(8) Starting a new life in San Francisco

My storyTomoko MaruyamaComment

During my last year in college in New Jersey, I decided to go to San Francisco during Spring Break. I always wanted to go to California so I had to decide between going to San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco. In the end, I decided to go to San Francisco. For some reason, I thought I would like the city by the bay.

I immediately fell in love with San Francisco! As soon as I arrived to the city, I knew that this city would meet all my expectations and more. So I explored the city from the early hours of the morning. I took many photos of the many beautiful sights and neighborhoods. I liked the Californian blue sky, the warm weather and the colorful architecture specially the Victorian houses.

I bought a used bicycle as I wanted to go to places I couldn't go by foot. So for the first time, I rode my bike to San Francisco's most famous landmark: the Golden Gate Bridge. Seeing the view of the bridge from the hills was one of the best experiences I had. I remember clearly how impressed I was with the view of the bridge and the ocean in the background. At the same time, my instinct told me strongly “This is the place”. I wanted to live here and work as an artist. It was decided.

So the day after I graduated from college, I was in a plane flying to San Francisco. I decided to start a new chapter in my life in a new place. Specially if this is a place I fell in love. Some instructors from college told me that it might be better to look for a job in New York rathr than San Francisco since New York has a larger job market than San Francisco. I knew that the number of opportunities was not important, I knew that I would find one in San Francisco if I try hard enough. It was the first time I felt so much energy and a strong positive attitude from a city. I was eager to build my life in San Francisco and I will create the opportunities myself.

This was how I started my life in San Francisco. It's hard to believe that nine years passed since that moment. I still carry the same ambition and drive I carried the day I stepped outside the plane.


(7) My struggle as a Japanese art student in America

My storyTomoko Maruyama4 Comments

One thing I discovered during my time as an art student is that my design style was very unique compared to the norm in the class. It was not necessarily good for my academic performance because it was clear that some teachers had a hard time giving me positive feedback about my work. They thought that my design style and the selection of colors I used was more appropriate for a children audience rather than an adult one. Even though my work might have looked cute, I couldn't understand why they thought it was meant only for children.

In Japan, where I grew up, one could find many cute designs everywhere including designs by companies considered to be very serious and respectable. I remember seeing a cute mascot character on many products. These characters were often part of the core marketing material. In my art, I liked to add smiling faces on inanimate objects so it looked like they had a life of their own. I liked to use pastel colors. They were not meant to be for children only and now I understand this came from my cultural upbringing. Growing in Japan, I developed a unique design style and I couldn’t change it easily.

One day, we had to create a poster for a performance at a nearby theater. They told us that only the work of one student would be selected. I designed a poster that was very colorful and had many smiling faces on selected objects including foods and furniture. It caught the attention of many students because they liked to see a fresh style. It was the most popular based on how students voted. I was very happy about it. However, the teacher selected a different poster at the end. I was sad. I felt that some teachers were just happy to form students with the same plain and ordinary style. This may be better suited to start a job at a local firm after graduation. I now understand that most companies do not necessarily want someone with a distinct style. They may need a graduate who can quickly meet their design needs. This often means modifying existing design templates rather than creating new work. In fact, I struggled a bit when I worked as a graphic designer in a company after I graduated. I was told, again, that my design concepts were more tailored to the children market. I disagreed.

During my time at school, I had moments where I lost confidence in my work. However, this experience taught me to have confidence on my art. When working at a company, I felt bad that my design couldn’t meet the company needs and I still couldn’t see how to do it correctly. Sometimes, I felt like I was trying to kill my natural Japanese style so it could fit into the company culture. But then, I remembered what one of my teachers told me. He said “You have a very whimsical style. You should do something with this talent”. He told me that while looking over my design portfolio. I took it as a compliment and it was the first time someone made me realize that I have very special design style.

I then learned that there are many ways people can see at a piece of art. Art teachers and experienced designers may have one way to see things while younger people may see it differently. One may like your design while another one does not. It doesn’t mean that your design is wrong. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you should follow their advice either because they have more experience than you. This was the mistake I made when I was a student. I felt that I was so inexperienced, which was true at the time, that I had to take everybody’s advice and correct everything the way they told me to do. It became someone else’s art but not mine. I think school is where you learn the techniques but it’s up to you to define your style freely.  

In the end, I decided to look for an opportunity where people would appreciate my own style. And I found it.

(6) Becoming an art student

My storyTomoko Maruyama2 Comments

I started my college life as an art student in a small university in New Jersey. The main reason I chose to go there was its combination of a small class size and a very good program for international students like me.

On the one hand, it was very hard to follow the lectures initially. Before I even considered improving my design skills by attending design lectures, I needed to improve my English. So I took extra English classes and I tried to speak with as many students as I could. I had thought that my English level was appropriate considering that I was able to communicate appropriately when I traveled abroad. However, I realized that my English level was not OK when I had to deal with real life situations in the U.S. Thus, I started recording lectures, I would go back to my room and played the recordings over and over until I understood. Very often, I just couldn’t understand most of the dialog and I became so frustrated. Finally, I decided to ask if the school could help me with tutoring sessions. In addition, several teachers spent time with me to help me with the lectures after each class. I had expected the journey not be easy but this was way more difficult than what I had expected. I was overwhelmed by everything that I was missing due to my lack of proper English. I couldn't stop crying everyday out of frustration and but I realized that crying was not very helpful. Instead, I kept reaching out to many people around me and many of them helped and supported me through this period. I really appreciated their warmth and friendship. 

On the other hand, I loved to explore New York City. I took a bus to Manhattan almost every weekend. I liked to go to art galleries in the SoHo district and museums in the city. I especially liked to go to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan. Every time I went there, I spent quite a long time at their gift shop as I loved Zakka items. Everything they used to carry was so cool, clean and stylish. This is where I started seeing my career a few years down the road. I imagined that my work would be sold at museum shops and I was convinced that it was not going to be a dream but a real goal. I had made a decision.

Even though my first year of college was tough due to the new language and culture, the fact of being there gave me tons of motivation to move forward with my career choice. I decided to create a strong path and a plan to develop my second career in the U.S. I had finally found what I liked to do and I was there to make it a reality.

(5) Going to New York

My storyTomoko MaruyamaComment

Coming back to Tokyo after spending a long journey across several countries, I started searching for an art school. There was too much information online so it was difficult for me to decide. I had heard that New York was the art capital of the world. So I looked for options that were simple and straightforward near New York City. Also, New York had a reputation of being a tough place to be and in a certain way I liked that. I wanted to be in a place where I would be challenged.

I strongly believed that it is important to follow your heart in life. It also sounds nice that you can act based on your decisionsNot so many people can do what they feel inside. 

However, reality turned out to be very different. It was not easy to quit my job as a sport teacher. My boss and colleagues weren't happy at all with my decision. In Japanese society, people are expected to work for the same company for many years and they often stay until they retire.

My parents were disappointed as well. They called me every day to see what I was planning to do next after quitting my job. They were shocked to learn that I had gone on a journey for 10 months and they were even more astonished when I told them about my decision to go to the U.S. My mom started crying in front of me asking why I cannot study art in Japan. She may have thought that I was unsettled. I explained to them the reasons for my decision but they didn’t completely agree. I grew up in a small town in the countryside and it may have been very hard for them to understand why I was going to live in a different city let alone a different country in the other side of the planet. I knew that my decision didn't go well with the people around me. However, I believe that each person is different and each one of us has a unique way of thinking and seeing the worldAlso, each generation is different. I was always active, positive and full of curiosity. These were the personality traits that I liked about myself. I didn't want to stay and live the same life everyday just because someone told me to do so. 

The day I left for U.S, I was checking my suitcase at the entrance of my house. My mom just stepped in saying that she had gone to pray for my safety and health to a shrine near our house. My dad just said one word "Ganbare" (keep up what you will do). He was quiet as usual. As soon as I started leaving my house, my mom started crying again. I took the taxi to the airport and looked back to my parents. She was waving her hand until I couldn't see her anymore.

I didn't cry at the time and I tried to show a happy face. I was so excited for this new challenge in my life. But I didn't know at the time that I was going to cry a lot later. I didn't know how hard it was to live in a foreign country with people from a different culture and without knowing English very well.

(4) Drawing fantasy worlds

My storyTomoko Maruyama1 Comment

During my journey, I had the opportunity to see beautiful artworks created by local artists in every city I went. I particularly enjoyed the artwork being sold in the streets. I was able to talk to several artists about their work, the cities where they lived and specially their life. In fact, this experience taught me an important lesson about motivation and hard work later. As it happens, the first place where I sold my art in San Francisco was in front of the Ferry Building on the street. 

I bought several artworks from those artists as souvenirs. I am happy to rediscover good memories of the experiences I lived in those places every time I see those artworks at home. They make me happy. 

Then I remembered how much I used to like drawing when I was a kid. I liked to draw a story that follows a fantasy theme. I had so many stories coming into my head. I imagined living in these fantasy worlds always with interesting animals and characters. I made them all smiling just like me when I was drawing. I am not sure when I stopped creating these worlds. I guess the world I was living became more real as I became an adult. 

Going back to my journey, I bought a sketch book that day and started drawing. Initially, my hand was clumsy and it was hard to draw smoothly. Very soon, the movements came and it was like something my body wanted to do for a long time. I enjoyed drawing so much that I bought seven additional sketch books during my trip. My passion towards art was growing every time I bought an additional sketch book. 

I became convinced that I should follow my heart. I love art.


(3) The journey that changed my life

My storyTomoko MaruyamaComment

Bali was very interesting. Everything I saw, ate and experienced gave me a new perspective from which I could see the world. I fell in love with the area called Ubud where there are beautiful rice terraces. It was very good to be there especially during that period in which I had to think what to do with my life.

I met some friends who worked at a bungalow where I stayed in Ubud. The first time I saw them, they were setting up a ladder on a coconut tree. I was watching them curiously until one of them asked me if I wanted to pick up the fruits. This was how we started talking and we ended up laughing a lot together. I felt like I haven't laughed like that for a long time. People seemed so happy there.

Travel is not only about being a tourist in a foreign country. Travel allows you to learn a different culture, different customs and meet people from very different backgrounds. Then you realize that there are many ways to see things. There are many ways to live and many ways to feel joy from little things in life. You definitely can broaden your horizons. For instance, I saw a world map and realized again how small Japan was. I felt very insignificant once I realized how wide my horizons were.

I decided to spent several months backpacking in several countries. I visited 21 cities in 6 different countries for 10 months instead of the original 2 weeks I had planned to spent visiting Bali. It seems to be a long time as a journey but I am convinced that I could have never found what I truly wanted to do with my career and life had I just stayed in Tokyo thinking about my important life in my tiny apartment.

(2) Quitting my job

My storyTomoko MaruyamaComment

Being a sport teacher was fun. I loved to interact with kids and enjoyed giving them encouragement while sharing tips I learned from my experience. But I also wondered if I could have this job all my life. I had never thought of being a sports teacher until I had to find a job to make a living. On the other hand, the job I had offered what would be considered a normal career path in Japan and it was also relatively stable.

Sometimes, I gathered with my friends to catch up on their lives. They talked about how much they were looking forward to receiving their yearly bonuses or taking their next vacation. We also enjoyed talking about trendy restaurants and bars in Tokyo where we could get together after work. That sounded like a normal life for people in their early 20s. We all had professional careers, had decent jobs and salary. We also planned activities we could enjoy after work or during the weekends. However, I noticed that nobody ever talked about how much they loved their jobs. Instead, I heard lots of complaints. I didn't have any complains but could I really say that I love my job?

Since then, I started thinking a lot about me being a sport teacher. I liked it but I didn't love it. Some people said that jobs are like that. I was even told that I should be lucky to have a job that at least I like. I disagreed. But then I could't think of any other activity that I would love to do. All I knew was that I needed to change something.

So I quit my job and decided to take a break. What should I do next? I didn't know.

One weekend, I was at a book store in Shibuya and saw a travel brochure about "Indonesia". Bali, which is a well-known vacation island in Indonesia, was a very popular destination for Japanese people. At the time, the Japanese TV even had language lessons for Indonesian and I sometimes watched it for fun. So I became a bit interested in going there one day.

A few weeks later, I arrived to Bali all by myself. It was hot and humid like Tokyo in the summer.

(1) My childhood dream

My storyTomoko MaruyamaComment

The Rio Olympics just ended last weekend. And I am very happy that Japan won a silver medal on the 4x100m relay.

When I was a kid, one of my dreams was to go to the Olympics. Before my career as an artist, I was training to become a sprinter and focused on the 100m and 4x100m relay. I chose a high school that was renowned for its track and field program. Then I went to the Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo known to have several Olympic athletes among its alumni. I was very proud to be accepted by the university. In addition, training with my fellow students was extremely motivating but also very challenging.

However, after a few years, I faced reality because there are only very few runners who can become top athletes. Unfortunately, my performance level was not good enough for me to have a chance to be among the top runners so my childhood dream would remain that, a dream. So I started working as a sport teacher in Tokyo after I graduated.