Aside from occasional jaunts across the nearby border to Canada, the young Shimota had no experience with foreign lands. Then he decided to go to Spain for his junior year of high school. His parents agreed to fund him. “That was easily the life changer,” Shimota says. In Spain, he learned to speak Spanish, and French.
BEING A ‘LANGUAGE FANATIC’ HAS ITS REWARDS
“I was in the Spanish school learning French with Spanish kids,” he says. “I spoke Spanish with Brazilians, and Germans. I had a German girlfriend.” After the school year in Spain, he spent two months traveling around Germany, and upon returning to high school in Seattle, took German and more French. For studying three tongues and “being a language fanatic, I guess,” his high school gave him a $200 scholarship. “It was, like, the smallest thing ever, but they hadn’t given it out for four years,” Shimota says.
Next stop, the University of Washington in Seattle, another stepping stone, to a goal as yet unclear. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” Shimota says. He had a fascination with the Classical world, and took Latin, finding that his fluency in Spanish made it easy to learn. “I basically spent my time partying freshman year,” he says. Shimota decided he’d escape over the summer to a new experience, and come back ready to take on challenging academics. “I was like, ‘I’m partying too much, I gotta get out of here.'”
And he had the financial wherewithal to strike out on his own. By age 12, he’d saved up $500 from odds jobs and gifts, and his father pledged to match the money if he put it into the stock market. “By the time I was 19, I had earned about $8,000 from these stocks,” Shimota says. “It was purely luck, I didn’t know squat about the stock market, but it was a good way to learn.”
He considered his options, and picked one that would offer the kind of excitement, novelty, and challenge that he enjoyed. What better place than post-genocide Bosnia, on an exchange course to study, in pre- and post-war Bosnian literature, the effects of wartime savagery on the collective psyche? “I didn’t exactly find what I was looking for,” Shimota admits. “I was trying to find that same thrill I’d found in Spain. It wasn’t exciting. There was too much (fallout from) war. It’s just too dark, too sad. The people are really pessimistic.”
Meanwhile, he’d decided to apply himself seriously to college when he started on his international studies major again in his sophomore year. “I said, ‘I have to do something challenging.’ So I started learning Chinese.
“I was like, ‘If I learn Mandarin, I can talk to half the world.'”
A BLESSING AND A CURSE
At the rate Shimota speaks, he’s probably covered at least a quarter of the global population by now.
“I like to talk a lot,” Shimota says. “It’s my curse and my blessing.”
For three straight quarters he took Mandarin, spending hours studying every night and watching his new-found language interest drag down his overall GPA. A 3.6 student, he received a 2.7 in Mandarin his first quarter.
“Second quarter I got a 2.4 and I was just studying my butt off. The last quarter I got a 2.2. I went from being a language stud to being the last guy in the class and just dying. That Chinese class was just tearing me down, because not only was I getting bad grades in the class, I was spending all my time on it. I was like, ‘Good God, I just gotta go over there.'”
He called Peking University and enrolled in a one-year intensive Mandarin program, and planned to take a summer Mandarin course in Taiwan, so that once in Beijing he could make Chinese friends quickly and learn Mandarin faster. At that point, his parents were still supporting him. “I was already spoiled enough to have my parents pay for my undergrad and living expenses,” he says. His parents would pay for his schooling in China, but spend less than they would have if he were in college that year in Seattle. “My undergrad in-state at the University of Washington in Seattle was $8,000 a year. By independently organizing my scholar-year program, I paid $4,000 at Peking U, which transferred to my school as 1.5 years of credits, as well as $1,500 for a summer intensive program at Sun Yat-Sen U. in Taiwan. My living expenses were much less than the U.S. Therefore, even with the plane ticket, I ended up saving a good deal of money.”
A Chinese classmate from Seattle had helped him find a room to rent in Beijing, with three Chinese roommates. He went out to clubs with his roomies, went shopping with them, played video games with them: “the three best tutors I’ve ever had.” He met their friends, and spoke Mandarin all the time.
“I was just hanging out with Chinese people, improving my Mandarin at a crazy speed,” Shimota says. He quickly fell in love with both the language and the culture, he says.
MIND-NUMBING JOB A STEPPING STONE, TOO
He left China in 2010 set on coming back. He finished college, and embarked on a series of short-term jobs in Seattle: five months as a researcher for The National Bureau of Asian Research; four months interning in international trade for the Washington State commerce department. He spent another four months doing data entry for Onvia, which provides companies with government spending data. “It was like the worst thing in the world,” he says. “I was just like a slave to a computer.”
But it was all part of the plan – there was logic behind the flurry of seemingly aimless steps. He wanted to build up his resume, put some corporate-world experience on it and crown it with a name that would carry weight in China. “Big names are important in the U.S. but they’re bigger in China,” he says. While working through his series of jobs, he was interviewing frequently, while meeting once a week with a University of Washington career counselor. “I owe almost everything to her,” he says. “She would help me prepare for interviews, tell me what I did wrong in interviews, help me improve my resume.” He treated his job searching and hopscotching as “a mini MBA,” he says. ” I learned a lot about business, and enterprise, and how to sell yourself.”