The scenic route

The headlights rolled along a fallen “DO NOT ENTER” sign along the dirt road before leaving it behind in total darkness.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” I said tentatively, really meaning that I didn’t want to alarm myself, “but isn’t this how all horror movies start? Kids exploring places where they really shouldn’t? In their dad’s car?!”

At sixteen, I was the only teenager in the group. Being in a car with twenty-somethings, I really didn’t want to be uncool. Even more than that, however, I didn’t want to die.

My oldest cousin chuckled, though not unkindly. “It’s ok,” he reassured me with his charming smile from the passenger seat. “Things only get crazy when it’s like, midnight, right?”

We all glanced at the clock. 11:55pm. Of course.

We couldn’t help but laugh, albeit nervously on my part. My other cousin rubbed my forearm reassuringly, bumping her knees against mine.

We love our family in San Francisco. We relish vacations to each other’s home countries though they are few and far between. On these occasions, we fall into an easy familial comfort around each other, acting as if we’d grown up together and wishing we had.

The year we’d visited San Francisco over our summer holidays, their winter one, my brother had been honing his then newfound love of photography. A week after landing in the US, we discovered that Aaron is quite similar to our oldest cousin. They have the same face, the same good nature, and the same hobbies as well, including but not limited to photography.

So one night, dissatisfied with the view of San Francisco’s night skyline that an empty car park offered, we four cousins and one of their close friends set up a mountain on a dirt track seeking higher ground. What we didn’t realise was that we would be driving around what looked like an abandoned army base.

“AHH!” The driver, my cousins’ friend, gave a short scream.

Panicked, we all replied with our own screams, all the while looking through the windows for the reason.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said quickly. “Just a deer.”

We fell back into nervous laughter.

“Umm do we know where this road goes?”

“No?”

“Oh,” I said, pausing to suppress my growing fear. “Oh good.”

We were comforted when we saw another set of headlights driving ahead of us a few minutes later. Then we panicked again when they disappeared around the next corner, even though we seemed to be driving along the only road.

Finally, when both the altitude and my heart rate had noticeably increased, we reached a slight clearing. There, we found a beautiful and seemingly exclusive view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

By the time we arrived safely home that night, my brother and cousin had some truly spectacular photos, and I had one of my favourite memories of us to date.

I’ve wanted to be a journalist for a while now. Even then as a teenager, I had my eyes set on journalism.

I had thought in a general haze of naivety that my life would go something like this:

  1. High school
  2. University
  3. Journalism job
  4. Lots of travelling
  5. House and security and adult stuff
  6. ??

I got through the first two steps before realising that oh, that’s not happening. Not in such a direct route anyway.

Getting experience means paying your dues. Paying your dues to enter the world of media and arts means unpaid work. Unless you’re being financed, this means working other jobs to support your unpaid work. Working multiple jobs simultaneously means exhaustion.

As a child, what I wanted to do changed from being a vet to a painter to an author to almost everything in between. Well, not everything. Strangely enough, the things I had no interest in seemed to be the very things I landed in.

My mum told me that she once watched me as a little girl play with my cousins, ones who lived with us in Melbourne. They were playing with their dolls when an older cousin called me over.

“We should get Barbie a coat,” she said, “or she’ll be too cold.”

Apparently, despite having played with soft toys often, I didn’t quite grasp the concept of dolls at the time. Mum tells me that I considered the doll in my cousin’s hands and said, “No, she won’t.”

Watching movies didn’t cure this disinterest in girly things. Neither did attending an all girls’ high school. Neither did years of gentle teasing by friends and family alike. Neither has the encouragement of the Japanese community around me.

I take this as a compliment.

Still, when it came to getting my first job, I found myself in a denim store telling people that wow, those jeans go great with that shirt they’re wearing and would they like to see the new jacket we just got in yesterday?

Later, as a student, my father asked me if I wanted to be a banker. Such a nice, stable, educated job with multiple pathways to advancement in the future. Who wouldn’t want that for their child, right?

But Father, think about it. Me, banking? At the time, I laughed. I certainly wasn’t laughing when bank telling became a means of supporting myself and my stint in radio during my first year out of university.

See, by using a graph, I show that I don’t inherently hate maths or data.

Perhaps the strangest one of all, I’ve never pictured myself as a teacher.

Never. Nope. Never.

Requirements needed for teaching (well): knowledge, confidence, public speaking skills, ability to play with kids, ability to make endless small talk… overall social aptitude.

Requirements I had for teaching: I have a degree from a good university and I can speak English.

Yet, here I am. Teacher by day and by night…also a teacher. For the past few years no less.

Stranger still, I find myself enjoying teaching. A lot. Even to adults. Even to kids. Actually, especially to kids.

I love teaching. I love living in Japan. I could see myself staying here for years more.

But I want to be a journalist. No matter what industry I work in, I keep coming back to this. Given the chance, I would fight to work at Runway, even if it meant working under Miranda Priestly. It’s the reason why I supported myself with jobs at banks and shops and call centres and now schools. It’s the reason why I came to Japan in the first place.

At the same time, the longer I stay in Japan teaching, the harder it is to find reasons to stay that directly correlate with my goal to become a journalist.

I can’t help but feel a little like the sixteen year old in a car in San Francisco in the dead of night, convinced that she and her cousins would soon become the Zodiac Killer‘s next victims. The ride started out fun and I’m still laughing, but as we near midnight on unfamiliar terrain, I have to admit that I’m starting to get scared.

Day 943: secret to surviving a job hunt: get an @ehcwong.

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Job hunting and homesickness does nothing to lessen the fear.

I’m lucky, really, that this self-induced pressure coincides with the new year, a time for reflection and resolution setting.

So let’s reflect then, shall we? In the last almost thousand days – I still keep count –  I’ve moved to a new country. And survived, despite cultural, language and all sorts of barriers.

I’ve travelled. A lot. Through mountains, country towns, cities, and even countries.

I’ve started learning a new language.

I’ve rediscovered hobbies that I’d forgotten or didn’t have enough time for.

I’ve learnt more skills than I care to count, among which how to teach. I’ve even learnt how to suppress my introversion and get out there.

I’ve come to understand most things from a new angle.

I’ve met so many people, made a tonne of friends. Some, I’m sure, for life.

Quite honestly, I’ve had the time of my life.

In light of this, I realise that by no means should I consider Japan a detour en route to journalism. I haven’t gone off track. After all, the journey carries just as much weight as the destination, right?

Everything that I’ve experienced in Japan, everything I’ve learnt, everyone I’ve met boils down to much more than just background scenery. It’s helped to shape who I am, who I’ll be when I reach that destination.

All things considered, I’d probably pass on the direct route again given the chance to go back and change things.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to sit back this year. But I’m definitely going to enjoy the ride.

Thoughts?