“Taking the Plunge”: Perspectives from a Seasoned Expatriate in Japan

  • JOBS
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  • MANNERS
  • PEOPLE
  • Tokyo
  • VISA
  • WORK
  • Despite never having met Brad, there was almost an expected sense of familiarity before meeting. I knew we shared some kind of common background hailing from the same alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin; his firm Texan handshake and relaxed demeanor only served to confirm my expectations. He suggested a Japanese restaurant within the upscale shopping mall where we stood, and up a series of escalators we went.

    The Marunouchi Oazo is one of many high-end shopping malls located in the districts surrounding Tokyo Station, one of the world’s busiest train stations.

     

    I was accompanied by two colleagues, Hanna and Zane. We had all come with pre-meditated questions, but Brad took charge very early on and answered many of our questions before we could even ask them. For the sake of your reading convenience, the transcript of our interview with him has been condensed and sections have been omitted. Brad’s eagerness to share his perspectives as a seasoned expatriate is refreshing and incredibly insightful.

    Interview With Brad

    I don’t know if you know anything about the swim team at the University of Texas, but it’s really high level. Eight guys on my team made the Olympic team. Swimming was what I wanted to do, it was my choice, but I never had a chance to study abroad. When I got out of school, I was actually thinking of just going up to Dallas or New York. But on a whim, I got a call from my buddy from high school. His dad had a bunch of business connections in Japan. He asked me, “Do you want to go teach English for a year?” I asked where, and he said Japan. I said, “Done.” I didn’t know anything, and I went over. I enjoyed the job, but I knew immediately it wasn’t what I was going to do with my life. I met a lot of people, including somebody who was working at Lehman Brothers. I followed that up and I told him I was interested in markets and I studied in the Business Honors Program. So, one thing led to another and I got a job at Lehman Brothers. We failed, but now I work for a large Japanese investment bank. Between then and now, I moved to Hong Kong, Singapore, and back to Tokyo.

    The conversation segues to the topic of moving to Japan.

    If you really want to go to Japan, let me talk about that. My experience generally is if you make a good impression, people want to help. But, standing between you and that person is always going to be immigration and visas. Usually, you have to say “I have this unique skill set that nobody else has, so please give me a visa.” I also know a guy who did JET, ended up living in this really tiny town for four years, and ended up getting a really interesting job afterwards. Then, there are people who come here to study at university.

    There’s a wildcard of if you’re a networker. You just come here and you go out in Tokyo. You meet a lot of people, you do stuff. But the reality is in three months you might go home because your visa is about to expire. I think the most direct path is to make a favorable impression on all of these people you’re going to meet. There’s also people that I’ve met who work for Sony, Misuho, or Toyota in their home country. They express to their employer “You know what, the whole reason why I picked this company and not that company is because I want to live in Japan. Can you please send me there?” That works out for some people, for some people it just never does. If you really want to come, just do it.

    Zane: Have you had any moments of hesitation or self-doubt? You mentioned you didn’t really have a lot of Japanese language experience before taking the job. Was there a period when you were starting out in Japan where you thought, “This isn’t working out, I feel like I made a mistake in trying this kind of thing”?

    I would say I still have that, but it’s just a flicker in my head these days. There’s an infinite number of paths to take and you just have to pick one. I would say make a goal, follow it up with a timeline, and then measure yourself again periodically. Whenever you have that anxiety, rather than let off the gas pedal, just go deeper. That has usually led to a good result for me. When you let off the gas, that’s just more uncertainty and the path never gets clearer, it just gets murkier. I’ve found it’s better to latch onto an idea and just go for it earlier in the process and not worry about it too much.

    Hanna: How was Singapore and Hong Kong?

    Number one, I like it here. Number two, I like Singapore more than I like Hong Kong. Number three, Hong Kong is not a bad place for everyone. Okay, why do I like Tokyo better than those places? This place is much bigger. It is a true cosmopolitan city. The other two, of course, they’re famous, but they’re not as big. If Katy Perry is going on a world tour, she’s definitely coming to Tokyo. Is she going to Singapore? Maybe not. Tokyo is like that. If you like the outdoors – and even if you don’t, because you’ll end up liking it if you’re here – we have the mountains, we have the ocean, we have all four seasons, and we have really good food from all of those areas and different seasons. That adds an element to life that Hong Kong and Singapore don’t really have. I loved Singapore because it was very exotic being in Southeast Asia. A big thing that is really different and obvious is they speak English there. Do you know that feeling you get when you get off the airplane and you check into the hotel and you think “Ah, it’s nice here”? It feels like that every day. There’s really cheap flights to Thailand and Bali and all these places which are all super exotic for an American.

    When I was in Hong Kong I thought, “I’m going to save some money,” so I moved into this apartment a little bit out of the city by myself. I’m a pretty social person, and it was boring. So when I moved to Singapore I thought “I’m definitely not going to do that.” I posted something on Craigslist that said “This is me, I want some roommates, tell me about you.” I ended up living with three other people, and the first weekend that I was there I had instant crew. So wherever you go – now, share houses and community living and all that, that’s all the rage – I highly recommend that. That way you meet all kinds of people. I have so many fond memories of Singapore relative to Hong Kong because I did that. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Hong Kong. I was only there for 14 months, but I go to their weddings, and all this kind of stuff. At the end of the day when you move to another country, like what I said, you have zilch network, so it’s better to just start working on that right away. When it’s just you against the world, it’s a whole lot easier to do it with a network than without one. So, I still do things all the time.

    Hanna: What kind of struggles do you have to face as someone who obviously doesn’t look Japanese? Is there any discrimination because of that?

    For me, two things I’ve always dealt with is if you don’t look Japanese, you’re not one of them. It happens in my job and it happens when I’m surfing. They think, “who’s this bald white guy?” Because it’s so homogenous here, there’s this comfort level that is insanely high if you’re part of it, but there’s always this kind of skepticism if you’re not. I think that’s probably hard-wired into our brains as humans, that’s just how it is. Let’s say that I’m renting a car, and it’s time to return it. There’s this thought, “Did this guy damage it?” That’s the kind of skepticism that I would say is a real thing. I’ve been here for so long that I know to just expect that. Little things that I can do to make it smoother are take the initiative and say “Look, it’s all clean.” If I were Japanese would I get this same treatment? Probably not. There’s a flipside to that though. There’s a certain amount of what they call “gaijin power.” In Japan there’s all these rules, and if you’re part of it you’re expected to know. Have you been to a stop light where there’s obviously no cars coming but everybody’s sitting there waiting until the crosswalk turns? If you’re a white guy and you just go, they think, “Oh, whatever.” There’s all these little things. If you’re not part of it there’s always going to be some upside and downside.

    In the end, it’s your choice to be here. I sometimes sit and listen to people complain about that kind of stuff, and I think, “Guys, just enjoy your life. If you don’t want to be here, you can go home.” The discrimination is a real thing and the “gaijin pass” is a real thing. The “Hey I’m Asian, but I’m not Japanese,” that’s a real thing. That’s a total thing.

    Kasey: Do you find yourself associating more with international people or Japanese people?

    At this point it’s a really mixed bag. I think at the beginning it was international. Now – surfing is a really local thing like it is anywhere. I actually have a tiny place out at the beach. I rent it, it’s really cheap. I mentioned the whole community living, it’s a share house. I have a room in a sharehouse that I share with twelve other people and nobody speaks English there. At my job, I speak more English than I speak Japanese.

    Hanna: Do you see yourself living in Japan for the next few years?

    Good question, I could at this point. I used to think, “Maybe I’ll just go home, maybe this will be the exit strategy…” I don’t think like that anymore. If I’m moving back, I’m moving to Cali or I’m moving to Hawaii, and that’s about it. I would never move to Atlanta. I love Austin, but I wouldn’t move there. I want to be close to the ocean.

    The one thing that you could take away – if you do decide to take the plunge, I think if you have, like I said, a plan with a deadline and then you just push deeper rather than stepping off the gas, you will develop some kind of confidence that in a given situation you’ll be able to find your way out. I don’t think I would have had that had I not come. That’s something. When I graduated university I was a little bit uncertain of myself. But now because I’ve had that “let’s make a plan, let’s have a deadline, let’s go super deep” and it’s worked out, I have kind of a modus operandi for the rest of my life. And that’s quite – it’s not even comforting, it’s just empowering.

    Concluding Remarks

    Brad’s photo

    “Taking the plunge,” while specifically Brad’s words, is a common experience foreign professionals have described to me. Brad’s message to “dig deeper” is more than inspirational – it’s necessary. No one just ends up in Japan. It takes career planning and deliberate action to get here; it takes even more to build a successful career. We took a picture with Brad, thanked him for his time and advice, and parted ways.

    *Featured Image: Author’s Photo