Taylor Sadler, BA ‘15, worked as a Cultural Ambassador for the Labo International Exchange Foundation in Japan after graduating. Her job involved going to different community groups and giving children a chance to interact with a foreigner, learn about a foreign culture, and practice their English.
Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?
I enjoyed Saturday morning cartoons like most kids, and it was during my formative high school years that I discovered late Friday night, ‘more mature’ cartoons. It started with an ad on YTV for a show called Inu Yasha: the art was different and looked beautiful compared to other cartoons, and it looked a bit dark, too, with murder and monsters. Going through my entitled emo-phase, it intrigued me, and soon I was hooked and ended up watching the other shows–anime, I later learned it was called–like Witch Hunter Robin, Gundam Seed, and Ghost in the Shell (and of course the Saturday morning stuff like Yu-Gi-Oh and Beyblade). My high school was new, and didn’t have a lot of developed clubs yet, so I pretty much coasted through without joining anything until my friends started the Asian Entertainment club (AznEC) for all things anime, manga, k-/j-pop, and Asian drama.
When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or who I wanted to be. All I knew was that I liked Japanese anime/manga, and I wanted to travel; so, I started off my graduation with a one-month homestay in Japan with Labo International Exchange Foundation, and when it was over I was already looking into programs to go back.
I had enrolled for Langara’s fall term for 2010, hoping that getting the requisite English courses done and taking some electives would help me find something to pursue. And I did, when I discovered they had courses about Japan. It started with a Japanese pop culture course, and next thing I knew I had practically completed their Associates program. I thought I knew anime and manga, but my teachers taught me to think critically about what I was reading, and what sort of factors encouraged its creation. Having taken all they had to offer, I transferred from Langara to UBC to see what else I could learn. I wasn’t disappointed.
While a student, was there anything you did to get ahead with your career? Or anything that you would recommend that other students do?
Honestly, as I’ve yet to find a determined career I can’t point to anything related specifically in that way, but I do have experiences that I know I benefited from, and that I hope could help others in their future career. First, was becoming a part of the Asian Studies Department team through UBC’s Work/Learn program. I didn’t even know about the program at the time, but had been trying to find a job closer to campus through the CareersOnline website. Working with the Department not only helped me make great relationships with the Asian Studies office staff and faculty, but also gave me office work experience and a better view of the inner workings of course registration, and really helped me get to know my own Major program better. So first piece of advice? If, like me, you can’t or won’t rely solely on Student Loans, try and find a job that has to do with your area of study. This will give you ways to apply what you’re learning in the classroom to outside life, and will help you when you career-search and everyone’s looking for ‘experienced’ people. So, ask around your Department because you never know what might pop up!
UBC has a free language exchange program called Tandem, which offers students the opportunity to speak and practice whatever language you’re trying to learn, provided partners are available (they usually seemed so). This is a great program because not only is it helping international students get connected with others on campus, but it’s good networking with fellow language-enthusiasts and even just a great way to get together, drink tea and eat cookies, and make a few new friends. I personally focused on Japanese, helping practice my conversational skills with a native speaker while I helped my partner refine and practice her English. If you’re learning a language to use in your career, this can only help! A lot of time, classrooms don’t leave room for a lot of conversation, and even then you’re doing it with other students who won’t have the knowledge, experience, or awareness to correct you.
One program that I really wish I had done is the Tri-Mentoring (or any mentoring) program that UBC offers, so I could have gotten an early start on career and company networking. I honestly don’t even remember why I didn’t. So, while I didn’t participate myself, I think it can only be a good experience to help you get ahead in your field or career. A good alternative is the Asian Studies Department’s Career Nights, which gives you group interview time with someone in the Asian Studies field. It’s a good networking event, and a great chance to get some professional advice.
Why did you decide to work in Japan after graduating? Can you tell me about how you got your job (was knowing Japanese an important factor) and why you chose Labo International Exchange over alternative programs like JET?
I wanted to work in Japan because I wanted to be able to become immersed in the country’s daily life, instead of only skimming the surface as a tourist. Since I did the one-month homestay program that Labo offers, I was aware of their one-year intern program. While knowing Japanese is certainly an asset, they do not require it to hire you. (One of my intern co-workers knew nothing but ‘konnichiwa’ before coming.) You actually are enrolled in two months of Japanese language classes through their affiliated school, and they pay for you to do the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which is globally-recognized. They choose 3 applicants from North America (1 from Canada and 2 from the States) for an August arrival, and 1 or 2 from Oceania (New Zealand/Australia) for a January arrival. The application is available on their website, which you mail in along with two reference letters and a transcript by December. I had a preliminary interview late January, and a follow-up at the start of March before receiving news that I’d been selected a few days later. Throughout the next few months, I received lots of information to help me prepare for my August departure.
Unlike JET, Labo doesn’t require a Bachelor’s degree, so there have been several times when I almost just took a break from studying to go. The Visa Labo acquires for you is a Cultural Study Visa, which means that during my one-year internship I choose a topic to do a research project on. This has appealed to students in the past because–if negotiated with your school–it can even be used for credit. Personally, I wanted to do a more fun and easy-going research project without the pressure of a credited grade being applied to it. Labo also pays for your airfare, and you get a stipend each month that more than covers any costs you may incur (though it’s not as much as a JET salary). They also arrange all your homestays for you, so you’re very much taken care of.
I looked into JET a lot. I talked to a lot of people, and read a lot of testimonials online and I wasn’t 100% sold on what they offered. I was hearing a lot of people who struggled with the work because it wasn’t what they signed up for, or just plain felt isolated and lonely. I also found people who absolutely loved it and would recommend it to anyone who’d listen. There just seemed like so much variance involved in where you’d end up and what you’d be doing, depending on the hiring company’s interpretation of your role. My original plan was to do Labo’s Intern program first, so I could more leisurely enjoy Japan with a fairly strong support system behind me while still getting work experience. Then, if I hadn’t got my fill of this beautiful country, do the JET program, knowing the connections I made through Labo could still stand as a support system for me, and that I’d already be familiar with the country and its culture.
What do you enjoy about your job? What are the challenges?
My job involves going to different community groups and basically giving kids a chance to interact with a foreigner, learn about a foreign culture, and practice their English. I think the things I love the most is getting to travel to so many little local (and not-so local) places that I never would have heard of–let alone, gone–alone. While there are sometimes group leaders who don’t plan my visits all that well or imaginatively, I relish the ones that really take the opportunity for a cultural exchange and make it fun and interesting for both their kids and me! I’ve gone for a flower-viewing pic-nic at a castle, felt like Charlotte Diamond in front of an entire pre-k and kindergarten school (like, 500 kids!), and even run around a community center on an Easter egg hunt. The most rewarding thing, though, is when at the end of the program the shy kid comes up to you with a big smile for a handshake and a “high touch” (high five).
A small challenge that’s happened often is trying to get them to speak Japanese to you! Most of these group leaders and tutors and coworkers (and even restaurant waitresses) use this as a chance to practice their English as much as I’m trying to use it to practice my Japanese. I try and keep it give-and-take cause I know I was always looking for opportunities to use my Japanese while I was in Canada. Unfortunately, there’s been one or two miscommunications due to this, so. I’ve taken to reiterating things in Japanese, just to cement both our understandings of the situation.
I think the biggest challenge with this program is trying to separate work life and free time. It is literally Labo 24/7, since the homestays are all either Labo tutors or families enrolled in their program. Unlike at home in Canada, I can’t just go out whenever I want, until as late as I want, eat whatever I want, whenever I want, etc. Deferring to a host mother about what you can or cannot do is really hard to go back to after 5 years of personal, adult independence. I think one thing that helped put things in perspective, though, was learning that these host families aren’t getting any reimbursement for hosting you–it’s all volunteer! So, yeah, I’ve felt a bit restricted at times, but it’s really let me get a lot closer to these wonderful people than I probably would have, and really feels like you’ve been incorporated into the family
How has living and working abroad changed you? and how have your language skills improved?
The first time I hung up the phone after having had an entire conversation in Japanese I sat stunned for a few minutes. Then promptly made a boasting Facebook post.
That was back in the first few months of my internship. When I first came to Japan in August, I could barely remember how to conjugate, let alone hold full, coherent conversations without any gestural visual clues. It really opened my eyes to just how fast I was adapting to and remembering the language just by being in an immersive setting.
I’d like to think that besides the physical change of having gained a few pounds from all the delicious breads and snacks here, my mental outlook has also undergone reworking. I’ve stayed in apartments and in houses, in the city and in the country, in families with kids/pets and without kids/pets–each of these experiences have had their similarities and differences. Stereotypes have definitely been challenged, both Canadian and Japanese. I’ve ended up learning more about not just Japan, but Canada too, and how it’s perceived abroad because I have to explain or answer so many things. Like the fact that yes, Canada has bowling, and no, I don’t live in an igloo. I actually created a little quiz of four pictures of different high school classmates, one African-Canadian, one Chinese, one Caucasian, and one wearing a hijab. I then take a vote from the kids and parents on who they think is Canadian. No matter the age, I always get surprised exclamations when I reveal that it’s all of them; which, honestly, surprises me.
Overall, though, I feel like my perspective has been opened up to just how different cultures can make .
What has been your best memory or experience so far in Japan?
I was actually battling a pretty bad bout of homesickness for a few months when a couple good friends came to visit. Just being with familiar people again, getting to teach and show them first-hand all the cool or whacky stuff I’d discovered (and finding even more stuff together) was a blast, and really served to refresh and revitilize me. One day we hiked up and all around Inari shrine in Kyoto, going through the tunnels after tunnels of torii gates, laughing and complaining about how out of shape we were, and at the multitude of stairs that only ever seemed to go up (along with the prices in the vending machines). When we reached the lookout point, the sun was setting over the city behind the mountains and it was just one of those idealic moments spent with friends, having a great time adventuring and working up a sweat. As the sun glinted off the high-rise buildings, the mosquitoes devoured us, surrounded by fox statues and torii, trying to fan ourselves cool–I was so glad to be here, in this beautiful country, with fantastic company and a new adventure under my belt.
Even though my friends have gone home, the adventuring spirit has been rekindled and instead of despairing that I still had a few months before I could get home, now I’m trying to pack my last two months full of as many more adventures as I can. This weekend: Mount Fuji!
I know you are returning to Canada in August. Do you have any concerns or things you are looking forward to about coming back? And what do you hope to do or achieve next?
I’m really looking forward to the food. I’ve definitely got some new favourite dishes here, but nothing beats a White Spot salmon burger or a Vancouver-style beef teriyaki sushi roll.
Finding a job is my main concern and what I hope to achieve when I get back. I’d like to find a career where I can use my Asian Studies and in-Japan experience, but so far nothing has come up. I plan to try and keep up my Japanese, and try for the N1 and N2 tests in the next year or two.
Another thing that working on my Japanese has really inspired me to do is refresh my French skills, as well. I’ll probably be looking into the French version of the JLPT and/or taking some classes to bring up my fluency again. I love being able to communicate with so many different people.