Career Woman, Single Mom, Cancer Survivor: The Story of Melody
How I ended up in Japan
I was in the gifted class for math and science from a young age, and always thought that I would continue to study in related fields.
However, I suffered the biggest blow in my academic life in high school, where after being assigned to the gifted class for math and science, I only managed to get 12 points (out of 100) in the first weekly physics exam.
With the shock, I bought all the physics books and studied all I could. The next week I still managed to only get 14 points in the following exam. Unable to deal with the failure, I stopped going to school for a year.
After returning to school, I avoided all math and science studies, and chose to major in Japanese in university, thinking it would be the furthest subject from math and science. Looking back, I may have been still avoiding academic failure and just enjoying campus life, relying only on friends and last minute cram sessions to complete the study.
After graduation, my Japanese level was barely N1, and I realized I don’t know what I can do for a living.
Finally, I took my parents’ advice to study abroad. I felt that I had let my parents down already, and didn’t want to put extra financial burdens on them. After some searching, I was lucky enough to find Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, and I enrolled in their public economics master’s degree in econometrics (English program).
How I got into investment banking
When I was taking summer classes, I saw a small note on the school bulletin board for a part time job that paid 5,000 yen for one hour with lunch and transportation expenses. I signed up right away, without thinking too much about my qualifications. I did not know where my confidence came from.
When I arrived at the interview venue, I found out that there were only two interviewers and me, and they only interviewed in Japanese. I had zero confidence in my Japanese and was too embarrassed to speak. But I thought since I was there already, I might as well do what I can. There is no downside risk to me since I was never expected to get the offer. I picked up my pen and paper, and started to draw pictures with simple English words to communicate. The company was Nomura Securities, which eventually became my first employer out of Hitotsubashi University.
Fortunately, the interviewers felt my enthusiasm and let me join the summer internship program at Nomura for two weeks. Looking back, I think one of the reasons why I was able to get the internship may be due to the fact that Nomura had just bought out Lehman Brothers and was on the way to become a global player, and felt that having a foreign female intern could help with their global mindset.
After the internship ended, I still had regular meetups with the Nomura interviewers. They were also very willing to continue to mentor me and patiently explain to me the know-hows for a foreign newcomer in Japanese business society.
I also actively used the knowledge and skills taught to me to interview other consulting companies and investment banks. I was lucky to get some offers, but I thought without my first brash internship interview at Nomura and meeting my mentors, there would be no such job opportunities now. To repay their kindness to me as well as thinking that in order to work in Japanese society I need to immerse myself and experience 100% Japanese workplace culture, I chose the financial product developer (structurer) in Nomura Securities as my first job.
My career in Nomura progressed well, and soon I had the opportunity to be sent to work in New York. The time in New York gave me more global exposure, but it also made me rethink my career planning. After that, I chose to leave New York and Nomura. Returning to Tokyo, I entered the risk management department of an American investment bank.
Back again in Tokyo with my new life, I met my partner at the time. Longing for a family, I soon got married, and became pregnant. But my daughter was born prematurely at nearly 30 weeks. She was born on the bathroom floor of the apartment, and then had to live in an incubator for more than two months, transfusing nearly 1/6 of her blood in the body. When she was finally able to go home, my partner had become extremely emotionally unstable due to having been laid off, and even exhibiting violent and parenting abandonment behaviors.
Two months after my child was discharged from the hospital, I immediately returned to work full-time. I didn’t have time or mind to find a nursery school for her, so I applied to work from home in order to take care of the children during the day. Coupled with my partner’s state of mind, my health completely collapsed and I continued to have a high 40-degree fever for more than two months. I felt extremely unwell and went to a large hospital to have a blood test, followed by a bone marrow examination. Having done it at noon, at 4pm of the same day, the doctor called and told me that I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (commonly known as blood cancer) and I had to be hospitalized immediately, otherwise I wouldn’t have much time to live.
My daughter was only seven months old, and my partner had no interest in raising her. When so many life problems came out together, I didn’t even have time to be fearful of my own death. All I could think of is how to live.
I fell back to the mentality of a risk manager and immediately accepted the facts and tried to find solutions. I opted for a speedy divorce, keeping sole custody of my daughter and not asking for a dime of alimony, and even returning the engagement diamond ring.
For blood cancer, I assessed the risk of the worst case scenario (death), and looked for the most direct way to reduce the probability of such case (chemotherapy). My parents came from Taiwan to help me take care of the child during the six-month period of chemotherapy and hospitalization. After being discharged from the hospital, I started working and endured three years of hair loss, non-stop vomiting, blood transfusion, and inexplicable fever. Adding to that was a two-year follow-up period.
When I was finally declared by the doctor that my blood cancer was in complete remission this year, it was very emotional for me. I felt I had finally regained the life I should have had. Death led me away, but everyone believed that I would come back, which gave me great courage and confidence, and I really did come back.
Work and childcare
During my illness I still work for the same company and in the same department. My job is to manage various projects in the risk management department, and to help campus recruiting events. I was honest with the company about the challenges I faced while having cancer and dealing with the divorce. Fortunately, the company was fully supportive. The company doctors contacted the hospital to understand the cancer treatment details, and gave me a lot of flexibility. In addition to still receiving full salary during the long-term sick leave when I was hospitalized, I was also given the option of flexible working location (working from home) and flexible working hours. Colleagues in the department were also very supportive and willinging took the initiative to help share the work.
In addition to being a cancer patient, I am also a career woman and a single mother. Frankly speaking, it is not easy to play even just the two latter roles at the same time. Being a career woman means that she has a goal of what she wants to achieve, and dedication to work is a must as goals cannot be achieved just out of thin air.
As for the role of being a mother and a single parent, I always remind myself to be a good protector for my daughter. I believe the most important thing of single parenting is to have the confidence to deal with anything calmly. You cannot deal with the problem if you get confused first, especially for children who can’t even speak clearly yet, as you are the only adult. I think this self-confidence is also transferable to the work environment, creating a common understanding between colleagues and their understanding of my character.
Societies still have stereotypes about children who grow up in single-parent families. With that understanding, I am mindful of how to educate my daughter, but I also understand that I don’t have to worry about what other people think. Life is not easy, but no matter who it is, we only live our lives once. I came to understand that eventually, we will all perish, but it’s what we choose to perish for the most important thing.
I don’t think my life story is particularly unique (but maybe the fact everything happened at once is…), but perhaps for many reasons others are unable to share theirs.
Now that I am back to full health, I also treat the rest of my life as a new beginning. I have learned a lot from Worklife in Japan during my difficult time, and I hope to convey the possibility of life to everyone through this article. Any comments and suggestions are all welcome.
There is not a perfect life, or a perfect place, or a perfect job in this world. It’s ok to settle in, find a place to live comfortably with a serviceable salary. It’s also ok to work hard to break out of your comfort zone, enjoying every challenge and setback. The important thing is to go through it willingly, rather than blindly making decision on external factors
Finally, cheer for myself and everyone who has read this article, and hope everyone can find their purpose in life.