experiences in Korea and Japan.

My story, part one

Spanish became an interesting challenge that I wanted to pursue.

I first started gaining a curiosity for foreign languages when I was seven or eight years old and living in a suburb of Seattle, Washington (state). Mom took me to a garage sale, where I somehow convinced her to buy me two books for learning Spanish. One was a coloring book of fruits and vegetables. I distinctly remember a picture of grapes and the word “uvas.” The other was a high school textbook. It was too difficult for me. Over the years, I sometimes tried to study that textbook. I could study Chapter One (about Spanish pronunciation and spelling) but Chapter Two always seemed too difficult for me. Nonetheless, Spanish became an interesting challenge that I wanted to pursue.

I moved back to a suburb of Portland, Oregon, where I lived for most of my life since then. In high school, I intended to take Spanish classes, but they were full. My older sisters had taken French, so I chose French instead, hoping to talk with them in it. I took three years of French in high school, but my sisters forgot it, so I was alone with it.

My Senior year, my school started offering Japanese, so I took a year of it. That was hard but fun. The hardest part was probably that everything was taught to me in hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets), and I often mixed up the letters and learned words incorrectly. That’s why I’m now a proponent of starting to learn Japanese in the Latin alphabet (but learning the language’s writing system simultaneously, just for reading and writing practice).

Meanwhile, I continued the Spanish challenge independently. I bought a copy of Spanish Now! and studied the whole book by myself from cover to cover. My father was a salesman and had boxes of addressed business envelopes he no longer needed, so I cut them up with scissors to make flashcards, in order to memorize the vocabulary in Spanish Now! I studied Spanish on the couch while watching TV with my father in the evenings.

I attended a four-year college (a university) far from home (Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota), but had a hard time choosing a major. I was curious about everything, so I wanted to take classes in many different departments–but not curious enough to get a thorough knowledge of any one subject. I considered Chemistry, but didn’t want to spend my college years in a laboratory. I was interested in History, but was too slow a reader to major in it.

Concordia’s school year starts in late August and ends in early May. In my day, several departments offered their own May Seminar which would travel while studying a subject: The Art department visited famous museums in Paris, Rome, etc. The Music department visited Vienna and listened to classical music performances in various European cities. The Math department visited Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. (That was my second choice.) But I didn’t want to spend three days in Paris, three days in Rome, etc. I wanted to get to know one country well. Fortunately, the French department’s May Seminar took a tour of France and had three homestays in different places. So, I took the French May Seminar half-way through college, and then realized I didn’t need many credits to finish a French major. I also decided to become a teacher–a French teacher. Finally, I had chosen my major.

While I was in college, I also took a semester of second year Japanese–which emphasized kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) too much and had no conversation practice. Up to that point, I was considering transferring to a college where I could major in Japanese, but I realized that such a major would be too stressful. I also took a semester of first year Spanish, and it was fun. I especially enjoyed the lively listening practice in the Language Lab. The textbook was Dos Mundos. But I didn’t take any more Spanish classes, and I don’t remember why.

(To be continued in a later blog entry)