About thirteen years ago, I was halfway through undergrad and the question of what to do with my life was becoming more pressing. I was dry of inspiration and getting frustrated. Then one day I was sitting in my mother’s car, reading an issue of Newtype magazine (yes, I was a total anime geek) when my eyes fell on an ad that said “Translators Wanted.” And I had an epiphany: I wanted to be a translator.
So I signed up for Japanese 101. That’s right, I decided I wanted to be a translator before I spoke any Japanese. I was fearless back then.
As it turned out, in that class I would meet a friend who aspired to join the JET Program. “If you want to be a translator,” she told me, “you can’t just study Japanese in school. You really have to live in Japan and be immersed in the language. Why don’t you apply for the JET Program, too?”
It had literally not occurred to me that I might need to live in Japan to get my language skills up to snuff, but now that she mentioned it, it made sense. “Okay, good idea,” I said.
A few years later, with four semesters of Japanese classes under my belt, I arrived in Japan with a vague plan to get really good at Japanese so I could be a translator. There I happened to meet another friend. “If you want to get really good at Japanese,” he said, “you should study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. That’s what a lot of people here do.”
Again, it had never occurred to me that I might want to formally measure my language ability, but now that he mentioned it, it didn’t seem like a bad idea. “Cool, how do I sign up?” I said.
Back then the test was only held once a year, and I pretty much already knew enough Japanese to tackle Level 3 that December. How I might go about studying for the subsequent levels hadn’t really crossed my mind until another new friend mentioned that she was getting a Japanese tutor. “You should sign up for lessons, too,” she said.
So I did, and in the two years that followed, I would pass Level 2 and Level 1, respectively. At this point I had spent five years studying Japanese–three of them in Japan–all without putting an ounce of thought into any kind of plan, or worrying about what would happen if things didn’t work out.
Then I moved back to America, and things got real. I couldn’t find any job openings for translators, and actually, for all of my success in studying the language, I realized I had trouble following conversations at native speed–and there were still a lot of kanji I didn’t know. I started to doubt whether I was on the right path, after all. I fiddled around with other things. I went to grad school.
But when the opportunity to go back to Japan presented itself, I jumped on it. This time, finally, I was able to do translation work, although the specter of all the Japanese I didn’t know still loomed over me. For once I wasn’t running into any helpful friends who were handing me my next step on a silver platter.
Then a lot of things happened at once. My mother passed away, and I returned to the Catholic Church. I learned there was a thing called “discernment,” and I tried praying about my path in life. I got the feeling it would be a good idea to move back to America, but I had absolutely no idea what to do after that. I was actually a bit angry about that fact, but the Bible furnished examples of times when God said to people, “Go to this city and wait for further instructions,” so apparently that was a thing.
I moved back, and was actually surprised at the ease with which I found a Japan-related job. But I was at another impasse. Where was this all leading? I wasn’t getting any younger.
Then, the other day, I met with my spiritual director, and after greeting me, he immediately asked, “So what are you doing with your Japanese? Are you keeping up with that?” It’s not like my spiritual director to be very forceful about things. I got the feeling he and God had been talking about this. Listening to myself answer his questions (“Well, I might be more inclined to study if I had a clear goal . . . I’m not really sure if I’m going to keep up this connection with Japan or not . . .”) I realized he’d hit the nail on the head. I’d been running away from my Japanese studies. As if to add an anvil to a piano, that night, my Gospel meditation was on the Parable of the Talents.
And so, here I am, ready to tackle Japanese one more time. I don’t know where this will lead, or even what the next step is, but that’s okay. God has a plan.