| by Kayo Shiraishi Wood

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Wood, Kayo
Kayo Shiraishi Wood with her host sister and cousins while serving in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde.
  (Credit: Kayo Shiraishi Wood )

Many Peace Corps volunteers know what it feels like to not understand a single word of the language being spoken.

That was Kayo Shiraishi Wood’s experience when she first arrived in Cape Verde, West Africa. Then, while there, she sat in on meetings with visiting World Bank and International Monetary Fund delegations, where there were professional interpreters. That sparked an interest leading her to enroll in the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where she completed her MA in Conference Interpretation in 2008.

She recently wrote about her career journey in a series of essays on the Japan Association of Conference Interpreters (JACI) website.

We’re sharing her first essay here:


It seems to me that big changes often happen in your life when you least expect it. For me, it was when I arrived at the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I was volunteering at an event called the Festival of Books. It was a typical sunny day in Southern California. The grass under my shoes felt soft. After my volunteer shift, on my way back to my car, I was walking through the rows of tables lined up by the main pathway across campus.

I felt very carefree, which was in direct contrast with my job. At the time, I was an office manager at Morgan Stanley. It was a good job. Some people would even say that it was a great job. It had everything you could hope for—a clear corporate ladder. Do good work and over time get paid a better and better salary with more and more perks. But I hated it. It was sucking the life out of me. So here I was volunteering at this weekend event, trying to pass time productively and feel better about myself. I walked around and looked at all of the pamphlets and fancy brochures on the tables. I had a few casual conversations with some passionate people about various noble causes.

One table caught my eye. I had wanted to travel more but didn’t know how to make it happen, and this opportunity seemed perfect for me. It required U.S. citizenship, and I had just become naturalized the year before. The catch was, it was a two-year commitment, so I’d have to quit my job. Could I do this? I went home and read all of the booklets I had collected at the table.  I spoke to my boyfriend at the time, and he said go for it. “The Peace Corps has a lot to offer. I think you have a lot to offer it. And it would be great to see the world.”

I attended an info session soon thereafter and asked a lot of questions. There must have been 10 other people like me—excited and anxious at the same time. The recruiter kept telling me, though, that it would change me; that it was a big commitment. Was I ready for that?

Paul, Santo Antao
The town of Paul, Santo Antão, Cape Verde, where Kayo lived for two years.
  (Credit: Kayo Shiraishi Wood )

First Act

I woke up suddenly. It was pitch black outside. I thought I heard something, but it was just the wind. And then I realized what was waking me up. It was the waves hitting my back door. My new home in Cape Verde as a Peace Corps volunteer was everything and nothing that I had hoped it would be. The way the program works is that you go to your assigned destination with two duffle bags and instructions about exactly what you should do. And in my case, it was to give micro loans to women on the island. I was on the northernmost island of Cape Verde and getting there had not been easy.

That year, 26 volunteers went to Cape Verde. I met them in New Jersey on July 5, 2004. Because of this timing, I had to arrange my flight for July 4, which meant that I missed celebrating Independence Day with friends and seeing the fireworks. Instead I got to see many fireworks from the airplane high above as tiny blurry specks of colored lights below while tears kept filling my eyes. I knew I made the right decision, but it was an emotional departure leaving everything and everyone behind.

A few days later, we flew together to Dakar [Senegal], then to the Cape Verde capital city of Praia, where we went through preservice training. During this time, each volunteer was housed with a host family, all in the same village. My host family was awesome. It consisted of a woman named Guida and her very young sister, Patricia, and a brother, Danny. During the limited stay of two months, my host family taught me a lot about their language, culture, and etiquette. Guida always wanted to iron my shirt because “Americans look too messy” and she couldn’t have her host daughter looking any less than presentable. And I learned that it’s important to greet every person you pass by on the road. I saw many parallels in Cape Verdean and rural Japanese cultures.

Cape Verde is a tiny archipelago of 10 islands off the coast of West Africa, about the size of the smallest American state of Rhode Island. In Japanese terms, it’s about the size of Ishikawa prefecture. The topography of the islands is varied, but many islands are volcanic and the steep hills are mostly uninhabitable. The country doesn’t have much of an industry other than fishing and making rum out of sugarcane, and it depends heavily on remittances from Cape Verdeans working overseas.

After being sworn in as a legitimate volunteer, I had to take a flight to hop over a few islands, then a boat trip to yet another island, and a long drive going over mountains. It was an all-day ordeal of domestic travel in this tiny country. But now that I had been there for two months, that ordeal felt like the distant past. No women had expressed any interest in micro loans. I couldn’t speak the language. And I was feeling very alone. But I was free, and that’s what I loved.

One thing Cape Verde has is sheer beauty and charming people. The people were so welcoming and generous to me; interestingly, they assumed I was Chinese and called me “Chinesa.” They would invite me into their stone house and offer me juice or ponche (sugarcane rum mixed with sugarcane syrup), even when I couldn’t speak much of their language.

The official language is Portuguese, but people speak a simplified version of it called Kruiolu. So children would speak Kruiolu at home and yet learn Portuguese at school. To make matters more complicated, the Kriolu spoken in the Southern Islands (where I did my preservice training) is significantly different in vocabulary and accent than in the Northern Islands (where I was sent for my service). I had to start all over after I got to my site on the island of Santo Antão, and I was completely dumbfounded.

As I said in the beginning, you never know when your life is going to take a dramatic turn. Leaving my job and joining the Peace Corps was the first step. But being in a place where I couldn’t talk to anyone was the catalyst that led me to the path I am on today.

A few months into my service, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came to visit. They were trying to gauge the current situation as well as the agriculture and tourism needs on the island. A large delegation came and gave a very official talk. I went, because my boss at the municipality office said that the only American in the village (me) should go, and I saw it as a break from the daily routine. A surprise awaited me at the meeting. For the very first time in several months, I understood what was going on. There were interpreters there, translating Portuguese into English. “How powerful is this!” I thought. And they were listening and speaking at the same time! I realized, “I’m bilingual, but I can’t do this!”

Being in a place where I couldn’t talk to anyone was the catalyst that led me to the path I am on today.
— Kayo Shiraishi Wood

As soon as the meeting ended, I approached the interpreters and peppered them with questions. The delegation was on a tight schedule and they didn’t have much time for a chat. But they did tell me that it was quite difficult to become an interpreter. They told me to look at the website of the association to which they belonged, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). That website is where I discovered the only place, at the time, where I could receive a graduate degree in conference interpreting in the U.S.

Second Act

I have always loved the sea. And it seems no matter where I go, I end up pretty close to it. Here, the water was very cold, and there were sea lions everywhere barking all night. The aquarium was incredible and I volunteered there for a couple of years. But what I really loved about Monterey was its international vibe. Monterey is a small but cosmopolitan coastal city in central California. A town, really. And my two years of study at MIIS, which is now called the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, were absolutely incredible, a far cry from any interpreting I had done up to that point.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles at age 12, I had left Japan with my mother so that we could reunite as a family with my father. However, my father’s English was spotty and my mother just didn’t take to it, so it was often left to me to interpret and sometimes be the negotiator when we were buying a piece of furniture or leasing a car. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had in middle school and high school trying to learn the language and take classes at the same time with my peers. My saving grace was a Taiko group that I joined where I made Nisei friends. It felt comfortable. And it helped me forget about the many, many friends I had left behind in Japan.

Now that I was at MIIS, I had friends from all over. Some had just come from Japan, and others were born and raised in the U.S. and had lived in Japan just a few years. But we all had a common bond, wanting to help others communicate. It was as if I had found my own tribe, to borrow the words of a professor there. Growing up, I felt that I had to have different versions of myself. My language, behavior, and topics of conversation would all change depending on who was listening. There were Japanese-American friends (who mostly spoke English and understood some Japanese), people from Japan, and American friends and colleagues. But at MIIS, everyone in the program was bilingual and understood the fine nuances of the languages and they just “got it” in whatever way I expressed my thoughts. That was a nice environment to be in as we tackled the numerous weekly assignments in interpretation and translation, in J>E [Japanese into English], E>J [English into Japanese], Consecutive, and Simultaneous.

The program was rigorous, and despite my comfort level with Japanese and English, it was still very demanding. Those sleepless nights were back again but with a new sense of resolve, that this was indeed a career I had always wanted, but had never known it. The professors were all working interpreters and translators. So, the classes were gripping with incredible anecdotes from the field. I also loved the small size of our student body, roughly 750, and yet the large number of countries represented, about 40. A particularly memorable experience was taking the Interpretation Practicum during my final year. I got to interpret numerous live community speaker events in the booths. The campus hosted many speaker events, and I still remember the nervous feeling I got interpreting at some of them. For some reason, I remember the really grim topics only: the Afghanistan War, human trafficking, and a testimonial by a Hibakusha—an atomic bomb survivor. However, the most heart-pounding experience, by far, was being the relay interpreter so that the other language interpreters could interpret my rendition into their own languages. The two years flew by fast.

Graduation was on a really sunny day in May 2008, pretty similar to the day on which I volunteered for the Festival of Books, actually. We were all dressed up in our graduation regalia and talking about where we were headed next. One of my classmates had landed a job as a staff interpreter at Honda. Another one was headed to Japan, with any luck, to work with a company there.

As for me, I decided to go freelance, but had no specific plans to execute. Still, I was not worried. I felt that opportunities would probably present themselves. One distinct advantage of graduating from MIIS is that you learn how to interpret from active professionals in the field. Because of this advantage, I am thankful to have made connections with people all around the United States and Japan through the alumni network.


As I mentioned before, I’ve always been drawn to the water. I love hiking next to it, I love swimming in it, but most of all I just like staring at it. From my windowless room, it wasn’t clear where the ocean was. I had to walk up a couple of flights of stairs for a decent view. But aboard the Peace Boat’s cruise ship, the Clipper Pacific, the views were dramatic. This four-month cruise would take me to over 20 countries and serve as the perfect practicum opportunity for me after graduation. I’ll tell you more about it next time.

Read ‌more posts in her series, “USA Freelancing without a Parachute:”

This post was reprinted with permission from the Japan Association of Conference Interpreters (JACI).

For More Information

MA in Conference Interpretation