Passionate juggling

Passionate juggling

Synne Olsen

Photo: Synne Olsen

Passion is often equated with a single-minded devotion to a particular discipline, but surely many a student has discovered that it is often not so: one can be passionate about many things simultaneously, which makes life a puzzle of how to combine or juggle them. For Synne Olsen, currently Sponsorship Team Leader in Plan International Norway, the struggle is real.

While very zealous within the development aid field, Synne has also had a lifelong passion for Japan. At only 12 years old, she was enthralled by tales of Japan by a friend of her brother who had been an exchange student there:

– I remember paying extra attention. So at that time I was sold. I wanted to go to Japan because it seemed so very different from Norway, and I got especially fascinated by the history and the written language.

And did she go. At only 17 years old, Synne had already stayed with a host family in Sendai while studying Japanese at St. Ursula High School in Japan. She reminisces that the language barrier was a challenge both at school and within the host family due to her own lack of Japanese skills and the limited English skills from the Japanese side. One time, now a fond memory, the 2-year-old daughter of the host family got so sulky because of their inability to communicate properly to each other that she took a swing at Synne. However, ironically and surprisingly, there was another thing that proved just as difficult as the language barrier:

– I was the only foreigner who had not been reading manga and watching anime. At the pre-camp in Tokyo, before heading to our host families, I felt very different. All the other students knew so much about the pop culture, and I was completely blank. I had used my time studying samurais and kanjis.

During those 5 years since the wondrous tales of Japan were told to her, other interests were also growing, taking up bigger and bigger parts of Synne’s life: a budding interest in the development aid field lead to participating in volunteer work in secondary school, such as organizing Operation Days Work (OD). In addition, Synne was also a board member of AFS Intercultural Programs, welcoming and arranging activities for exchange students in Tromsø in roughly the same period. Lastly, she had also gained an interest in French language, which of today she has limited working proficiency in.

Therefore, for people not knowing her history, her choice of studying East Asian studies at Science po le Havre in 2008-9 in France might seem a bizarre one, but for Synne, it made perfect sense:

– Science Po is known for being a very good school on international relations and political science, and the section in Le Havre was a new branch of Science Po with a focus on East Asia. I naturally wanted to keep a focus on East Asia, and at the same time practice my French.

Unfortunately, such studies in France were not enough to quench Synne’s thirst for Japan: she missed the food, the sounds of the never-ending trains, the shouting of Irasshaimase when you enter a store, the private karaoke hotels, and even the sleeping salary men in the street at night. Furthermore, her Japanese skills were gradually fading despite efforts to maintain it, all of which combined led her to study Japanese in addition to Development studies in Oslo instead. But it didn’t stop there:

– I got an internship at the Norwegian embassy in Tokyo during my bachelor as I missed Japan so much. The Embassy in Tokyo was initially hiring trainees to work with development related issues, so this fit my profile very well. But because of the triple disaster [in March 2011], I ended up working more on this matter instead which gave me a unique insight in how Japan handled the natural disaster. During these months as a trainee, not only did I learn a lot about the work of an embassy, but I got to know a lot of very inspiring people who taught me so much. Small cliché alert:  to live and work abroad really is a hyperspace of new experiences and impressions

During her two-year stay in Japan Synne indeed learned much, both positive and negative, according to herself:

– Never have I spent so much time in conferences and seminars in the same room with only men in suits! The time spent in a male-dominant working environment (generally in Japan, not the embassy), it makes you appreciate more how far Norway has come within gender equality.

– When I returned to Norway, I got back home somewhat of a food nerd. Before my stay in Japan, I was quite conservative when it came to food, but after a couple of years in the land of what I find the most brilliant cuisine, I never say no to food I haven’t tasted before! I miss the extraordinary and sometimes hidden restaurants which sells food you have never thought of eating before…

One particular anecdote will certainly resonate with the heart of foreigners having lived in Japan:

– Japan has given me, what my friends would probably characterize an annoying humbleness. After I got back from 11 months as an exchange student in Sendai, I bowed to the bus driver in my hometown Tromsø after he gave me my ticket. And I still automatically apologize for everything – even in situations when I should be apologized to.

Despite such a thorough immersion into Japan’s lifestyle, culture and cuisine, it still didn’t convince her to stay in Japan. Synne decided to study another field she finds interesting, namely Web Design, Web Page, and Digital/Multimedia and Information Resources Design in Bergen in 2013. Shortly after, she landed her job in Plan International Norway as Sponsorship Team Leader.

Although passionate and satisfied with her current job, not to mention feeling lucky to be able to bicycle to and from work instead of spending hours commuting, Synne still longs for Japan:

– Japan will always hold a special place in my heart – it is simply the most fascinating and interesting country I have ever been to. I miss Japan very much, and I wish to return to Japan at some point. I take every opportunity to speak Japanese when I get it!

Synne has become rather proficient at the puzzle of how to manage one’s interests and integrate them into one’s career. She does however acknowledge that her way is not the only way:

– For me it is easy at this time to say that culture and language should be a focus early on, but realistically, I understand the “business first, culture and language later-“approach because of time pressure and the focus every job requires. But in general, I still think showing interest and effort in the culture and language skills pays off at all levels – professionally and personally. It makes a huge difference for the experience as a foreigner abroad. It narrows the gap between us and them, and ultimately it gives you a much better experience in the country!

Still, no matter how good you are at puzzles, there will always be some missing pieces when you’re done. Passion is a motivation for us to find new pieces, but in the process, we also have to leave some pieces behind to go and pick up later.

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