June 29th, 2010
03:43 AM GMT
(CNN) –Lara Farrar’s story on how foreigners are being hired to portray executives and fake employees makes me mindful that the biggest break I have ever gotten in my career was from being a foreigner in Japan.
In 1997, I was living in rural Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan, teaching English as a second language to high school students in the small town of Hitoyoshi.
The instant celebrity of being a foreigner there was sometimes maddening. Children would run up to you and shout, “How are you?” – as if they were throwing pebbles at an animal to see how it would react. Or when old people followed me around a supermarket – curious what foreigners ate, I guess.
But mostly – I’ll admit it – the attention was cool. People would go out of their way to make you feel special, and local journalists would do stories on you. It was on the strength of one of those stories that my life was forever altered. An article mentioned I used to be a newspaper reporter in the U.S., and that attracted the attention of a radio producer for RKK Kumamoto.
He came to our school and sat down with the school’s top administrators and my supervisor and spoke with me at length. There was an awkward pause, and I turned to my supervisor for the translation: “He wants you to join a weekly radio talk show to give an American’s impressions of living in the countryside of Japan. But first he wants to get a sense of how good your Japanese is.”
“I guess he knows now,” I cracked, bursting into laughter that no one else joined. At the time, my Japanese could barely get me in and out of a restaurant.
So began my strange odyssey of learning how to speak Japanese by talking on a live radio show every week. I would prepare a five-minute segment, learn it in Japanese, and pray to God my co-hosts wouldn’t ask me any questions. Often those prayers weren’t answered.
For the first six months when I headed to the remote location where we did our show, I often fantasized of my car rolling off the side of the road – anything to prevent me from getting on the air and making a fool of myself again. But I slowly got the hang of it, and continued to do the program for two years.
More importantly, my language skills improved to the point where I was eventually hired by The Wall Street Journal Asia as a feature writer in 2000 – a gig I would have never gotten were it not for the skills I picked up from the radio show. Which is a gig I never would have gotten unless I was a foreigner living in the countryside of Japan.
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