Don’t Dismiss the Growth

It feels good to achieve something, doesn’t it? After all, who signs up to try with the intention of failing? It’s not unreasonable to think that with enough effort, you can achieve success. But what if you put in the effort and you don’t “win”?

Last summer, I took the Japanese Language Placement Test. By the time I submitted the exam after 3 grueling hours, I knew I wouldn’t pass. I was right: I didn’t pass. But that’s not all. I didn’t set aside as much time as I would have liked to study, but would set aside pockets of time at my university’s library or during my down time to work on practice questions. Unlike when I took the exam 3 years prior, my comprehension and time management had improved: I could actually answer (even if it meant guessing) every question with enough time to check my answers. Sitting in the classroom among other test takers about the same age as my students brought me back to the classrooms in New York where I eagerly grappled with Japanese. I did my best that day, and I refuse to dismiss the amount of growth that occurred simply because I did not get the desired result.

When something doesn’t work out, it’s so tempting to focus on the failure and how much effort you feel you’ve wasted. I’ve had job applications ignored or turned down, I’ve been on several unsuccessful dates, I’ve felt the sting of not being chosen for opportunities I truly felt were mine to win. I won’t go as far to say that I am glad those experiences happened, but they did provide me the insights that made me grow into the person that eventually got the jobs, relationship, and opportunities that are so much better than what I could have hoped for. Growth takes time and is not as exciting as winning, yet it is necessary to assess the losses and appreciate the wins that will come.

What Are You Overlooking?

I was submitting a couple pieces to literary websites and needed to write a short author bio. I looked at the bios of other writers for ideas. 

Author X has published this and this and that is forthcoming. 

I didn’t feel like I had any published work to add and though I have writing projects I’m working on, I don’t believe they should be considered as forthcoming since I don’t know for sure when I will finish them. 

I read the submission rules and learned that work posted on a website/blog does count as published work.

Well, I thought, looking through my portfolio, there’s “My 20-Minute Inheritance”, the personal essay I wrote for Stony Brook University.

I also remembered another personal essay, “Speak”, in 2018 that was a finalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize. 

I think they posted it on their blog…? 

The organizer of the prize, the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival, had indeed posted it on their blog.

At first I cringed at the thought of reading my earlier work, but I read it anyway. When I did, It brought back my memories of writing it as well as going to the in-person ceremony for finalists with my mom. 

This unexpected nostalgic experience caused me to consider what other past experiences I may have overlooked. Perhaps you, too, have experiences that were more amazing than you give them credit for.

You can read “Speak” here.

Before Diving Back In

Young minds fill the four walls of your classroom, your online meeting room, or your conquered section of a public space.

You mentally run through your lesson plan, your contingency plan, and your contingency plan for your contingency plan for the 50th time.

The sleepy vibe of the students threatens to swallow you up as you battle your own tiredness. While they’re working, you’re grading, checking emails, or thinking about tomorrow’s class, all while being able to sense when the students in the room with you are off task.

If you see one more “urgent” email, you’ll throw your work-issued laptop out the window.

Disrespect and attempts to breach boundaries make you wonder if your title means nothing at all.

In vain, you chase after an ideal teacher version of yourself that is simply an apparition cooked up by your tired brain: the same tired brain that missed that typo, despite attempts to typo-proof before clicking print.

Sitting back in the evening and letting the weight of the day fall, you remember the students’ intense focus, the gasps at wrong answers assumed correct, the nudges to quickly finish as the activities you planned are realized.

Emails from previous students with exciting life updates and gratitudes for your impact that extends beyond when they were under your care are welcome sights in your inbox.

Current students approach tentatively for a little time to spare for their eagerness to understand and learn more.

The campus grounds buzz with a mix of Olympic sprints to a class that started 20 minutes ago and leisurely stops and strolls at the pace of my-whole-life-is-ahead-of-me.

You find your rhythm and an unexpected understanding forms between you and the student you swore couldn’t care less about you and your class.

Wading through the waves of victories and challenges, you make it to shore and see how it all comes together to form a picture worth documenting. Toweling off what was self-imposed and what wasn’t yours to begin with, you enter the water again.

A Precedent Has Already Been Set

The sun is setting on my 20’s and this Sunday I will enter my 30’s. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of not being far enough along for my age, especially when there’s post after post about “the youngest person to ever [insert achievement here]” or “the top people under [insert decade here]”. I’ve also watched a fair number of YouTube videos about the things I should have in order by the time I’m 30 or what I should do once I reach my 30’s. As crazy as it sounds, I’ve even felt “too late to the game” when I see kids and teens making a regular habit of what I’ve only recently begun to educate myself about.

While being inspired by and gaining knowledge from the journeys of others, I shouldn’t downplay my own. In striving for the levels I’ve yet to reach, I shouldn’t overlook the levels I’ve already cleared in my 20’s:

  • I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees
  • I achieved my dreams of moving to Japan and teaching at a university 
  • I got my first apartment (in a different country!)
  • I got to dabble in a little voice acting in a proper recording studio
  • I’ve presented at teacher conferences in 3 countries
  • I fell back in love with and have a greater sense of purpose for writing
  • I’ve invested in my mental as well as physical health 
  • I’ve been on a podcast episode for my church 
  • I met the love of my life
  • I’ve gained a greater understanding of what is truly fulfilling in life
  • I got to briefly speak at a live storytelling event in my hometown held by the Moth
  • I’m growing my connection with and understanding of God

Of course there were failures and opportunities unrealized, but actually listing out these opportunities I’ve had does not make me feel as if I’ve missed out at all. What is also amazing is that these are just highlights. There’s so many other things, including the everyday little joys, that I did not mention. I still have more levels to clear, but I’ve already set a precedent for myself: what comes so naturally to me now, what is a daily occurrence for me now, what no longer intimidates or paralyzes me now, was inconceivable when I entered my 20’s. Yes, those people are amazing, but so am I. So are you.

Here’s to level 30 and the next precedent to come.

Small Moments Matter

The 10th and final name was called and I put away my phone. There was no longer any need to have it out to record, since I was not selected to be a storyteller that evening. Throughout the event I had enjoyed the stories that were being told, all while holding out hope that I would join them. But alas, the paper bearing my name was not pulled out of the bag. I resigned myself to accepting that it simply was not my time and showing up was enough. I had guarded myself from the doom clouds of doubt and signed up enthusiastically to participate in one of the Moth’s StorySLAMs. The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe was warm and welcoming and the MC was very entertaining. I learned many personal lessons and storytelling techniques from several of the storytellers.

As my thoughts were shifting to what I would do after the event ended, I was surprised to hear from the MC that the people who were not selected would get to go on stage and say the first line of their stories. 

Just the first line? That won’t give the audience much of an idea of what I had worked on for weeks. I would only be on the stage for a few seconds. Does that even count as doing anything? 

I considered telling my boyfriend to not even bother taking a photo of me or maybe not even going up on the stage at all.

My stomach turned along with the first line of the story in my head:

I was a freshly-minted high school student  and an entry-level teenager with something to prove, a freshman but, in my mind’s eye, already walking across the stage, gliding in heels and looking graceful and not awkward, giving my awe-inspiring speech as valedictorian (spoiler alert: I did not become valedictorian). 

There was a lot packed into that first line, actually! Why not tell it?

I got on stage and the bright white lights crowded my view, reducing the audience to silhouettes. I recited my line and got some laughs and claps from the audience. My boyfriend was in position in the first row and snapped several pictures of me. It wasn’t how I imagined the night would go, but in those few seconds, I could feel the weight and excitement of the moment.

I’m grateful that I was given a small moment to bring my words in front of and allow myself to be seen by more people. More than that, I’m happy that I gave myself the chance for such a moment to happen in the first place. That small moment of being on stage, standing tall as a writer, with one of my biggest supporters in the front row watching, at an event I joined purely out of interest without care for external permission matters, as do all the other small moments that are easy to minimize.

The Right to Your Own Process

“I’m calling them guidelines because if I say ‘rules’, you might have the expectation that it will be true every time. As you know, there are many exceptions in English,” I remember telling my students.

After a Sunday morning conversation with my life coach, I realized that this could be applied to my writing career as well. I recently started and finished a short story in just 5 days. I didn’t set out to finish so quickly. Rather, it started with me commuting to work with nothing in my ears, just listening and taking in my surroundings. I began thinking about an idea for a short story I had last year and the ideas flooded in, weaving in the sights and sounds that greeted me during my walk. I could not get to my desk fast enough to sit and write it all down. The next few days continued like this and before I knew it, it was done.

The amount of time itself is for sure amazing, but what is even more meaningful is that I finished a piece of writing that I started. I struggled for a long time with devaluing my gift for writing as not being anything special. Who hates music? Who isn’t excited by a good dance performance? But not everyone enjoys reading, I would say to myself. This limited thinking led to years of starting ideas for short stories, essays, and novels, of which I only finished a handful.

There was also the internal pressure to be like the “real” writers I saw:

I thought I had to do NaNiWriMo.

I thought I needed to download software to organize chapters and research.

I thought I had to map out the life story of my characters before I could even start writing.

I thought I had to wake up at the same time every day to write.

I thought I had to take a writing course.

I thought just having an Instagram account and website was not enough to get my writing out there and I needed to make accounts on other platforms.

For this short story, I just wrote in the Notes application of my phone. I loved the convenience of picking up my phone and adding to the story in bed, on the train, or at the office. I wrote freely and unhindered, letting the story be what it needed to be, composing it my way. It brought back the excitement that drew me to writing in the first place, and I’m already working on other pieces.

I don’t write at the same time every day; I don’t even write every day. I don’t have a word count in mind: I just set aside some time and write whatever I’m thinking. I don’t use any special writing tools: I just use what’s convenient, whether that be a dollar store notebook, my phone, or a Google Doc. I don’t have a degree in literature or creative writing: I just know I write words that people want to read. It’s not to say that those who do the former are wrong and I am better for doing the latter. Insights from others serve as useful guidelines for getting started. It’s worthwhile and insightful to hear about others’ experiences, but I have the right, through trial and error, to pick and choose what works for me. That doesn’t mean I’m any less passionate about writing, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not a real writer. We all have the right to our own process.

Note: I submitted the short story to a lifestyle magazine, so I hope I will be able to update you about it in the near future!

A loss is not a waste of time

Next month, I will be taking the N2 level of the Japanese Language Placement Test (JLPT). My renewed interest in Japanese prompted me to sign up a couple months ago. I certainly understand more now than I did during my disastrous attempt 2.5 years ago, during which I was woefully unprepared. Still, I don’t feel certain that I will pass the exam this time either. It’s not an issue of insecurity that makes me say this. This semester I have returned to work fully in person for the first time in 3 years, and it wasn’t the simple readjustment I assumed it would be. There’s also a lot to manage in terms of classes, committee work, administrative duties, and making sure not to neglect the activities and practices that nourish me. I have not spent as much time as I would have liked–nowhere near the amount of time I’ve read is required–preparing for the JLPT. It seems settled that I will walk into an exam I know I will not pass. I have not even sat down for the exam and I already feel like a failure.

I could just skip the exam.

What a waste of 5,000 yen (around $50 USD) though. More than that, there’s no way I would be able to enjoy that Sunday in peace, knowing that I should be facing what I signed up for.

There’s a few weeks left and I’ve intentionally blocked out pockets of time to study for the JLPT (along with just increasing my overall Japanese comprehension). Passing is possible and of course I certainly hope for that. But perhaps the preparation will prove to be insufficient and I won’t pass. If the latter happens, does that mean it was a waste of time and money? Winning is great, but there’s greatness in losing too. Specifically losing after having done my best and then reassessing what to do better next time. That’s certainly better than giving up or running away.

What I’ve learned during the times I have managed to study can always be built upon and strengthened for another attempt. As for now, I will do what I can with the remaining time and do my best on exam day. My previous attempt was not good, but I still learned from that experience and am going again into the exam better informed. Regardless of the result this time around, I know I will gain insight I did not have before.

Winning is not guaranteed, so we will all face a loss at some point. However, there are lessons to be learned and insights to be gained when we do.

There’s always something new to see

I’ve lived in the same suburban town here in Japan for over 3 years. So, I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve been in and out of its main train station hundreds of times. Yesterday, I went for an evening walk and short stop in the supermarket. When I was heading back to the station, I noticed a man holding up his phone and aiming it at the left side of the entrance. The train station has an east and west exit, and for the east exit alone, which I was heading towards, there are about 5 different paths you can use to enter it. The path that I happened to be using drew my attention to the same thing that had held the man’s attention: a small and lit-up rectangular sign with the name of the station written in thin and wispy black brush strokes. I’ve used this path before but just passed right by without noticing this sign.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking out new adventures in new places, but one of the things I’ve learned during this pandemic is that new experiences also wait for you in the ordinary, in the oh-it’s-just-this, in the meh, in the rinse-and-repeat, in the there’s-nothing-to-do around-here. Are we willing to be open to discovering those experiences though? Slow down your pace. Slow down your mind. Dare the everyday to surprise you and show you what it has for you. For me, I often find that those little surprises are like whispers from God reminding me to exchange the hamster wheel for a gondola.

And yes, I also took a picture of the sign!

My interest is enough (Part 1)

My history with Japanese spans almost 2 decades, yet I still would not say that I am fluent. I took Japanese classes in high school, college, and graduate school. I majored in Japanese Studies. I did a summer homestay in Shizuoka. I took part in Japanese cultural events in my hometown. I’ve lived and worked in Japan for 3 years.

And yet…

Fluency has eluded me.

No, that’s not correct.

I have eluded fluency.

I recall the questions and doubts about why I am studying Japanese: how would I make a career out of this; why I didn’t choose a degree that is more “stable”; why I didn’t choose a language that is “more global”; why I didn’t choose a country that’s “not so far away”. Those whys surrounded me and became my whys, pulling me back from being all in with studying Japanese. Obligations and the hum of daily life also changed it from a fun language to a city hall paperwork/phone calls with utility companies/new work procedures language. On the one hand, I hesitated to fully immerse myself in Japanese because of the inner pressure to “prove the point” of all of this, while on the other hand I got frustrated with myself for not knowing enough Japanese as a result. It’s a vicious cycle that has stagnated my growth.

This year, I’ve been rekindling my relationship with Japanese, thinking back to: the reckless abandon with which I blurted out phrases I picked up from anime; the Japanese CDs, textbooks, dictionaries, and travel books that were my constant companions; my childhood bedroom filled with an array of items that had some connection to Japan. I partially cringe but also feel fondness for those times when I was unhindered by “what made sense” and was fueled solely by my interest.

I’ve had and continue to have rich and wonderful experiences, all because of a spark from childhood in a country I have no known ancestral connection to. That is the point. This is the purpose. It has been working well for me, so why should I shrink from that? It’s time to fully go for it. No more doubts, no more justifying for others, no more comparing.

My interest was enough and will continue to be enough.

It’s worth pursuing

We know that flowers in flower shops do not last long, but we buy them anyway. We whisper to them, hoping our messages reach our intended: “I’m sorry”; “You mean so much to me”; “I’m here for you”; “I’d like to treat myself for a change”. We enjoy their vibrant beauty as the light up the bedroom, the living room, the dining room, the dorm room, the everything-in-between rooms. Their petals tickle our noses as we nestle into them. Their long stems curl in the vases. Their roots take hold in the soil of little plastic pots. They see us off and welcome us back, with their still and comforting presence.

They see us when we just roll out of bed, when we are dressed for battle for the day ahead, when we are a mess, when we are animated, and they take it all in. They take it all in in between long drinks of sunshine and sips of water. They give us the benefit of all of this and only ask for a little care and attention from time to time. And over this time their soft petals start to crumple and shrivel up, dropping like snow. Their green stems give way to yellowish-white.

It is time for them to be discarded. There is a brief sadness, but we can move on. We knew going in that this would be temporary, but we were okay with that. We were okay with that because the joy they brought made it worth pursuing anyway. There was purpose, however short-lived. And we are certainly not discouraged from buying flowers again in the future. Why should we view other things in our lives any differently?