January 1st, 2016 marked my tenth anniversary of moving to the United States of America. In ten years, I went from a broke NEET who dropped out of school in the sixth grade to a UC-Berkeley-graduate senior software engineer at Apple. When I was at Diablo Valley College, $1.5 blueberry scone was all I could afford for breakfast. Now I live comfortably in the Silicon Valley and travel internationally twice a year. I met most of my best friends here in the bay area. “The land of opportunity” could not have described my experience of living in this country better.
I was born rebel. When I was five years old, I told my parents “don’t act as if you know better than me just because you’re older than me.” I also stayed up until 2 A.M. in the morning to prove there was no Santa Claus. At school, I told other kids there is no God or Santa Claus, and all the fairytale stories their parents told them are lies. I had very little respect for cultural norms and traditions, and struggled to fit in the collectivist society of Japan. I also developed a keen interest in science at a young age. I read about astronomy when I was six, and I was passionately explaining how CFCs in refrigerators were creating ozone holes in the southern hemisphere, and burning Amazon forests in Brazil was a pressing issue to my parents by the time I was in the third grade.
Not surprisingly, I excelled at academics and sucked at social interactions when I entered elementary school. I didn’t enjoy spending time with my classmates, and playing with other kids was nothing but annoyance I had to endure. Because my family relocated three times when I was in elementary school, I never had a close friends that I knew for more than three years either. All I wanted to do at school was acquiring academic knowledge, and I struggled to understand why other kids enjoyed playing outside or making fun of other pupils. It was all too counterproductive and illogical in my mind. I had to partake in those activities to fit in but I hated it.
At the beginning of the sixth grade, I developed a serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder, and I could no longer attend school or live with my parents. I dropped out of school and moved in with my aunt and grandmother when I was twelve. What annoyed me most was not the fact I could no longer attend school, or I had a mental disorder. It was that people around me were completely oblivious to what I was going through and treated me as if I was just being lazy. My father told me I can only become a homeless man when I grow up if I didn’t go back to school. They didn’t believe in me. They thought I was done. So as much as I was unhappy with my not being able to attend school, there was always a part of me, a rebel, that wanted to prove to the world that I didn’t have to go to school to make it. I wanted to conquer my life without taking the path my parents and the society laid out for me.
Thus I became a NEET, someone who is Not in Education, Employment, or Training at the age thirteen. I was interested in one thing though: computers. It was the height of the dot com boom then, and I become interested in making websites for living. In order to gain experience, my aunt helped me post ads on a local newspaper, and I started helping a local business and a local program of Special Olympics manage a website. At Special Olympics, I eventually got involved in bootstrapping their educational program in Japan, and worked for the game organizing committees of the national and world games to host youth summits. I worked relentlessly throughout, sometimes staying until 2 or 3 AM in the office with other volunteers who were equally passionate about Special Olympics and making a difference in the world.
Working with people much older than me, and helping others gave me much needed confidence. I also learned to appreciate social interactions for the first time. In the spring of 2005, I got into a relationship with a girl I met through Special Olympics and she persuaded me to go back to school. I guess a young boy would do anything for his crush. I was also starting to see that my lack of mathematical knowledge was hindering my ability to code. So I decided to attend a college after getting the certificate of high school equivalency. I enrolled at a cram school specialized for K-12 dropouts, and prepared for the examination. Even though people at the cram school warned me that I will most likely not pass on my first attempt since I hadn’t attended school in six years, a good work ethic I had obtained by volunteering at Special Olympics helped me pass the examination on my first attempt in September 2005, only five months after I decided to go back to school.
By that time, I had been attending an English conversational school for my work in Special Olympics, and I was reasonably fluent in English. I really enjoyed talking in English because of its directness, and the lack of keigo (honorific speech) better matched my personality. As a result, I was a lot more talkative in English. I was also used to the idea of learning new materials in English because I had been reading MSDN library and various W3C specifications in English. Combining it with the fact most universities in Japan require prospective students to take an entrance exam, I decided to study computer science in the United States. Attending a community college for two years and transferring to a four year university later based on my academic record in the first two years was a lot more suitable for my circumstances. So after eight months of deciding to get back to school, I was studying computer science at Diablo Valley College (DVC), determined to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley, one of the top four universities known for computer sciences in the U.S.
My time at DVC was brutal. In order to successfully transfer to Berkeley as an international student, I had to maintain a 4.0 GPA. So I studied relentlessly. I studied 10 to 15 hours a day, and there was no leisure activities that came before finishing homework, assignments and projects. I also had to be absolutely vigilant in planning my course work for each semester. I would not take two classes next to each other if I had to prepare for an exam in the second class. I read reviews of each professor and carefully picked the one that taught well. I spent recesses reviewing my textbooks and read ahead at the beginning of semester to give myself a head start.
Because I was trying to transfer as an engineering student and I had to start my math from trigonometry, I took eight math courses in two and half years at DVC. I even took linear algebra and multivariable calculus back to back over one summer. Because the lack of mathematical background was one of the reasons I decided to go back to school, I focused a lot on understanding each and every concept by my heart. I spent hours staying at the math lab, did more exercises than assigned, and made sure I could derive any formula on spot to compensate for my bad memory. My hard work eventually paid off, and by the time I transferred to Berkeley, I was tutoring at the math lab myself.
Nevertheless, I could not have survived if it weren’t for my friends and dedicated professors at DVC. I always made friends at math and physics courses. We studied together for hours and wrote lab reports together. We complained about course loads and laughed together. They were hard working as well as I was if not more. Many of them were veterans of Afghan, Iraqi wars, returning students, and refugees starting their new lives in the U.S. They had their own life story to share. I also met great professors at DVC. They were very dedicated and truly cared about students' success. They had generous office hours and advised students on which courses to take, how they can prepare for four year universities, and even invited us to home parties. They gave me the inspiration and the energy I needed to work hard and excel for those two and half years and beyond. Unlike elementary school, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with my friends and professors at DVC.
My experience at Berkeley was equally inspirational. My father used to tell me that I had to work twice as hard than my peers because I’m not smart. That was not entirely true at my community college where I was frequently one of the top students in many science classes due to my diligence. But it couldn’t have been truer at Berkeley. Everyone around me was outrageously smart and a lot more hard working than I was. I felt this might have been it; I would graduate at the bottom of my class and I won’t be able to get a job of my dream. What saved my life at Berkeley was project based computer science classes. I had learned programming from a private tutor when I was in Japan and I was able to code much faster than my peers. I was already familiar with many computer science concepts without knowing formal jargons or theories behind them. Heck, I had learned many English words by reading MSDN library and I had written my own object-oriented library to manipulate arrays and strings in C. So I only had to focus on learning the theoretical part. I also reduced the course load as much as possible so that I can stay on a good academic standing. I cared more about learning each course material well than taking as many classes as possible. I learned some course materials so meticulously that I once wrote a proof for a problem my friend and I came up with, and that same problem showed up on our midterm.
As a result, I was able to maintain a good GPA, and I ended up getting an intern position to work on the Google Chrome in the summer of 2009. It was uncanny because my interests in Web browser was the reason I started learning how to program in the first place. At the time, one of the most celebrated Web authoring tool was then Macromedia’s Dreamweaver but I couldn’t afford it since I was a NEET and broke then. So I came up with a crazy idea of creating my own authoring tool. My parents set me up with a private tutor who was a graduate computer science student at a local university, and he taught me C and C++, the standard programming languages used to write Windows applications at the time. Since my goal was writing my own authoring tool, I spent a lot of time learning the actual specification of HTML as well as text encodings such as Shift JIS and then emerging Unicode. I even read the source code of W3C’s browser, Amaya, and recognized and adopted a particular programming structure, which I later learn to be a finite automata in college.
It’s not an exaggeration to say none of this could have happened if I stayed in Japan. Japan doesn’t have an equivalent of a community college for high school dropouts or returning students, let alone a junior transfer program to a prestigious research university. Many Japanese companies are so conservative that they aren’t willing to hire someone who didn’t graduate from college on time; forget about someone who didn’t go to middle school or high school. Most importantly, I never felt I could fit into the Japanese society because of the way I’m blunt, rebellious, and unconventional. So Thank You, the United States of America. I owe my life to you.