The Adventures Abroad series highlights young professionals boldly taking up global roles and gaining international work experience.
Catherine Steele is an advertising account manager and native New Yorker whose career abroad began with a chance note from a recruiter on LinkedIn. I connected with Catherine over Skype to learn more about her fascinating trajectory, experiences in advertising and inspiration for moving the leap.
- Hometown: New York, New York
- Current City: Tokyo, Japan
- Profession: Advertising Account Manager at AKQA – An ideas and innovation company.
- Relocated: October 2013. The process took about two and a half months total.
How did you get into Advertising?
A lot of advertising professionals tend to go to ad school or work in a formal marketing program. I did neither of those things. I attended the University of Rochester where I was an English Creative Writing and Japanese major, originally intending to pursue a career as a writer. Thing is.. I realized I probably wasn’t going to make any money, so I needed to figure out something else. I wanted a role that would combine my business interests and creativity and my brother who worked in pharmaceutical advertising in Chicago told me that a career in Advertising could do just that. At the time, I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it sounded like the perfect combination of my interests, so I began to look into it. I met up with a family friend who was a copywriter at a major Japanese advertising agency and she recommended that I look into Account Management at her agency. She connected me with someone in the New York office, I landed an internship and eventually, was offered a full-time job.
A lot of us take languages in school but don’t reach professional fluency. How’d you get proficient in Japanese?
It’s so interesting – I’d never learned a language my entire life, but as a kid, I was always fascinated with things that were cryptic or difficult to decode like Egyptian hieroglyphics. I took a look at my language choices in college and it was between Chinese and Japanese. I didn’t get into the Chinese course because everyone else was taking it, but I’m glad things worked out the way they did. Even in college, you don’t take Japanese casually. I had five days of class every day with recitations every other day. I never missed a single class of Japanese. It kind of got addictive. It was so difficult that it was fun. I loved it.
Did you study abroad at all?
Yes and that experience completely transformed the language for me. It doesn’t count if you’re not actually using it. Until then, I thought I was just learning a language, but in reality, I was developing a tool. Language is about communicating and connecting with people. That’s what language is. And if you’re not interested in communicating – just stop.
That’s a great way to look at it. Okay, so you’re in your role at this Japanese Ad Agency in New York for a few years, doing well, loving it. How does the opportunity to move to Tokyo permanently come about?
“I knew that I didn’t ever want to become the kind of person who ended up in one place for their entire lives. I didn’t want to grow complacent.”
I was born and raised in New York City. I love New York and there are so many awesome opportunities at your fingertips there, but I knew that I didn’t ever want to become the kind of person who ended up in one place for their entire lives. I didn’t want to grow complacent. I’d always had the sense that I would leave, but kept hearing that I wouldn’t be able to find a company willing to sponsor my relocation unless I was at the managerial level.
My LinkedIn profile mentioned that I spoke Japanese, so one day, I was randomly contacted by a recruiter about a role at AKQA, an ideas and innovation agency in Tokyo. In a single conversation, every doubt about the possibilities of finding work abroad that others had planted in my mind were dispelled. Everything just happened from there.
That’s incredibly inspiring. It’s great to get other perspectives and advice, but sometimes we need to trust our own faith and instincts. How did you mentally prepare to move abroad? Leaving our comfort zones can be tough.
I don’t want to give this too much credit, but I did think about the fact that I’m young and unattached so if there’s a time to act – it’s now. At the time, my only instinct was that I had this opportunity in front of me and it was pretty awesome. I couldn’t come up with a better scenario for my career – working on some of the world’s most recognized brands in a fast-paced market that no one else was entering. There was nothing holding me down. As far as my family and friends go? We’re in a digital age. There are so many ways to communicate with my loved ones. If you have the right mindset – the world is a lot smaller than you think.
What was the interview process like?
After I was contacted via LinkedIn, I sent in my resume then waited for about a month and a half before I heard back for an interview. Once we got the interview process going, it was a very quick succession of four interviews over two weeks on Skype. Then all of a sudden it was like, “when can you move?” Everything happened quickly after that. The visa was easy to get – I had it in about two weeks and then moved to Tokyo two weeks later. So all in all about two and a half months after I initially learned about the opportunity.
Not bad at all! How was the transition – both personally and professionally?
I knew I could function with my Japanese, but I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to function. There’s a difference between saying what you need to say and saying it in the way you need to say it. Japan is a lot about the way you say things. You don’t say things like “I want this” or “I want you to do this.” You say, “I would like you to do this.” So that was definitely a learning curve. There’s a strong hierarchy that plays its way into language. There’s a concept here of senpai and kōhai which is the idea that there’s always someone who knows more than you – the senpai. Between those two people there’s a certain amount of respect that has to be given to the senpai. When I joined, I was the youngest person at my agency and one of very few members on a lean team. I had to learn how to demand the respect I needed to do my job effectively while still honoring the cultural hierarchies.
It’s fascinating to hear about the various forms of cultural etiquette prevalent in businesses across the world. Outside of work, how was the actual relocation process and move for you?
I was told I would never get a decent apartment within my budget. Not true. I worked with a realtor and got an 800 square foot apartment, two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and my own entrance for $1,800 USD which is an incredible deal for central Tokyo! I work long hours so I Airbnb my second room. Tokyo apartments come completely bare – they don’t have anything (not even a fridge) – so I had to buy all of my furnishings. My company did offer me a relocation budget and a certain amount to work within so I was able to put certain costs against that budget.
That’s great! And you’re earning additional income by renting out your second room – smart move. Tell us about the cost of living and lifestyle in Tokyo.
Japan has a fantastic quality of life. Transportation is flawless. Trains come right on time to the minute and go everywhere you need to go. The food is phenomenal at a low cost. You can go to a convenience store and get pretty decent food, so it’s easy to eat on a low budget. The cost of living depends on where you live, but I will say that Tokyo is the only place I’ve ever lived that truly constitutes as a metropolis, even over New York City. Tokyo has multiple suburbs and centers within minutes of the city and skyline. Each area has its own distinct personality and vibe. I can’t even describe it.
I definitely have to visit! So on a typical weekend, what are you doing for fun? How did you make friends?
I’m a huge tea fanatic and participate in Japanese tea ceremony, which is the traditional process of making tea in the most detailed way possible. It entails everything from rituals that dictate how you receive and drink tea as a guest. It’s a traditional art form. The Japanese are amazing at ritualizing things you might think are very everyday activities.
“When you move to a new place you get much more ballsy about making friends. You’re more likely to hang out at cafes and other places on your own.”
When you move to a new place you get much more ballsy about making friends. You’re more likely to hang out at cafes and other places on your own. I made a ton of friends by frequenting and befriending this one little cafe in my neighborhood. The owner, who is a pretty famous Japanese comedian, introduced me to all of his other regular patrons. A lot of the cafes only seat six people so you do get to know the other patrons really well and if you become a regular you make friends with them and build a network that way. I also spent my first year doing a lot of international travel. I went back to New York like three times for the holidays, but am trying to do more domestic exploring in the countryside now. I’ve traveled to Australia, the Philippines and London.
What advice do you have for others looking to work abroad?
Make it known that you’re interested in working abroad and keep an open mind. Positioning matters as well – whether digitally or in person. You need to let the people around you know you’re open to international opportunities. If I hadn’t mentioned my fluency in Japanese on LinkedIn I might not have been contacted with this opportunity.
Many thanks to Catherine Steele for the interview and accompanying images. You can connect with her on Instagram: @catjosteele. Got someone in mind that’d be good for our Adventures Abroad series? Get in touch.