Guest Post 20: Wendy Lai - Things learnt 10 years after living in Japan (JET Programme)

My friend Wendy Lai and I met up over the weekend and we realised it had been 10 years since we first went off to live in rural Japan to teach English. In between lamenting the fact that we were now past our best abilities to stay out all night in karaoke halls, we chatted about what we learnt from the experience and how grateful we were for the experience. I asked Wendy if she would let me interview her about it and she kindly agreed. Thanks Wen!

1. What inspired you to leave Singapore as a 21 year old?

I was lucky to get a job straight after University but after working for a few months, I saw that many of my colleagues didn’t seem wildly happy. They seemed to just be existing, not living (pretty mundane or so I thought). Many of my peers then were climbing the corporate ladder and well on their way to becoming Asia's next millionaire(s). They had ambitious 3 or 5-year plans which centred around very material possessions and comfort.

Nothing wrong with that and no offence to them, but I didn’t want to become like that. To me, life is about pushing the boundaries and creating adventures or war stories. Moreover, studying and living overseas during university had filled my wanderlust. The best time to throw things out was then - I had nothing to lose (since I had little to start with!).

2. What was the strangest thing you learnt about yourself in Japan? 

That I actually like eating unagi (eel) and kujira (whale)! On a more serious note, given that I used to think myself as an extrovert who loved to be around raucous people and couldn’t be alone for a minute, I actually enjoy my own company (even though I’m not the most interesting person in the world) - I’m an introvert. I also realised I am a lot more adaptable and resourceful than I’d previously thought.

3. How important are friendships when settling into a new place?

Very. It’s always people that make a place. Instead of hanging out with fellow JETs, I made a conscious effort to really learn the language, know the locals, some of whom remain my close friends. I’m thankful that I was placed in a city (compared to 85% of other JETs) enabling me to seek easy refuge in my gaijin friends when I missed speaking English.

4. What lessons for life did you take away from the experience? 

So many! Cliche but how much you put in is how much you’ll get out of life or anything.
1. Always say “Yes” (to anything that doesn’t break the law or hurt others) - it expands one’s world.
2. It’s difficult but try never ever to assume and judge

5. What advice would you give yourself back then with the benefit of having 10 years of hindsight?
The only time we have is now - this is a constant reminder to live fully lest I become more risk-averse and increasingly trapped by others’ opinions.