When Fear Does Flourish: A woman’s story of loss, love and pressing the limits

Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.
Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.

Erika Haigh moved to Canada from Japan on her own to pursue post-secondary school. Since graduation, she’s endured hundreds of challenges and hardships, including the loss of her mom to leukaemia and the decision to shift from a career in law to non-profit.

The woman in her early 20s shares her story of growth, exploration, grief, professional development and passion with A Quarter Young.

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1. You went to school at McGill University. What did you study?

Honours Political Science with a minor in World Religions.

2. What about studying in Montreal was so intriguing for you?

Having been born and raised in Japan until I was 18, I had only visited Canada a number of times, which was unfortunate considering that I’m half Canadian. It was one of these rare trips, one epic trip I made with my family in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, which convinced me McGill was my dream school. We ventured from LA, to Montreal, to Halifax, then to Prince Edward Island, and finally New York Ciy. Out of all of these incredible cities, Montreal was my favourite. I was struck by its distinct charm: not French nor Canadian, but a complimentary mixture of both. How compact and therefore walk-able the city is also appealed to me, and how the McGill campus was smack in the middle of all the downtown action.

3. Tell me about the community overseas your family is from.

One word to describe Japanese culture is “bizarre.” Not in a bad way, but if you’re accustomed to Western morals and values, Japan embraces the complete opposite of anything you’re used to. That’s probably why it’s such a popular travel spot for Westerners. A trip to Japan is an eye-opener to just how DIFFERENT places can be in this world.

I can quickly give you some brief generalizations. Conformity is encouraged at the expense of individuality. There is no work-life balance. Rather, your work becomes your life. If you’re a housewife, that also defines who you are and how you go about your day-to-day. Yet with conformity, or maybe because of it, a nation is formed that sincerely values cooperation and showing kindness to strangers. Most individuals have a commendable work ethic, not for any promised compensation but because they cannot fathom ever giving a half-ass attempt at anything. Being Japanese, you are born and bred to be this way.

All in all, it’s a very comforting yet sometimes stifling place to live, at least in my opinion. I couldn’t imagine living there my whole life and was ready to get out, but most Japanese are perfectly content living there without even travelling much.

4. Now that you’re in Toronto, working and living, have you grown accustomed to Canada’s largest city? What’s your favourite part about being here?

I would say so! Living in a multicultural city is not new to me coming from Tokyo, so there were no adjustments that had to be made in that regard. It’s a bonus that unlike other metropolises, people are very friendly here, and unless I’m stupid enough to go to certain areas of the city alone, I feel very safe being out and about any time of day.

My favourite part is that there are a ton, and a whole variety, of things to do, especially when it comes to drinking and dining (and for a foodie like me, that’s a huge requirement of what I hope for in any city)! You got your hipster café culture, hippie living in Kensington, clubbing on King St. (even though I’m not really into that scene), and beaches and the island nearby to escape the buzz of the city whenever you feel like it. The option to be able to do whatever I want, whenever I want, is fantastic.

5. You moved to Toronto on your own – what was that like? 

Scary, but I only have myself to blame for that. You know when I previously mentioned how Toronto is safe unless you were “stupid enough to go to certain areas of the city alone?” I was referring to myself, and my brilliant decision to live at Sherbourne and Dundas Sts. when I first moved here on my own.

I simply had not done my research as to WHY prices for a bachelor there were so cheap compared to the rest of the city. I had written it off as expert house hunting work on my end..DERP. I’m not going to go into any specifics of all the things I witnessed while living there because that would involve me writing a whole essay for you, but let me just say there were no leisurely walks taken around the neighbourhood. I whizzed straight out of my apartment on my bike (the very first purchase I made immediately after moving in) and did the same coming back.

Through this experience, I learned the importance of doing your homework before jumping into the unknown and how safety is not an issue to be taken lightly. When I was younger (HA, as if I am so old and wise now), I would always prioritize saving money above all else. Yet I am now convinced that money spent on factors like safety are an investment. I made sure not to make the same mistake again on my second move to the bachelor apartment I reside in now, and I’m much happier as a result

Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.
Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.

6. What is one of the first risks you had to take when moving here?

Besides fearing for my life, I was also lonely when I first moved to Toronto, which I guess is expected with any move. You leave your comfortable routines and a close-knit community of friends behind and you’re forced to start off with a clean slate instead. I didn’t know many people here except for a handful of acquaintances (mostly mutual friends of people I knew from university).

I don’t know if this would be considered a “risk” per se, but having to force myself to actively reach out to the few connections I had definitely put me out of my comfort zone, especially because I hadn’t had to make new friends for a few years. Yet such efforts paid off big time, because those individuals I reached out to ended up introducing me to their own group of friends and the list of friends gradually increased. I now have people I cherish and a valuable support system: enough for me to call Toronto my new home.

7. What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to hurdle?

I only had to survive in my less than ideal living conditions for four months, as I was summoned back to Japan for all of 2015 to take care of my mom who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) only a few days into the new year. Without an active father figure present and a younger brother who was still 17 in a British boarding school, I became her sole pillar of support.

This was the hardest year of my life plagued by one excruciating challenge after another. I experienced first hand the struggles faced not only by the patient, but also as the caregiver and family member. I thoroughly witnessed the ins and outs of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and of a bone marrow transplant as my mom’s donor. The most devastating of all was her passing away on December 3, 2015.

However, I am blessed to have had a mom who was so brave, loving, and optimistic throughout it all. She was a true role model who taught me the value of tenacity and the preciousness of life. I realize how losing her is something my brother and I will continue to struggle with our whole lives, yet thanks to the influence she has had on us, I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to carry on and make the most of everything that awaits us.

8. You’re currently working in a non profit – what drew you to this type of work? 

I beat myself up over and over again after my mom passed away trying to figure out exactly WHY she had to die. She was such a radiant and inspirational individual who brought happiness to so many people’s lives. What could possibly be the reason for taking her away? Wasn’t everything supposed to happen for a reason?

Who knows if I have come to the correct conclusion or not, but I now believe that it is up to me to BE that reason, by transforming her loss into tangible changes in cancer research and awareness. So while 2015 was a rough year, it was also my most transformative. Through her loss, my professional aspirations changed radically to the point where working within a cancer-related non-profit seemed like a natural calling, the one and only path I can and must take.

9. How did you get this job? Tell me about the countless hours of volunteering you put in.

Although I had this burning desire to change outcomes for those suffering with cancer, to save the life of even one person tainted by this disease, the non-profit world is competitive just like any other. While I volunteered a lot throughout my undergraduate career and had assumed numerous leadership positions organizing events and raising money for causes I cared about, I had no work experience. Nada. Obviously, having only a BA under my belt didn’t help matters.

The only thing I had going for me was my passion alone. This is why I started applying to any volunteer position I could get my hands on, with the hopes that this would connect me to the right people and provide me with the hands-on experience I needed.

One of these organizations I applied to is the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario (POGO), which strives to provide equitable access to the best possible care for the best possible outcomes for kids with cancer throughout Ontario. POGO appealed to me most as it combined my long-standing desire to help kids (previous to 2015, I wanted to go into family law to represent children in custody cases) with my newfound hopes of making a difference in cancer care.

Hence, I volunteered at POGO the most, working as an administrative assistant three times a week. I am fortunate enough to say that timing was on my side: less than two months after becoming a volunteer, a position within the fundraising department opened up and I was able to personally submit my resume and cover letter to the hiring manager who I had already formulated a good relationship with. While I was not given preferential treatment at any point in the interview process, having my foot already in the door helped tremendously in being considered for the role to begin with. Thankfully, I was hired by the end of the month!

10. What would you encourage other young people to do to secure employment?

Know everything there is to know about the organization and the role you are applying for. There is no such thing as too much research. Casually referring to one of the projects the company worked on 20 years ago doesn’t make you look sad or too keen. Instead, it shows initiative and that you are genuinely passionate about the organization.

Another big thing is to fully understand what your strengths are, realizing how best to sell them. Then, tie this back to the organization, and how these strengths will help you excel in the role you’re interviewing for.

Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.
Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.

11. A lot of people believe the stereotype that every young person is entitled. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. What would you do/what do you do to combat this stigma?

I have always been against such narrow-minded thinking, where individuals are classified as being a certain way because of their age, gender or ethnicity. It’s vital to remember that you really can’t judge a book by its cover, that every person has their own unique story, that you don’t know the twists and turns they have taken to get where they are today.

That being said, I do get why this specific stigma exists. Most often than not, young people don’t yet understand what responsibility truly means.

However, I have to be honest and say that I have never tried combating this stigma because I don’t really get worked up about what other people think of me. I have always lived by the philosophy that only I can define who I am and nobody else. Because who else knows me better than me?

12. Do you see yourself staying in Toronto? Working here? 

YES and YES. Unlike Montreal with its distinct charm that you either love or hate, Toronto is multifaceted, as I mentioned before. Don’t get me wrong: I have always loved Montreal and will continue to do so, yet after four years of living there, I was ready for a change and Toronto afforded me that diversity I was craving.

The same goes for the job market here. I don’t plan on changing companies any time soon because I love the job I currently have, but if and when I’m ready for a transition, there seems to be no better city in Canada that would give me as many opportunities.

13. What’s your favourite part of the city?

The Junction. Naturally, I’ve already told you how big of a foodie I am.

14. If you could choose to live anywhere else in the world, where would it be? Why?

London. Again, I’m a city girl, and to me, London is one of the coolest of them all.

15. For others like you who may have just moved to a new city – what advice do you have for them? 

Whatever anxiety you may be having—whether it’s regarding your new job, finding friends or just generally feeling like a fish out of water—remember to say, “this too shall pass,” because it really will! The one thing we can count on in life is ephemerality. Contemplate on all the changes you have encountered and later overcame and believe that you will do the same this time around.

16. How do you stay in touch with “where you’re from” even though you’re in a new place? (Or, how do you keep your inner Jenny From the Block happy, in check?)

I think it’s natural for us to keep on evolving as time goes on, but you’re right, it’s important to change into newer and better versions of ourselves as opposed to someone completely different. Regardless of where I am, keeping the right company is very important in staying true to myself. I can always rely on the opinions of those I trust to keep me in check and remind me of my core values and beliefs.

17. When thinking of your personal journey to success, what has been your favourite moment to date?

My favourite moment to date has got to be landing my current job at POGO. After a whole year of hardship, receiving one piece of bad news after another, I was convinced that nothing was meant to work out for me. At such a low point, I worked my butt off for four months volunteering at a variety of gigs while applying to jobs and getting hired by POGO represented the fruits of my labour and that things were finally turning around for me. I couldn’t have been happier when I got that acceptance email. It was downright silly really, how I literally could not wipe the dopey smile off of my face for days thereafter!

Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.
Erika Haigh. Photo courtesy of Erika Haigh.

18. What keeps you motivated to keep working, learning, growing? 

I believe that the one thing all successful people share—whether they are doctors, researchers or stock brokers—is their curiosity to learn. To continue educating themselves even after they’ve been designated the top expert within their field. Being informed is essential for success!

19. How do you keep your family’s culture a part of your daily life? A part of you?

Good question! This is very topical for me because until this year, I would always go back to Japan to visit my friends and family every six months for weeks at a time, so I was never worried about becoming out of touch with my Japanese background. However, for the first time in my life, I don’t plan on going back to Japan for a few years because my mom is no longer there and it’s one expensive trip to make simply for pleasure. I’m happy there are a lot of authentic Japanese restaurants in Toronto so my taste buds won’t forget how very delicious Japanese cuisine truly is. As for cultural practices, maybe I’ll start getting my friends involved in some Japanese things here, like hosting a Hanami (a tradition of rambunctious picnics underneath cherry blossoms) at High Park.

20. Anything else to add?

Yes. After all the rambling I’ve just done, the most important message I want to convey is that nothing in life—whether it be your job, friends, or partner—is worth stressing over if it’s jeopardizing your happiness.

All those elements should only enrich the quality of your life, not detract from it. By no means do I want this message to come off preachy, it’s just something I genuinely believe in and strive to live by.

Of course, there’s shiz that needs to get done on the daily that may not be the most enjoyable. Yet in the grand scheme of things, what you spend your time doing and thinking about should be catered towards cultivating happiness. Being happy is how we should measure our success.

Sure, a little anxiety can be healthy as it may motivate you to be productive, but you never want to get to the point where you feel downright miserable. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is worth compromising your happiness. If so, what would be the point of it all?


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