Using my own roots as a strength to open up my own possibilities

Pham was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, grew up in Gunma, and after graduating from high school, majored in social welfare in New York. Currently, she is a career consultant and specializes in planning and managing programs to support individual career development and skills development in companies and organizations. Her hobbies are cooking, walking, and gardening. She recently moved to Kamakura City and is looking for a new way to work and live!

One of the major concerns for children with immigrant background is the issue of going on to higher education or finding a job. Not only because of their language skills, but also because of the environment they live in, they often end up limiting their future possibilities. In this interview, I asked Ms. Pham, who came to Japan as a refugee from Vietnam and is now working for a foreign medical equipment manufacturer as well as a coordinator for glolab, about her experiences and advice on building a career.

Raised in Japan by Vietnamese refugee parents

— Pham, you came to Japan as a refugee from Vietnam. Could you tell us how that happened?
My parents originally lived in a town called Nha Trang in southern Vietnam, and my mother became pregnant with me in 1989. It had been many years since the end of the Vietnam War, but my mother did not want to raise a child in an environment of political instability.

At the time, Indochina refugee boat people were a hot topic in Japan, and my maternal grandfather had served in the U.S. military as a doctor, so we got on a boat through his connections. While drifting on the sea, I happened to be spotted by a Filipino fishing boat and ended up living for a while in a refugee camp on Palawan Island, where my mother gave birth to me.

In the meantime, my parents were applying for refugee status in various countries, and after a while, they were told that they would be granted refugee status from Japan and Australia. My mother wanted to go to Australia, but we decided to go to Japan because I thought my father would have a better job in Japan, where the economy was booming at the time. I stayed at the International Rescue Center in Shinagawa for six months and then went to live in Tatebayashi City in Gunma Prefecture, where there was a Vietnamese community.

— Since you have been in Japan since you were a baby, did you have any trouble with the language or with your roots?
I haven’t talked to anyone with similar roots, so I can’t compare them, but I did feel a certain amount of conflict. I felt that people around me looked at me differently, not because I was a refugee, but because I was a foreigner. My name is in katakana, so as soon as I said my name, people’s attitudes would change, and police officers would ask me, “Why are you in Japan? You should go home.

— Were you ever bullied at school or did you have difficulty communicating?
For as long as I can remember, I have been able to speak Japanese normally, and I have been teased at times. But fortunately, I have never been bullied. I think it was partly my personality, but I seemed to fit in well.

— Were there any children around you who had immigrant background?
There were two or three of them per school year. I think there were some Brazilians and Indian kids. But we didn’t particularly get along with them because we were foreigners.

— Did you speak Vietnamese at home and Japanese outside the home?
At home, I spoke only a little Vietnamese and Japanese. Outside the house, it’s Japanese.

The inconvenience of being stateless

— Were there any difficulties you faced as a refugee and stateless person?
I’m a permanent resident, and I’ve never had any trouble staying in Japan. As long as I pay my taxes normally, I don’t get any complaints. However, when I go out of Japan or have an emergency, I cannot expect any help from the government. When I was in the second year of junior high school, I was sent to Australia by the city government, and that was the first time I learned that I could not make my own passport. I was given a re-entry permit from the Ministry of Justice to replace my passport, but I was often asked “What is this? ” very often at each country’s airport.

When I went to a university in New York, even though I had a visa, I was asked a lot of questions at the customs, and after getting confirmation from the Japanese government, I was finally allowed to enter the country. When I went to the United Arab Emirates, I didn’t get a visa because I was only planning to stay for one night, but I was denied entry and had to be quarantined in a separate room for a while.

— Do you still have a passport?
I married a Japanese man, but I haven’t applied for naturalization yet, so I am stateless. My husband is Japanese, so I am sure he will have some support when I go abroad, but I am worried that if something happens to me abroad, I will be treated as if I cannot get help from the Japanese embassy. Also, when I want to have a child in the future, I don’t want the child to be disadvantaged because I am stateless.

Entered the U.S. with an eye on a job that would allow me to make international contributions

— You have uploaded a video on the glolab website advising foreign-rooted children on how to build their careers, but I wonder if you yourself have had any experience of worrying about your future career path.
Even at a very young age, I always thought that it was difficult to live in Japan as a foreigner, so I knew from the time I was in the upper grades of elementary school that I wanted to do something that would contribute to the international community and help people in the future. As I mentioned earlier, I went to Australia for the first time in the second year of junior high school, and I realized that I would be treated completely differently outside of Japan and that a different world would open up to me. I had been learning English since I was in high school in Japan, and I had no intention of going to a Japanese university. I was very clear that I wanted to study in the U.S. or abroad, so I spent three years worrying about how to convince my teachers.

— What was the reason why you did not want to go to a Japanese university?
I wanted to work in international exchange, and I had heard that everyone who went to university in Japan played too much, so I simply wanted to make sure I didn’t play too much. Also, my mother was very passionate about education, so I felt a silent pressure to study hard at a foreign university.

— You eventually completed your graduate studies at Columbia University, right?
Initially, I attended Long Island University, a private university in New York City, where I studied International Relations. However, in order to learn more specific measures to help people in need, I transferred to New York University during my sophomore year to get a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and then to Columbia University to get a Master’s degree in Social Welfare.

— When did you decide on your future career?
To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what I want to do. However, when I was thinking about my career path as a university student, I realized that my statelessness was really inconvenient, even if I wanted to be active overseas. Also, since I grew up in Japan, I wanted to do something that would benefit refugees and immigrants in Japan if I wanted to make a career out of it, so I did my job hunting in Japan.

I had been volunteering for the Refugee Support Association since then, but I didn’t want to work for a non-profit organization. The reason was that I wanted to secure some income and be able to apply for naturalization in the future.

So, I looked for a job in a general company and was accepted to join Boston Scientific Japan K.K., a foreign-affiliated medical equipment manufacturer, where I am currently working. I wanted to work in the medical industry with a view to being involved in refugee and immigrant support in the fields of welfare and medicine in the future. It has been five years since I joined the company, and my boss and colleagues around me, who know my background, have supported my activities at glolab.

A job that involves people and changes society

— Did you go to any interviews with Japanese companies?
At first, I was offered a job in sales, but when I I did go to The Norinchukin Bank and the Development Bank of Japan Inc. Rather than being interested in money, I studied policy in social work at Columbia University and was interested in changing social systems, so I applied to places that I thought would be relevant.

― You work in human resources at Boston Scientific Japan, right?

At first, I was offered a job in sales, but when I joined the company, they offered me a job in human resources, and I accepted. I wanted to be close to my parents, so I thought it would be better than a sales job where I would have to be transferred across the country, and I also thought it would be interesting to work with people.

— Have you always been interested in helping people, including refugees?
Ever since I was a child, I was often in the middle of problems, for example, mediating fights between friends, or reaching out to others when they were in trouble. I think I still have those characteristics today.

— In a foreign company, you will have more opportunities to interview people of different nationalities and backgrounds than in a Japanese company.
We are hiring people from various backgrounds, especially for internal positions. However, since our customers are Japanese healthcare professionals, I think we tended to hire Japanese people until a few years ago. Since we established “Diversity and Inclusion” as our management mission a few years ago, we started tracking KPIs such as how many women we hired and whether we have a diverse team structure. I am happy to see that we now have an increasing number of employees with various backgrounds, regardless of nationality or race.

— Is there anything that makes it difficult for Japanese customers to keep up with diversity?
I think it depends on the generation. Many of the younger teachers are relatively open-minded, so they are positive about not only diversity but also new technologies and new ways of working. Some teachers of the older generation seem to be unable to cope with change, but I expect them to gradually change with the changes around them..

Desire to help children develop career ownership

— From your experience in human resources, do you have any advice on career development for children with immigrant background?
If you see being a foreigner as an obstacle, it will be difficult for you to feel a sense of ownership over your career. Ownership, in essence, means the determination to “decide your own life” and the actions to achieve this. I worry that children with overseas roots may tend to limit their future possibilities and make assumptions based on their economic circumstances or the family and community environment in which they grew up.

Of course there are things you cannot change, but there are also things you can change by changing your perspective. I hope that you will keep your antennae open for various opportunities and start making changes where you can. I want them to be able to take responsibility for their own lives, and to make decisions and take actions to achieve what they want.

— Have you ever received career advice from children with immigrant background?
I don’t have any at the moment, but I would like to increase that opportunity in the future. Up until now, most of my support has been in the form of organizing charity events for other organizations or accompanying people to the hospital, but I would like to work on career support through my activities at glolab as well.

— What do you hope to achieve through your support for the children?
I myself am interested in changing the structure of society, but I want to increase the number of my friends because there are many things I cannot do by myself. I want to support immigrant and refugee children so that they can grow up and become cool adults who can take charge of the future together with other Japanese people. One of these activities is to encourage them to take ownership of their careers, as I mentioned earlier.

Now, in addition to making career-building support videos, I’m also good at career coaching and planning workshops, so I’d like to expand such activities, and I’d like to be able to create a good chain of events where people who meet me can pass them on to the next people, rather than doing it all by myself.

— What are the problems that Japan needs to solve in order to achieve its goals?
There are many things I would like to do, but I would like to increase people’s level of interest. It is true that there is a shortage of money and people, but I think it will be difficult to achieve this without increasing interest. The number of people who are interested in social issues is increasing, so I would like to boost efforts to connect people by going beyond the boundaries of NPOs and corporations to keep the flow going.

— Do you have any requests for education in Japan?
I know that there are many teachers who are doing their best to tackle the problems of children with immigrant background, but I feel that we can rely more on outside resources. It is important to create an environment where children are not abandoned by collaborating with each other by making use of their specialties. At present, there are still many situations where the rules and regulations of the Board of Education and each school become a barrier, and it is true that the distance between teachers and us has become distant. It would be great if we could create a system to support children within the framework of a larger community or network.

— Do you have any requests for Japanese companies?
Although the ability to speak Japanese is sometimes used as a criterion for hiring and evaluation, I would like to see companies pay more attention to the strengths of children with immigrant background and broaden their horizons. Many of them can speak their own language, and many of them can think from a different perspective than Japanese people, so I think they can be interesting human resources for companies. I hope that companies will cooperate with us in creating a society where people who are attracted to Japan and continue to live here can play an active role.


Interviewing and writing: Hiroshi Yoshida