So you wanna learn Japanese, huh? It’s a daunting task, but one David McNeill of Expat Empire tackled quite effectively. If you’re looking for language learning resources specifically for Japanese, this episode of Alone with Peter is chalk full of them.
On season 2, episode 19 of Alone with Peter David McNeill of Expat Empire talks about his journey towards mastering the Japanese language, how he moved to Japan, and some of the struggles he encountered living in a foreign culture as an expat.
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David McNeill Founder of Expat Empire
If you want to get in touch with David McNeill or learn more about what Expat Empire has to offer your move abroad check out the links below.
Japanese Language Resources Mentioned in this episode
Here are some Japanese resources mentioned in the podcast episode. Happy language learning!
Genki – https://genki.japantimes.co.jp/index_en
Japanese Pod 101 – https://www.japanesepod101.com/
Anki – https://apps.ankiweb.net/
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar – https://www.amazon.com/Dictionary-Basic-Japanese-Grammar/dp/4789004546
A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar – https://www.amazon.com/Dictionary-Intermediate-Japanese-Grammar/dp/4789007758
A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar – https://www.amazon.com/Dictionary-Advanced-Japanese-Grammar-English/dp/4789012956
Please enjoy part 2 of our interview with David McNeill, Founder of Expat Empire
*Transcripts may contain a few typos. With interviews ranging from 1-2 hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
Peter Kersting: Welcome to Alone with Peter, a podcast for entrepreneurs, artists, digital nomads, and people seeking personal growth. We’re back for part two of our interview with David McNeil, the founder of Expat Empire. What is Expat Empire? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned to find out.
Peter Kersting: Right now. We’re talking with David about Japan because surprise, surprise. David is fluent in Japanese, and if you looking at him, you would never guess it because he is the wightest Mofo I’ve ever seen he’s from the Bay Area, fluent in Japanese. So tell me about that. How did that get started for you because obviously in the previous episode, if you wanna hear about it, you guys go back. David has family who have had interesting ties to Japan and it’s kind of sparked an interest for you, but how did the study of the language start? That is a whole other ball of yarn.
David McNeill: Yeah, absolutely. I got interested as we talked about through, honestly at least on a personal level, obviously there was the, there was the, you know, family elements and things like that that were always in the background, but also just getting into the Japanese culture through the anime, the manga, the video games, the stuff that’s been popular over the years. And at least for me, the gateway, the entry was, Dragonball Z which I think was popular for a lot of kids of my generation. And I think what it was though was that I saw it and I was like, this is so cool. And I love this, but then it also was me in the back of my mind thinking, you know, it’d be really way cooler would be to watch this without subtitles or to watch it in Japanese.
David McNeill: I guess I was watching it in English at the time. Of course. And I think that just was one of the things that sparked the interest. There were a few other things like, I, I don’t know, it was just something in the back of my mind and I kept, it’s one of those things where if you have it in the back of your mind, you keep seeing it pop up here and there. And it just kind of grew into something that I was actually kind of interested in pursuing.
David McNeill: It was around those years where at least my dad was like, you should get a hobby, you should like develop a skill on something. And I was like, yeah, that’s a good idea. , sure, dad. I tried, you know, playing music and I couldn’t really stick with that. And I’ve tried sports over the years and I mean, I did stick with some of those over a couple years, but it just wasn’t my passion.
David McNeill: And so I was like, okay, language. And I was just never that drawn to learning Spanish or French or German, like most, you know, a lot of kids do in school, in the us. And anyway, Japanese was kind of sitting there in the background. And, um, my mom was working also on the side for a book selling company at the time. And there was a discount, uh, some promotion going on for the sellers. And I looked through there and I’m like, oh, a Japanese book and cassette tape set. That sounds pretty good. Get me that. And then it took a couple months and a couple tries for me to stick with it. But then it became a thing where every day, honestly, every day for 30 minutes a day, I sat down and did it. And then I did that every single day at 12 years old,
Peter Kersting: Every day for 30 minutes a day. Hang on before you keep going, because we’re gonna talk about this for a second here. Okay. I’m sure the listeners may know, but if they don’t Japanese, at least for a native English speaker is probably one of the most challenging languages you picked one of the hardest ones you could do because there’s three different alphabets, right? It’s character based. There’s not, it’s definitely not. It’s definitely not Roman stuff and the pronunciation and everything else is gonna be as foreign to you as possible. Did you realize how much you were getting yourself into when you chose Japanese?
David McNeill: So not no, no. I just thought it would be cool.
Peter Kersting: Does anyone ever,
David McNeill: I think, I think it’s one of those things that maybe if you have the, the perspective, if you’re, I don’t know if you’ve learned languages before or you’re older and have more demands on your time, then maybe there’s that point where you’re like, oh, you know what? I don’t know if I just, I don’t know if I want to go down this path and I’m glad that I did, but it was one of those things where, I mean, again, I was truly, truly passionate about it and I did not think, of course, I thought, well, it’s different from Spanish and it would be easier just to take that at school. But I think passion, at least for me, has always played a big part in this and keep sticking with something and wanting to do it. So I think with Japanese, I had that and I didn’t have the context of, well, this is one of the hardest languages to learn.
David McNeill: I mean, there was a point where after you learn the first two basic, um, writing more, more basic writing systems with around 50 characters each, where you go into the, the congy, the Chinese, uh, originally Chinese characters and there’s for fluency, you need at least basically to learn, at least 2000 of them is what they say. There was that point where I was like, do I really want to learn congy or not? Because that is such a huge investment and a huge, you know, thing to embark on. And I thought about it for a while. Honestly, I was on the fence, but it came down to, well, if I’m really serious about this language, the only way to keep improving, the only way to get fluent really is to learn at least how to read the congy. So then once that was done and you learn your first couple, then it’s just years and years of effort after that.
Peter Kersting: Okay. Hold up though, by the timing that you got to Kanji, how long had you been invested?
David McNeill: Um, well, so I started, uh, it’s hard. I’m trying to think exactly when that was, but probably, you know, I started when I was 12 and I did that booking cassette tape set a few times. I did a school at the community college, uh, did a class at the community college. And then I started taking after school, um, lessons up there in Los Angeles. And probably then that was when I was around. I don’t know, 14 or so, so probably 14, 15. I decided, okay. I mean, if I, if I’m gonna keep going, then I need to do this. It’s kind of that thing. I mean, especially at least in a Japanese school, if I was just doing it all on my own, maybe, you know, you’d find a way around it some, some way, if you just wanted spoken fluency, but if you wanna study it properly in, in after school classes or in language programs or in university, then you have to do it. So it’s just kind of that decision.
Peter Kersting: This is something I know a lot of people are gonna be interested in because if you’re interested in living in Japan, it really, really helps to know the language. And as you kind of hinted at right now, it’s not something you can exactly pick up overnight. So I want to touch on a couple things and I would love for you to elaborate. Okay. First of all, I love that you said you have to have passion because I think that is key for any long term goal, right? If you don’t have passion for it, if you don’t have a end game reason for it, you’re not gonna learn. Also, you said you spent 30 minutes a day every day for how long?
David McNeill: Um, well I think probably the way to put it is I’m sure I did many more than this over the years, but there’s that thing about learning something for 10,000 hours to become a master at it. And I don’t know if it, I there’s, there are these kind of numbers of hours that it would take to become fluent in a language that’s done by some government agency. And I’m sure it’s off of the, you know, it’s not 10,000 or something, whatever they say, but, um, maybe if you do it in the most efficient way or things like that, it could be less. But I really, uh, you know, it was 30 minutes a day for nine months with that course. And then I started again, started taking after school classes and you know, it was the point where, when I was at university and studying it there, where not only was I taking it however many hours per week in my classes, but on top of that, the homework at home, I was listening to podcasts on the, like walking around the campus, going to my next class. I was watching the, the shows, playing the games, you know, just, uh, reading books, you know, I was doing like, it was way, it was way more than 30 minutes a day,
Peter Kersting: Constantly listening to it and consuming it.
David McNeill: Yeah, it was, it was more active. Yeah.
Peter Kersting: I would really love to hear, first of all, if you were, let’s say it’s me. Um, cuz I am interested in learning Japanese. In fact I hopefully will move to Japan next year. If all goes according to plan, if I’m going like, all right, David, you did it. You’re as wide as I am. how do I do this? First of all, do you have some resources? You mentioned podcast, you mentioned books on tape. What are some things you would recommend to people who are like, Hey, you know what, I wanna start dipping my toe. I’ll do 10 minutes a day. Maybe it’s not 30, 10 minutes a day though, what should they do?
David McNeill: I have a couple of things that I would recommend. I don’t have my, you know, full resources and I’m not sure where the best place to start is, but um, in general, so the textbooks that a lot of people use and maybe, you know, some people say they’re not the best or this or that. And maybe they might be better in a, in a classroom setting, but they’re called Genki, Genki textbooks. Yeah. Which is sort of like healthy or excited or, you know, what happy or whatever that’d
Peter Kersting: G E N K I, if it was anglicized?
David McNeill: Exactly, so those textbooks, um, but I would say, so the podcast side, I don’t know if they’re still doing it. I mean, I haven’t listened in, in a long time. I think they probably still are, but it was called Japanese pod 1 0 1,
Peter Kersting: Japanese pod, 1 0 1.
David McNeill: I listened to that for years and they have all different levels on there as well. And of course you can pay for the premium, but you know, you get extra stuff, but essentially, you know, it’s a podcast you can listen for free. And then what else?
Peter Kersting: There’s a hit on Spotify at least. Yeah. Japanesepod101.com as well.
David McNeill: I would strongly recommend anyone learning. Well, anything that takes repetition, especially language. And in fact, this program was built by someone who was trying to learn Japanese. Although again, it’s not just for Japanese language study, but it’s called Anki
Peter Kersting: A N K I Anki
David McNeill: Yeah. And this is a great, well, it’s essentially a flashcard tool, but it does a space repetition, which means that you can say how well you remember the card and then it will bring it up to you, you know, four days later versus in an hour or in a minute, uh, based on, you know, how well that you remember it. And so it’s just, I would always just go and if I found a sentence in a book or, you know, something I wanted to remember or practice, I would put it in there and then just go and review those flashcards every day as well. I mean, again, there was so many ways that I was trying to tackle how to learn this language. And I was fortunate to have a lot of great teachers over the years, but those are some of the tools that I used.
Peter Kersting: Genki, Anki, Japanesepod101.
David McNeill: Yeah. And it adjusted as I, you know, went up the ladder as well. So anyway, that’s the short version.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. I appreciate that. And I’m gonna dig a little bit more, but not too much more cuz I, I think we’re, we’re gonna keep moving, but for those of us who are interested in how you did it and maybe to be aware of, you know, what are some of the things that might be different for us versus you? How important was structure for you in that learning environment? How important was having a professor or a really well defined podcast or something because some people are really good at self-study and other people like myself.
Peter Kersting: For example, when I was running Korean, talktomeinkorean.com was a lifesaver for a couple reasons. Number one, it’s a Korean guy who created the show, but he’s also really fluent in English. So he explained it in a way that I understood why they say what they say. And for me understanding why helps me remember and helps me know when I learned what a word means. I would remember it better. And I found in my experience as a teacher of English as a second language as well, that’s hugely important to have some kind of context. Right. So that’s something I would like to know how important was structure? How much was it like, thank God I had someone who explained grammar really well to me beause if I just jumped into vocab, it would’ve been chaos?
David McNeill: Hmm. Yeah. I do think it depends on people’s learning styles and what works for them. I, I would say that another resource, especially, well, whether you’re doing self-study or not, but a good one for self-study it’s, it’s a bit different from your typical book, but there are three volumes it’s dictionary of basic intermediate and advanced Japanese grammar. I think that’s essentially the title. I don’t remember if those are the exact words
Peter Kersting: It’s called dictionary of?
David McNeill: Basic Japanese grammar and then there’s the, there’s also intermediate and advanced and they’re thick volumes. I mean, that’s the thing, it’s a hard, hard language, but
Peter Kersting: There’s no easy route.
David McNeill: No, well, frankly there’s no easy route. I mean that, that much you can say for sure. I mean, and as you said with most things, um, and that sort of 10,000 hour type thing, like anything you kind of want to do well, uh, will take a lot of time. But, but with Japanese, that was a really good resource for me, that dictionary of grammar, because essentially it would explain how to use it and use it in a sentence with all, you know, books in English except for the examples. And then it would also compare and contrast how to use that grammar point with another grammar point that was similar. And so it was really nice to be able to see that all in written in con writing in context. But I think for me, I’m the type of person I’m just, you know, I’m just wired to kind of be the go-getter and I’m good with self-study and I was always the person at school.
David McNeill: I mean, , this makes me sound lame and I’m not using this to brag but just to give an example, I was always a person at school who, like, I remember having a report due in a month’s time. I would get it done a week early and just be like finalizing it for the last week. Whereas, you know, most other folks, frankly end up kind of doing it last week or the last minutes. So that’s just gives you a sense of my style and my drive and my work ethic, which is, you know, doesn’t come naturally to everybody. So for me, uh, a lot of it was again, like I would just put on the podcast, I would take notes, make flashcards on the go, you know, so I’m glad I had the structure and people, mentors and teachers to, to turn to, um, that helped me out along the way and taught me a lot of things. But I also had that inner drive, which I think is really important for continuing it for this many years.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. That’s so that’s so important. And I wanna highlight something and then I want to maybe create an overview of how just like, if we’re gonna give a timeline of how your studies have gone up to moving into Japan, because I know for a fact, without even asking you that moving Japan was when your fluency really started. I, I just can’t believe otherwise. I
David McNeill: Don’t know about that. Really.
Peter Kersting: You were that good before you were get, how often were you able to talk to somebody in Japanese before you went to Japan?
David McNeill: I had pen pals. We had, uh, we had, uh, Japanese exchange students come over. I did immersion programs. I was doing the, I mean, I was doing the full thing, man. I, I took, I got the second there’s a now at, at the time there were four levels, uh, of the J L P T, which is a Japanese language proficiency test. And so that’s the sort of nationally recognized exam for fluency. Um, I got the second highest level when I was in university and then I barely missed the first highest level, which eventually I got when I was in Japan. So of course when I was in Japan, I got better, but I went to Japan with, I mean, again, I studied this intensely for years through university as well. So, you know,
Peter Kersting: , I stand corrected, I stand corrected, but with a caveat because you did a full immersion program before, which I didn’t realize, and that I guess was my point.
David McNeill: Yeah, it was like a summer camp for a month type thing. And I also went back as a counselor as well when I was in university. So yeah, I mean it, this was a passion among passions, you know what I mean?
Peter Kersting: Fair, fair enough. I’m just saying the immersion aspect is when you really test your legs, at least from my experience mm-hmm, , um, you cannot learn more when, until you have to for, for a lot of people anyway. Um, but, but, okay, so let’s give the overview of like 12 years old, you pick up the cassette tape,
David McNeill: Right.
Peter Kersting: All the way up through level one.
David McNeill: Sure. So trying to keep it short, uh, I would say,
Peter Kersting: And, and when you do it, sorry, cuz what I’m trying to illustrate it here is you started with self-study then you did this, then you did that cuz it, obviously it ramped up, you weren’t just doing it all on your own the whole time. Right?
David McNeill: Right. Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I would say I started out first at 12 with a book and cassette tape set like we talked about, I did that for it’s a three month set, program, course. And I did that over nine months. I did it twice. So I took longer than three months each time, but I did that every day for 30 minutes to review it and went back over it and so on.
David McNeill: And then we moved to Los Angeles. Uh, and so then there were a lot more opportunities. And at first for a few months we were living in Santa Monica. So I went to a community college there just for, uh, one class just to take the Japanese class, um, beginners, you know, entry level. And of course I was the youngest person there. I know like 13 in this course with also like 60 plus year old people there that were interested in the language.
David McNeill: So, you know, I did that for just a few months, but then luckily found a afterschool program to go to that I did, I think it was two days per week for like three hours in the afternoon. And so I went there and um, you know, was with a class there of other high schoolers, did that for two years. And then I also did that immersion program in the summer, uh, after the second year. And that was only a month, but it was so, you know, super intense basically, you know, really tried to do it as immersive as possible and then came back and thought, well, I can’t really do this high school Japanese class anymore because I’ve like gone too far kind of past that. I was already quite ahead because I’d done that study before and again, I was very committed to studying it.
David McNeill: Yeah, so , I would sort of sit out in the class in that way anyway, but then it was like, uh, I found, found a tutor locally and so, um, Japanese woman and we just would even an hour per week is all we did. And of course I did homework and stuff like that, but even an hour per week, it was already better than two, three hours, twice a week at the high school class because it was just speaking it all the time and you know, she was correcting me and we would just talk about all different topics and I was able to like, it wasn’t that you get, you get that direct one-on-one experience is gonna be totally different. And um, so from there I also did some speech contests, uh, basically like full Japanese, you know, five minute speech, um, about different topics preparing for that for months and you know, getting, you know, placing in some of that.
David McNeill: And then, uh, then I went to Japan for the first time finally at 17 and that was a a month, uh, summer program where we did home stay. We did traveling around sight seeing, but also language study. And I came back from that experience, knowing that I wanted like Japan was even cooler and better than I thought. So it was like, okay, how do I make this a thing? How do I, how do I try to get there someday? And then, uh, I decided to go to school in the United States again to university of Texas Austin eventually, but I decided to major there in business international business at first and then moved into finance later and then also did a do a double major in, uh, Japanese. So east Asian languages and cultures.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. You double majored in Japanese as well. This is something for those of you listening is going to be consistent. That Japan is a catalyst for David. Yes . And, and I mean to highlight this because it is fascinating to hear, for example, you had the drive to find some local person, you to teach you tutoring on the side. And that makes so much sense on one level, but on the other level, it’s like nobody would think to do that. How did you find someone? Was it hard?
David McNeill: I’m trying to remember how it was. Yeah, I, it was someone like one of the, I don’t remember how my mom or it was me or I don’t remember how it actually happened, but it was someone who had, uh, children, well, even older than me, so younger or older than me, but still teenagers that were in the same school district. So close enough to be able to go to actually closer than the Japanese school was. But, um, I, I, I, you know, I definitely would say a big part of it was just being in the Los Angeles area. I mean, I can find that in mobile, Alabama. Right. So, I mean, it was, it was a good, you know, that, that was a privilege to be able to be there and have that opportunity. And obviously my parents to be able to, you know, support me in that, in that, um, endeavor and to drive me around and things like that before I could drive. But, um, so I had all of that, but it was definitely just, and yeah, trying to find the best way to continue the growth and to, and to change the way of studying it based on my progress. Yes.
Peter Kersting: Which is why I’m really happy that we gave that overview because clearly as time progresses, having those other people who know more than you do, and that’s something that will translate to success in any area that you’re trying to work in, recognizing how much hard work do you have to put on your own before you go find somebody else who knows how to do it better than you. Um, and, and also the go-getter attitude. I I’m just this, it tells you how you learned Japanese, but it tells you a little bit more about you too. So I just wanted to touch on that. And I’m glad you mentioned your parents because I was gonna say mm-hmm, the support from your parents was probably huge, right?
David McNeill: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they were supportive pretty much from day one. I mean, , I was always watching dragon ball and whatever else with my dad anyway. So I think, and you know, like I said, they had that, uh, he had that experience with, um, the exchange student in Japan and so on. So I think there was just always a love for that type of culture and background. And I think, yeah, they were just super supportive and you know, my dad, again, like I mentioned, the previous episode, told me about, uh, finding a hobby and I think he was glad that I found something and something that he could also, he hadn’t studied it, but he could relate to it in a, in a way that he might not have been able to with another language or some other type of hobby. So
Peter Kersting: I’m geeking out over here because I’m just guessing your dad’s a big nerd too. Like just a visual FX guy. And he was down to watch Dragonball Z with you. I’m pretty sure like a lot of your interests came from him.
David McNeill: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, I, I never got too much into wow. But he’s still playing. Wow. So
Peter Kersting: That is so funny. Okay. Yes.
David McNeill: Yeah. He’s definitely,
Peter Kersting: This is the picture we’re painting here. Okay, great. So we’re gonna move on from Japanese fluency and we’re gonna get back on the train of your journey to Asia and, and how that moved from there. So sure. We, we spent a decent amount of time about the language because the language is a huge obstacle for a lot of people. In that regard, you got your first tasted Japan in 2007, you said,
David McNeill: Uh, so let’s see, uh, 2005. And then I went back in 2007.
Peter Kersting: Okay. 2005, 2007. Now we mentioned in previous episode how you had traveled around, but then you decided to move to Japan for work mm-hmm . So you moved in 2014, you worked at ASIC. What were you doing at ASIC?
David McNeill: Yeah, I guess to kind of give the lead up there. So before that I was working in San Francisco at a tech company as a product manager. And, uh, I also had an opportunity with that company not to get into the, the details of it, but I also had an opportunity to go to Beijing for three months. And so I came back from that really excited to go back, you know, to Asia or to go abroad, really, because that had been my dream and it took some years to make it happen. I had had a couple years job in, in finance before all that. Um, but I came back from that ready to go back to China. And then I got laid off, uh, out of the blue actually right the day, the morning after I was told that we would be going back to China, I was, uh, laid off, which was a, a big, uh, blow to say the least.
David McNeill: But I came out of that thinking, I wanna find a way to get back abroad. And I wanted to that to be decided by a company that I was working for. And so I basically, um, started, I took a trip around Europe and I know there’s a lot of stuff to get into here, but I took a, a train trip around Europe for two months. And while I did that, I was also taking interviews in Japan and China. And by the end of my trip, uh, shortly after I got the offer to, uh, to go to Japan. And so I was doing a, actually a growth marketing job for Asics at first, but, you know, I was working with a product manager and eventually I moved into the product manager’s role about a year into the, into the job when the other product manager went to another job. So that was kind of how it all came together. And that’s what I did, but, um, but Asics is a Japanese company. So I was working a lot of people don’t realize that, but this is a Japanese company. So I was working at a Japanese company in Japan, but with a very global team, uh, a lot of, uh, English speaking, you know, foreigners and expats there. So, um, yeah, , that’s the thick picture, I guess.
Peter Kersting: How much were you prepared for the culture cuz obviously you had the language on your belt, but how much was the culture something you had to adapt to?
David McNeill: Um, I had had, you know, many, uh, yeah, years, as you said of studying the language and also of course studying the culture at these different programs and I’ve traveled to Japan a few times and uh, studied that in the university. So I had that context, but there, there was still certainly a big adjustment and like, like I mentioned, even though I was working in quite a global setting, despite being a, a otherwise traditional Japanese company, I still felt in the workplace there, there’s definitely a strong feeling of, uh, the Japanese sort of hierarchy and influence coming from the headquarters and things like that, even to our small like satellite office and sense in Tokyo. Um, because there was even a, just for context, there was a bigger Japanese, um, sorry, Tokyo office for the company, uh, in a different part of Tokyo. And so we were even separate from that.
David McNeill: And, um, we were kind of off doing our own global thing. And so it was a really privileged, you know, role and position to be in, in fact, despite my Japanese fluency, none of the interview was done in Japanese. It was really, it was, it was not required to be able to speak Japanese. That was just sort of a benefit, obviously, I guess, as I applied, but that was, um, that was the situation, but we’d still feel from the headquarters and, and so on this, uh, you know, influence from the hierarchy and the way that things are done and not trying to step out too much. And you know, it, there was definitely an adjustment period there and also even just on a personal level, just trying to make friends and things like that. It, it was harder than I thought it would be. Um, you know, from the outside,
Peter Kersting: How were you received as a, someone working and then also what were some of those challenges?
David McNeill: Yeah. Uh, I think I was received, received quite well and I think most, generally, most people are. I mean, that might change based on where you’re from or the things that you’ve done, things like that. I mean, one, honestly, one thing I found strange and it’s just something that yeah. Was a, I had to get used to was at first I would tell people that I actually had spent a couple months in China, like I mentioned, um, I, and I thought I had a great experience there, you know, very different culture and everything else, but I had a great time. And when I would tell people that in Japan, like is sort of like a, Hey, I was doing that, you know, some 6, 8, 12 months ago, whatever it was, um, then they would be just sort of like, oh, you know, like not really into into that.
David McNeill: And so it was like, I had to kind of learn how to, you know, show maybe again, this type of thing of, oh, it’s more about the us. They’re more interested in that, but then this question of, oh, are you from LA or New York, you know? And it just, you kind of had to do it in a way that, uh, like, yeah, they might accept people differently, frankly, from where they’re from. And I mean, I suppose every country and every group of people like that around the world is that way. But in general, once I, you know, learned those things and learned like the second after they, you meet somebody and they, you exchange your names, uh, then it’s, then it’s how old are you? I mean, you probably experienced that in Korea as well. Yes.
Peter Kersting: And are you married?
David McNeill: Yeah. yes. There were many, uh, aspects of this or when did you, you know, well, I guess they didn’t worry too much about when I graduated, but these types of things can get, you know, are like important or like what’s your blood type was another one, which is like, I don’t even know what my blood type is. So
Peter Kersting: For those of us who, who maybe don’t they’re like, why would you ask the question? Okay. Why, why is that? I think I know, but please.
David McNeill: Yeah. So I think as far as the age, and, you know, maybe when you graduated or who’s the, it’s basically like the hierarchy of who’s the Simi COHI is what it’s called or like the senior person, the junior person,
Peter Kersting: Simi and COHI and Simi being the, the older more hierarchy based person and COHI being the lower.
David McNeill: Right. And there’s, you know, maybe it’s the formality of the speech that you use or how you interact with somebody that would be changed by that. Or, and then there’s the, the blood type thing, which is almost more of like a, I think it’s more like a kind of, um, Aquarius or this type of astrology type of thing. That’s more an Asian thing in nature.
Peter Kersting: It’s not like a, it’s not like if, if you go to St. Louis, Missouri, and you’re, if somebody thinks you’re from around, there they go, uh, what, what high school did you go to? Cause then they can, uh, cause they, cuz they can figure out, oh, you’re from this part of town. And that means you’re probably from this background and stuff. It’s not like that
David McNeill: Right. Uh, well, I mean it’s, it’s definitely, you know, trying to kind of understand people on some level through something that, you know, I, I could tell someone what high school I’m from, but I don’t think it would say a lot about me, you know, it’s sort of that thing where it’s like going, tell, give someone a stereotype, but
Peter Kersting: The blood type might yeah. It might say, oh, okay. I, I understand.
David McNeill: Right, right. I guess it’s more general than a high school, but it’s also, you know, uh, yeah. As much as you believe everyone born in the same month is the same thing.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. Yeah. Well I’m I just give the, the, the comparison because that’s a very Midwestern thing that doesn’t happen where I’m from but my, for my parents, yeah. They would ask where’d you go to school in St. Louis as a means of understanding them.
David McNeill: And I, I think to your question around, you know, adjusting to the, to the business front, I, I think it was just things like how decisions are made, um, whether or not you’re actually involved in decision making process, what’s the process to get something approved. And typically in Japan, it’s a lot of paperwork. It’s, it’s stamps it’s faxes. It is not as, I mean, maybe it’s certainly progressed since I was living there, but it’s not as technologically advanced as I think the robots and, you know, television would lead us to believe. And I’ve learned that about Germany as well. So I mean, you know, many countries, every country looks some way on, um, you know, in popular culture and might be different, but that’s one thing about Japan that was definitely challenging was navigating the dynamics of that across other foreigners, across Japanese people, which may or may not have spoken English. And how did, how did like the paperwork process? And it was just, it was truly painful throughout learning all of that. And even by the end, I would say, I didn’t know it that well, but it was just like, you know, you kind of tried to avoid it as much as possible.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. Okay. Let’s get, let’s zoom out a little bit here because we could talk about Japan all day, the culture all day and who knows maybe, uh, people are really enjoying this episode and they ask for it. Maybe we’ll do a follow up specifically about Japan. Cause I think we could talk about that for quite some time, but we need to, we need to start doing a little bit of a zoom out here. So before we move on completely, I wanna say, first of all, you mentioned the hierarchy, that being a key part of that’s Asian culture in general, but definitely comes in play in Japan. Tell me about reading the air. What is that? What’s the Japanese word for that? What does that really mean? And how does that come into play?
David McNeill: Yeah, so that’s, kuuki wo yomu, which basically is reading the air. But essentially what that means is being able to understand if you’re supposed to do something and not supposed to do something or how, especially saying something, um, based on, you know, what you’re feeling in the room. I mean, it’s probably kind of hard to describe, but it’s just sort of that like some like someone who can’t read the air well would say something kind of awkward or embarrassing, or just like not appropriate to the situation if they had sort of paid attention to the surroundings and how people were interacting. And it’s sort of like picking up the vibe in a sense, if I’m trying to westernize, it is kind of like you walk into a room and it’s like oddly quiet, or you can sort of tend if you, if you notice there’s some little energy or lack thereof or whatever it is, and you might not want to go into that empty room and just scream something , I’m giving an extreme example, but, that’s the idea,
Peter Kersting: That’s an extreme example that they would probably think, what is the Japanese word for foreigner? In Korean it’s waygooken,
David McNeill: It’s gaikokujin or gaijin
Peter Kersting: Gaijin right. gaikokujin or gaijin
David McNeill: Well, gaijin being the, you know, uh, it’s like foreign, foreign gaikokujin being foreign country person, or, which is the nice way to say it or gaijin, which is more slang or simple, which is just foreign person.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. I always found that term foreigner to be so like abrasive, but I had to realize that that doesn’t mean negative thing necessarily to people it could be, but
David McNeill: Yeah, yeah, not necessarily. I mean, there’s definitely that undercurrent though, that you experience in Japan of, you know, just being, being an outsider. I mean, unless you’re Japanese
Peter Kersting: Yeah. As a ggaikokujin what were the things that were expected of you and what were things that were not expected of you?
David McNeill: that is actually a really good question because , um, I think one thing that I found really difficult to take in was the fact that despite having spent, you know, more than a decade up to that point 15 plus years of studying the language and doing all that stuff that we talked about and language tests and everything, you’d still get this reaction of, like, if you could speak three words, they’d give you a round of applause. And it’s like, can we, you know, at first it’s kind of fun. And then five, five times later it’s like, guys like, dude,
Peter Kersting: I’m on, can we one
David McNeill: Move on? Can we move on? No, can we just, you know, yes, I can use chop six. Yes, yes. I like sushi. Yes. Yeah. You know? Yeah. It’s like, all right. It’s, it’s a funny game of 10, 10 or 20 questions where it’s like, oh, do you like Japan? Do you like sushi? Can you use chop six? Oh, your Japanese is so good. Oh, how old are you? You know, it’s like, okay, can we just like skip all that and get to the good stuff?
Peter Kersting: , that’s a personality coming out a little bit there, man, because I always thought that was, I mean, I totally get where you’re coming from. I think I feel the same way at a certain point. But for those of us who are just listening, they’re just, there is a certain expectation and it’s not necessarily very high in some situations.
David McNeill: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it, well, what I would say to com but compare and contrasted is so going to Japan, I already spoke Japanese very well. I was, you know, uh, as we talked about doing all that and I was really focused on it and my goal had been to work in Japan for so long and I finally did it. It was great. And then to kind of get treated that way at first is it was definitely frustrating after a while. And I, I mean, to me, it was also crazy to think that, like I saw people there, like my coworkers that had been in Japan 15, 20 years, and they’re still getting treated like that obviously by people that don’t know them. I’m not saying, you know, uh, people that know them with, but, but that just because of the way you look and because of the expectations, this is just what you get every day for 20 years, unless you go to the same spots over and over. Whereas I would say in Germany, there was an expectation that when I got there that I would speak German and yet, uh, and, and because I didn’t, then it was actually quite difficult. They’re
Peter Kersting: Like, what? You don’t know German? Why are you here?
David McNeill: Yeah. Yeah. And the, just that tone let alone the difference in my fluency made it such a different experience and culturally, and just in terms of the way that I was treated in it, you know, or, or accepted or everything else,
Peter Kersting: I can tell that that was a point of tension, not necessarily in a negative way, but for you to kind of come to grips with, and this is key for anyone living in a different culture. How do you step back from that? And then look at it from someone else’s shoes, because I’m sure that’s what you really had to do in order to not be upset by it every time.
David McNeill: Yeah. I mean, I, I certainly wouldn’t say that I was a Saint about it, but , I mean, I’ll be honest about that too. I’m not gonna say that. I was like, totally understanding every time, but I, it’s hard. It’s hard. Um, I think that’s why it’s important to make good relationships, good friends, good connections that aren’t, aren’t gonna, you know, that you don’t have to do that every time. And obviously there’s, there’s that time and there’s always an ongoing process of if you wanna make new friends and you need to go through that process again. Um, but it does, I think over time and that’s what happens with a lot of people, even if they’re living in their hometown, they might not always go out and try to meet new people. Right. They kind of have their circle. And so I think after those first, you know, months or years, then maybe you become a bit more, you know, in your, in your group in your ways, and you just, maybe you don’t engage or reach out as much as, as you did before.
David McNeill: Um, but there can be many reasons for that. Um, I think otherwise, I mean, you definitely do have to just sort of understand that it’s coming from a good place. I mean, I’ve experienced that in each of the countries and even here in Portugal, so many, and, and they do it in English, mostly fluent English, which is amazing. And, you know, I, I always feel bad about not being able to speak Portuguese that well and knowing how good I spoke Japanese, you know, but it’s the same thing of, oh, you moved to all these countries or you’re from the us, like, why would you come to Portugal? Do you love it here? How do you like the food? And, and it’s meant so well, it’s meant so, and I, I, I appreciate that, but at the same time, I’m also like, you know, I wish I could just like record and play back my answers because I know it’s like, oh, track number three.
David McNeill: Okay, here we go. And, and I hate to put it that way, but I think even if somebody’s traveling the world, for example, a digital Noma tourist or whatever they wanna do backpacker, they’re gonna go to the hostile and they’re gonna get the same 20 questions that, you know, where did you go? Where were you before? Where are you going next? Where are you from? And I think it’s the same thing. I mean, it’s just gonna happen everywhere. And I think you just have to find maybe be on, be on your own or find your group of people and decide when you want to venture out and, and deal with those questions.
Peter Kersting: I think something that you mentioned there is worth pausing on. And then, uh, and then man, I spent a lot more time on the, on the Japanese language stuff than, than I anticipated, but interesting. So we’re gonna have to accelerate through some you’re you’re
David McNeill: Your own biases are coming through, which is fine.
Peter Kersting: Oh my gosh. Well, no, because I mean, yes, of course, but also, also I think for the audience, it’s gonna be something that if they’re interested in living in Japan or Korea or China or any of these places, it’s gonna apply very similarly. Oh, totally,
David McNeill: Totally. I think it’s great. I was just, I’m just messing with
Peter Kersting: You. Yeah. Yeah. I understand. I understand. And I deserve that, but uh, to come back to what you were just saying, it’s really important to number one, notice people or people, every spotty gun, you went, okay. Like they’re asking the same kind of questions. Like, yeah. It might be able to different version. You’re not used to like why blood type versus where did you go to school? Uh, or like, what’s your job. But we always ask these like surface level questions to figure somebody out. And so I’ve always found it’s helpful to be like, okay, how are we similar? And because there’s obviously these huge differences that you can pay attention to, like, we’re always focused on those as a human beings. But I think the fact that you mentioned people in Japan are asking me the same types of questions as people in Portugal ask me, and it’s the same frustration that comes with it. I’m more than just like whether or not I like to use chopsticks or whether I like Portuguese food. Like, can you think of a more interesting question? is the same frustration, right? The more you can notice those things is like, oh, they’re just another person. And now we just need to figure out where our conversation clicks or how we can understand each other. That’s where it’s at right there. Agreed.
David McNeill: And I mean, I think, uh, I think I have, you know, as we’ve been going through like an interesting and, uh, potentially long-winded story of my background, but, but in a way what’s, what’s a challenge is everyone asks you where you’re from. And obviously they know where you are because I’m in front of them. So they know I’m in Portugal, for example, but, but I, but there’s, and they know I’m not from there, uh, or they quickly find out. So then, but, but because I’ve also got these other countries that I have experience in, like, I don’t, I don’t want to go off on a monologue on them about my whole history and background, but at the same time, I also wanna, I, I try to point out that it’s like, yeah, I, I may be American by citizenship. I may have been born there. I may have been raised there, but this does not define me either. You know? So it’s a, it’s a challenging balance where I don’t wanna be explaining for five minutes, my whole thing, but I also just don’t wanna be typecast into a certain role either.
Peter Kersting: Yeah. And that’s so important to remember for yourself and for others, right. Is like, man, like I’m so much more than just a dude from San Francisco. Like we talked about four, like I could tell them I’m from the bay area. Right. And they’re, and they’re gonna go, oh, okay. That’s what I wanted to know. Oh, cool. California sunshine. And you’re like, all right. Yeah, that’s true. Fine. Whatever, but that’s not who I am, man. Exactly. And, and you’re gonna feel that on so many different levels, but yeah. Yeah. That’s, it just ties back in really well. And, and the more you can be paying attention to that stuff, the more you’re gonna succeed. All right. So let’s wrap this. So fluent in Japanese, you moved in 2014, you worked for a six. All of a sudden that contract is ending mm-hmm okay. You’re confronted with this shutdown of your job and the choice to move to Boston or to relocate somewhere else. At this point, you’ve lived in Japan for two years, three years,
David McNeill: Right. Uh, it’d been in total. It was two years. So obviously we know I ended up leaving, I guess I can walk, walk us through that. But, uh, I think at the point where I was making decisions probably a year and a half in,
Peter Kersting: Okay. You’re year and a half in, you’re trying to make this choice, where do I go? I don’t wanna be back in the states. You ended up in Berlin. Mm-hmm after applying for over 50 jobs in Japan. And I’m sorry, I’m just kind of going through this cuz we just need to rock. Yeah. But over 50 job applications, Japan, you wanted to stay sounds like how did you land on Berlin?
David McNeill: Yeah, I did wanna stay there in Japan and uh, I did try over like a 10 month period to make it work. And I guess the way that I ended up in Berlin was really, I had, um, taken this two month trip around Europe in 2014 before I ended up in Japan. And during that time I remember going to Berlin and I absolutely loved it. It was one of those places that among, uh, a 19 city trip in two months, which is not many days per city, it was one of those few cities that really stuck out to me. Um, and I always thought I wanted to go explore it more. And then when I was in Japan, I, I met some people that were originally from Germany or from Berlin. And they were just talking about how there were, you know, startups there, there were English speaking jobs, they were very welcoming to, you know, foreigners and so on.
David McNeill: And so I just thought, well, that’s a place that’s on my, my bucket list to live. I really wanna dive in there and figure it out. So, I just reached out into my network and thought, you know, it’s not really working here in Japan. So let me see if I could find anything there. And uh, yeah, long story short, the first person I reached out to after 50 jobs attempting, uh, to get another job in Japan, 50, you know, applications. Um, the first person I talked to in my network that was in Berlin and applied through her. That was, that was that job that I got. So, you know, as far as seeing kind of the opportunities in front of me and just realizing like, okay, I could keep banging my head against the wall here in Japan. I love this country. I’ve tried to, you know, I’ve, I’ve done what I can to try to make it work.
David McNeill: It doesn’t mean I couldn’t find something else. Um, I was focused on my career at the end. So of course I could try English teaching or I could try, you know, this or that. There’s plenty of people that have made that work great for them. But for me, I just wanted to continue in that product management path. And it seemed like the best way to do that was to then have to move, uh, countries and move quite a ways across, uh, the world. So it went from a plan to maybe visit Berlin and see a network and take interviews there to a one way when I got that offer and I just went straight to Germany from there.
Peter Kersting: Okay. I love that. That’s a great place for us to wrap part two of Alone with Peter, our interview with David McNeil. Oh my gosh. There’s so much to unpack if you guys are enjoying this episode with David, as much as I am and you want to have him come back in to just like vomit all over us about Japan and the culture. And like, if you’re interested in teaching there or finding a job there, let me know, leave a review, rate the podcast, give David some love. And uh, I would love to have him come back in. I’m hoping we can make that happen, but that’s gonna do it for this episode of Alone with Peter, next time we’re gonna dig a little bit more into that idea of taking what’s been given and being open to the opportunities and how that led to the birth of David’s business expat empire, which is for those of you interested in relocating abroad, a must checkout. All right, next time on Alone with Peter, don’t miss out every Monday. See you then!
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