Room with an Interview

In the moments that I didn’t spend freaking out about what I could have done wrong on the application, I was stressing about what I had done right. If I made the “cut” by the samurai-sword selection process (see what I did there?), the next stage was an interview in front of a panel of three whose goal it was to trip you up.
I went against the better judgment of any OCD therapist and spent my life online, researching interviews of the past, finding tips and tricks, signing up for forums of kindred paranoid spirits.
I found out that there was a wide range of sentiments about the interview. For some, it had seemed like an interrogation, paneled by drill sergeants who had forgotten the “good cop.” Some had a pleasant conversation, joking with each other, and getting the old “I can’t promise anything, but your chances are good” on the way out, followed by the old finger-gun.
I discovered that some people had been reduced to tears and still gotten in. Some had their panelists cracking up and were rejected. Some Japanese majors with years of teaching experience were rejected, and some silly, silly applicants with no Japanese and little teaching experience were accepted. (wave!)
Some applicants were asked to do an interpretive dance with a bunraku puppet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Some were drilled on whose faces were on the dollar bills, what was the population of America, every member of British Parliament.
And just when I had convinced myself that I would be happy whether I got in or not, I was alerted that I got an interview. I’m sure I did some sort of dance, but it was blurred with so many feelings of “this ain’t over yet,” I can barely remember it.
As internet forums are wont to do, every person on the particular one I signed up for had their own opinion, and every person thought this opinion was the absolute correct and only opinion, and any person who had a differing opinion was a big moron. And also probably fat. Oh, internet!
Some suggested reading the list of possible interview questions just to become familiar with the caliber of questions asked. Some suggested not practicing in front of a mirror for fear of sounding too rehearsed. Some thought it was better to go in cold and just be yourself, handling what was thrown at you.
Me? I compiled a list of every single possible question (collected from 4 or 5 websites), and handwrote a short essay for each one. Then I copied each essay onto flash cards and quizzed myself.
Hey, I was a stand-up comedian. I knew a little something about saying the same thing every single day and still making it sound fresh. Now, I don’t necessarily recommend my method because I know it’s not for everyone. But I’m the type of person who practiced her stand-up in the mirror before every single time I went onstage. Even if I had 3 shows in one night. So I know what works for me, even if it’s little more than obsessive door-locking-and-unlocking rituals.
I took two days off of work. I did a dry run of the route to the interview center the day before. On the day of, I got there 2 hours early and recited my flash cards in my car for one final time. I had learned from internet research that arriving too early made you look desperate, so I had calculated the optimal time to casually stroll in.
There were a few others in the waiting area, and our fearless leader, Angel, was there trying to calm us with casual conversation, but secretly peering at the clock and recording what time we arrived.
Everyone looked pretty nice, and you could tell the ones that neglected to heed the suggestion of wearing a jacket and tie or a nice enough sweater were a little squirmy. It seemed like everyone was trying just as hard as I was to not look nervous, appear “genki” (energetic), and not dominate the conversation with questions, but ask enough to sound properly interested. It was so Japanese! I loved it.
When I was called in, I achieved some weird confidence and calmness that surprised even me. I shook the hands of the panelists (after hours of debating whether I should risk messing up a bow) and sat in the college desk/chair in front of them.
I had 2 former JETs and what I later learned was a pretty high-up at the Japanese consulate. One of the JETs was a youngish guy, but older than me, and he seemed to lead the discussion. The other was a very friendly Japanese-American woman who later led the Japanese language prep course 3 weeks before I left. The consulate man was middle aged, and I tried not to show how little I could understand his accent. Luckily, doing closed captioning I think strengthened my ability to patch together what people say, so I had an all right time with him.
They went down the line asking me questions I had prepared for, and I pretended to pause (for the algorithmically calculated appropriate time :) and look out the window thoughtfully to construct my answer. I felt confident for most of the ones I had prepared for that would have otherwise thrown me off.
“Define American Culture.” Swing and a hit. “Why Japan?” Zing! “How would you explain the Electoral College to Japanese high school students?” Wasn’t quite prepared for that one, but rattle off a lighthearted, nonpartisan joke about the 2000 elections, and wait for the polite laughter!
The two that caught me off-guard were actually pretty funny in hindsight. The first was: “I see here that you wouldn’t mind teaching elementary school. Pretend you had extra time at the end of class, and they wanted you to sing a song.” Heh heh. Well, working at theater camp for 13 years sure prepared me to not be thrown off when any stranger on the street asks you to burst into song, but what is appropriate for kids? It’s not like I could bust out the “Lovely Ladies” prostitute song from Les Mis. I thought for a second, and remembered my mom had mentioned singing the ABCs to kids in an earlier conversation, so I just went with that. I stood up, smiled, and belted it out, ending the “Next time won’t you sing with me” with direct eye contact and the old finger-gun to the question asker. Yes, I seriously did this.
Lastly, the female alum asked me to pretend I had extra time at the end of class, and to give a quick speech on Pittsburgh (where I had said I grew up on the application). There was a white board nearby, so I whipped out an artist’s rendition of the US map and shape of Pennsylvania, and stuttered something about “pierogies and football.” Later, in my clear-thinking and non-nervous state, I realized I had pretty much hit the Pittsburgh nail on the head.
The interview went by pretty fast. I think it lasted from 15-20 minutes. I walked out and waved goodbye to Angel and her helper, and watched them record my leaving time as well. I got out to my car, suddenly nervous about the fact that…I thought it had gone pretty well.
Could I be one of the rare ones to have a good time AND actually get in? I was confused, because knowing me, I should think it went horribly, and then be flabbergasted to actually get in. But, no, I was feeling pretty good.
As the days passed, of course, I started to pick apart my performance and worry about what I could have done better, but I was still a little comforted by the fact that my initial feelings were pretty good.
This, by the way, was early February. 2 more months of agony and second-guessing before I finally realized that my initial interview feeling had been accurate. Then cue the next round of paranoia: wondering all the ways I could have my position terminated! Medical exam messed up? FBI report returned with a crime record that slipped my mind? Oversleep and miss my plane? The possibilities were endless!

Eto…

Since it’s just about that time of year again(!), I’d like to talk for a little bit about the application process. Actually, …