How I built my life in America after being shipped from Tokyo to Minnesota at age 12

This is a speech I prepared for my toastmaster meeting in Palo Alto, CA. I decided to share one of my defining moments in life, which was being shipped from Tokyo to Faribault, Minnesota at age 12.

Here in Silicon Valley, we celebrate the idea of taking risk, daring to go where no one else has gone before. For many cultures around the world, however, this isn’t the case. I was born and grew up in Tokyo, Japan, where risk-taking was far from celebrated. Our economy was booming in the 1990’s and everyone seemed to think it would last forever. To us, success meant getting a good education, attending a top school in Japan, and landing a job with a successful corporation. No one dared to question the status quo.

Although my parents never went to college, my father was fortunate enough to own a successful restaurant business, which he built from the ground up. Like most parents, they wanted their children to have better lives, and they wanted nothing more than for me to go to a top university.

When I was nine years old, they sent me to what’s known as a “cram school”, which takes place after regular school. During the week, I’d spend most of my evenings there, and, unfortunately, most of the weekends, too. The sole purpose of the cram school was to prepare us for the entrance exam for prestigious middle schools. Our goal was to be smarter than other students, always one step ahead. The competition was fierce. In fact, our weekly test scores were published so all neighbors knew the kids that were smart and the ones that were not. I had no time for camps, playing outside, sports, or hanging out with friends. After a full day of schooling, I was often too exhausted to do anything else.

A picture from my elementary school pre-graduation trip. I am in the second row wearing a black t-shirt.

Eventually, my father saw me buried in books, homework, and exams and began to question the system. While chatting with a friend one day, he learned about an international school in Singapore. At that moment, a light bulb went off in his head. At a minimum, he thought, I would learn to speak English — a global language that would enable me to travel the world.

My father was excited about the plan, but for me, it didn’t click at first. No one in my family spoke English, and no one had ever lived in a foreign country. I thought my father would give up on this crazy idea in a few days, but he did not. He was determined to send me to an international school.

Shortly thereafter, my father’s friend was able to get me an interview at the school in Singapore. When they found out I did not speak a word of English, however, they rejected my application. My father did not give up. He went to a book store and discovered a boarding school in Minnesota that offers English as Second Language. Most of our friends and family thought my parents were crazy– who in their right mind would send a 12-year-old child away to an unknown country? But my father didn’t let that stop him. Our neighbor was a translator, and my father hired him to write my school application. Because I was only 12, the school accepted me with a condition that I attend summer school prior to my admission.

A few months after my elementary school graduation, I boarded a flight from Narita to St. Paul/Minneapolis. At the airport, my parents fought back tears as they hugged me goodbye. When I finally arrived at Shattuck St. Mary’s School, which was located in the middle of nowhere in Faribault, Minnesota, reality slowly started to hit me. The first night, I could not sleep. I missed the noise of people and the traffic of Tokyo — those were sounds of home, and that’s where I wanted to be.

This presented a problem. Even if I wanted to go home, I had no way of getting there. There was no other Japanese person in the school or town that I could communicate with. There was no Internet. I had no bank account and no credit card. All I had was a $15 weekly allowance that my school handed out. I did not know how to call home. I cried myself to sleep many nights, but one day, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. I slowly started to get out of my room and tried to communicate with other kids. Communicating was difficult, but we found ways around the language barrier. Most of the time, I would carry huge dictionaries in my hands and other kids will point out words one by one. Later, I ended up volunteering at the school snack bar where they sold pizza and pop. Once I had control of the food, most kids became my friend.

My first year in Minnesota.

A month went by, and I finally discovered a wonderful thing called “calling collect”. At the touch of a button, “0” to be specific, I could talk to my family. I remember how excited I was when I heard my mother’s voice. I longed to tell her that I missed her and wanted to come home. As soon as my mother heard my voice, I noticed she was crying. She had not heard from me for a month and, understandably, she was worried. She asked how I was doing and if everything was okay. I knew they were doing what they thought was best for me, so I had to tell her everything was great. I could not tell her I wanted to go home — it would break their hearts if they knew how miserable I really felt.

One day at a time, I slowly adapted to my new environment. During the first year of school, I could not really understand what was going on in the classroom. The teachers must have felt bad for me, so instead of giving me lettered grades, they gave me “P’s” for pass.

The first year was difficult. I felt alone and sad that there was no one I could communicate with in Japanese, my native language. But because of this environment, my English improved dramatically. After one year in Minnesota, I had no issue communicating with the other kids.

I am thankful to be here today, and this would not have happened if my family and I did not take a leap of faith. It was a challenge to all of us, living apart from each other and facing a lot of unknowns. We did not know how it was going to end up, but we all hoped it would enable me to live a great life. I feel extremely fortunate that today, I can travel the world and communicate with most people. It’s opened a world of possibilities and I always have so many options because of it.

Sometimes, taking risk is difficult, even when you know in your heart that is the right thing to do. It takes courage to act. Whenever I feel discouraged, I remind myself how I got here. If a 12-year-old can find a way to make a foreign country her new home, then I can do anything I set my mind to. To quote Robert Frost, I have chosen the path less traveled and that has made all the difference. I am thankful to be in the U.S. where we have infinite opportunities to pursue our dreams.