It is often said that the most powerful lessons can be found in our failures. So I give you a reflection on one of my more glorious flame outs…
After college, I set out to teach English in Japan through the JET program, an initiative of the Japanese government to send thousands of native English speakers to public schools across the country.
It was my chance to make some decent money (for a 21-year-old) and see the world. Plus, armed with my two semesters of Intro to Japanese, I felt unstoppable.
The people who ran the program must have felt the same about me. Because they sent me to what must have been the most isolated place in the country.
The island of Kikai. A small island consisting of three villages and mostly covered in sugar cane. Home to 10,000 people, almost all over 65 or under 16. Most have never met a non-Japanese person. I was sent there to show them the beauty of clearly spoken American English — a human tape recorder. It was to be my home for one year.
A subtropical paradise, Kikai is three airplanes from Tokyo, the final one being an eight-seater. The gate agents always asked me how much I weighed before boarding. And they always seated me in the last seat on the left to balance out the load.
I'm not going to lie; living there was hard as a fresh college grad. I was hoping to experience the energy and bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka. Instead, I got the glow of bioluminescent fish. Yes, my best friends on the island were fishermen. We often spent Saturday nights diving for spiny lobster.
Communicating was tough. Few people spoke English. My two semesters of college Japanese were enough to ask questions, but I rarely fully understood the answers.
Keep in mind this was the days before the internet and email. I got English news from shortwave radio — BBC World Service and Voice of America. I communicated with friends and family back home via handwritten letters.
Although my obligation was to stay for one year, I had enough of the isolation after six months. I resigned and spent the next few months backpacking across Japan and the region.
This decision to leave early always weighed on me. The inability to communicate always felt like my failure. I was disappointed in myself for being unable to “tough it out.” But rather than just move on, it fueled my desire to master the Japanese language.
So, I doubled down and entered the FALCON program at Cornell University, known for its linguistic breakthroughs in teaching Japanese. What made the program unique was its use of something called the Jorden Method, which emphasized pattern recognition as a means to mastering a foreign language. When studying under the Jorden method, you put as much effort into understanding the linguistic frameworks as you do into reading comprehension, writing proficiency, and pronunciation.
One year later, I was back in Japan, studying as a grad student at university, with enough command of the language to make friends and truly experience the richness of the culture. And the experience has never really ended for me. For the past 30 years, I have worked as a writer and messaging strategist in both Japan and the US.