Alyssa Erme: Working in Japan and How University Study Abroad Programs Helped Her Get There

After living her entire life in a small town near Akron, Ohio Alyssa Erme decided (on a whim) to pick up the life she knew to move to Japan.

Last May Erme graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics Spanish, and received a minor in Communication Studies. After spending nearly five years studying the Spanish language and Mexican culture, she wanted to know more; more about people, more about opportunity, and ultimately more about herself.

She now lives in relatively newer outskirt-town called Unnan teaching English to 3rd-6th grade students. In the last nine months Erme has begun a new life with strangers she’s befriended and a job she loves, and it was all unexpected.

“Yeah, it was kind of hard traveling, but I’m comfortable in my small city. I’m constantly finding beautiful shrines or mountains to climb. That’s more my style, I guess. There’s actually a river in my town I love walking around; it’s my favorite part of the city.”

Erme’s decision to teach abroad came from working closely with the Intensive English Program at her university, which had her help coordinate Japanese studying abroad here in Ohio. During that time she had absolutely no idea she’d be teaching in Japan. She was just having fun.

“That job was the best time and the students were my friends. I’ve always wanted to learn an Asian language and I tried and failed spectacularly at Chinese, so I thought I would give Japanese a try,” she said.

She knew other students who planned to teach abroad, but didn’t sell on the idea until less than two months prior of leaving (this was back in August of 2016), and even though she had this bit of knowledge beforehand, she traveled to Japan knowing nothing of the language. The bilingual Spanish student said she resorts to a lot of common communication skills, like hand gestures and body language, and even though there’s a significant amount of mistranslations, she manages to get by because of the people.

“People are generally kind when they know you are trying to attempt their language. The Japanese are a collective society, always putting others before themselves and that's nice, but I do miss hearing English around me though; that’s the biggest difference. That, and the food.”

Erme says that she prefers going out to eat because of the pictures on the menu, and that there are some rather strange meals. She mentioned one that was actually translated to “roast beef pussy.” Can you imagine? She said she sticks to a lot of curry rice.  

Overall, she is having a blast. She teaches students at three different elementary schools around her area. The company she works for gave her a tiny car to drive in order to get around, and she has made some really great friends through the company as well. However, when asked, she said she didn’t always want to work with children.

“I used to not like kids, then I taught Spanish to second graders in Ohio during college and realized that kids need adults. I don’t know what happens to all of them behind closed doors, so I want to make their time with me as enjoyable as possible, while sneakily being educational. You know, when a kid doesn’t realize they’re learning and just having fun, it’s...” she pauses for a moment, “honestly it’s just the best.”

So yeah, this wasn’t her first move out of the country, but it was the biggest change of her life. Erme has traveled to more than 6 countries now, and plans to go to Korea and Indonesia this month. However her first time abroad was when she was 19 and studied in Yucatan, Mexico for three months.

“That’s when I realized there is so much more to experience than just your home town,” she said. “The most memorable experience is that I left my wallet in a taxi there and he delivered it back to me the next day. That’s when I learned you can find kindness anywhere.”

Things are different in Japan than Mexico, though, because she knew the language when there. She advises that if you ever go to a new culture to first learn as much of the language you can because you can get taken advantage of.

For instance, she had an overnight layover in China last month when traveling and there were people all around the airport trying to get her to come into their cars to take her to a hotel. One man even grabbed took her suitcase and said that he was going to take her the hotel the airport had set up for her. Since she knew nothing of Chinese, and this was the most difficult time she’s had abroad. It turns out the man had sent her to the wrong hotel, one she would have to pay for all so he could make money off of her stay. She said she was so scared at one point that she was trying to leave a trail of things behind her in case she was being abducted.

“I always try to set a good example for Americans, but since I have blonde hair and blue eyes it’s easy to point me out in Asian countries. China is where I learned that I needed to be alert, on my toes. You can find kindness anywhere, but you can also find cruelty.”

Her experiences have definitely made an impact on her family of five back home in Ohio. Her sister, Bianca Erme, has even traveled thanks to the motivation of her sister.  

“She inspires me in a lot of different ways, and seeing her studying abroad has definitely made me want to seek out opportunities to travel too. She definitely made me more aware of how possible it is to travel, even at a young age,” Bianca Erme said.  

Bianca studied in Esparza, Costa Rica when she just was a junior in high school for a three-week exchange program back in 2015. During that same time, the Erme’s had the opportunity to house a Costa Rican teen named Alejandra.

 Needless to the Erme’s perspective on travel has made an impact of her life back home, but when it comes to really understanding a new culture Erme said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever understand a new culture fully. I’m always on the outside looking in; I shoot for about 80%. I’ve been in Japan for over 9 months now and I feel like I know even less than Mexican culture. I know I have a lot to learn.”  

As much as she wants to travel and see the world, her friends and family find it hard to spend all this time without her.

“Our busy schedules and the 13 hour time difference makes it really difficult to talk, but we keep in touch all the time through social media” Bianca Erme said.

When asked, Erme said it has been the hardest around Christmas, holidays and birthdays all together. “It’s brutal, but my family bought a cut out of me and bring it to family events, and my friends bring it around too. Then we all face time.”

Although family and friends can be difficult to leave behind, Erme’s advice for students looking to study or work abroad is: “Do it. Save your money, get as much financial aid as you can, don’t get arrested in foreign place, and know you can soak in a culture without drinking your head off.”          

Since there are so many ways to study abroad, what you first have to do is figure out where you want to go and then see what programs are possible for you.

The University of Akron has sister-affiliated schools across the globe ready for students to engage. The study abroad office at UA is located at 301 in Simmons Halls where you can sit down with study abroad graduate student, Jennifer Dixon to find out more.  

“The hardest part about studying or working abroad is working up the courage to do it, and I’ve yet to meet someone who regrets it,” said Erme.