Updated: Apr 5
Every month on WOMENCANFLY.CO’s blog series, The Way, we introduce inspirational women who live around the world.
This time, we meet Mai Yoshida who lives in South Africa. Mai was originally a nurse but a chance encounter led her to become a certified ‘salvage cooking’ chef, a fun way to prevent food waste by cooking with leftover ingredients.
Mai met her husband who is South African and they unexpectedly got married and moved to South Africa five years ago.
Even though she had never studied abroad or attended a language school, Mai simply went straight into what she was interested in and loved.
We spoke with Mai about what makes South Africa special and her work and lifestyle there.
Being a nurse and salvage chef
Mai's childhood dream was to become a nurse who could sing and dance. After graduating, she fulfilled her dream and worked as a nurse in Tokyo for 11 years. At the same time, she also loved eating and cooking, so she studied ‘brewing and fermentation culture’ while working as a nurse.
Later, by chance, Mai began helping out at salvage parties and discovered salvage cooking.
Salvage cooking is a fun way to prevent food waste. We tend to work hard at following recipes, but many of the seasonings we use only rarely or ingredients we buy in large quantities for their cheapness are difficult to use up.
Mai was so impressed with the appeal of salvage cooking that she became a Certified Salvage Cooking Chef. It not only contributes to food waste prevention but is also a way of having fun and cooking delicious food.
For example, if you want to make bean curd, you might think that you can't do it without sweet bean sauce but if you look at the ingredients of sweet bean sauce, it is made of miso, sugar, soy sauce and other ingredients. You can substitute any seasoning you have at home. Mai hopes she can make food enjoyable and tasty without being restricted by traditional recipes.
Just around that time, the government began to address environmental issues and the public began to take an interest which encouraged Mai to get a job as a salvage cooking chef.
While working as a nurse, Mai was also working as a chef, doing interviews for magazines and newspapers, appearing regularly on TV programs, and running a cooking school which was fast-paced but fulfilling.
Moving to South Africa after getting married out of the blue
Just as she was getting on track as a salvage cooking chef, her life was about to get even more interesting, Mai met her current husband who is from South Africa.
“I wasn't a marriage-minded person but at the same time I knew I might not meet anyone like him again and I had a gut feeling that with him I would overcome anything no matter where I went."
Mai had never studied abroad or attended a language school. Communicating in Japanese, which her partner spoke and with the help of a friend who spoke good English as an interpreter, they were married in no time. They then decided to move to South Africa.
Mai’s family was surprised by her marrying someone who was not Japanese and the move to Africa. Letting go of the career she had built up was a source of anxiety not only for Mai herself, but also for her family.
At the time, when she was approaching her late 30s, Mai sometimes felt crushed by the inexpressible emotions of leaving her beloved family and friends and going to a country with a different culture and history, even though it was a choice she had made on her own.
“At that time, a friend of mine said to me, 'It's enough if you live happily. You should go there with nothing. You will surely find something unique there.”
In 2017, despite her anxiety and hesitation, Mai was encouraged by her friend's words and flew to South Africa.
The unexpected traits of South Africa
South Africa is located at the southernmost tip of the African continent. Although there are 11 official languages, many people use English. According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 1,505 Japanese residents (as of 2017). Mai says that after COVID-19, the number has become less than 1,000.
Mai first visited South Africa before her marriage. It was when she went to meet her partner’s family.
“I was surprised at how different it was from what I had imagined. Skyscrapers and shopping malls line the streets and highways with five or six lanes are the norm. Payments and money transfers are very convenient and modern and can be done easily using a bank app.”
Because South Africa was a British colony, the food and other aspects of the country strongly reflect British culture. Another major attraction is a two-hour drive from the city in the wilderness with wild animals. Summer resorts in Japan are also full of nature but they are incomparable.
On the other hand, there are poor neighbourhoods with tin roofs and no running water. There is a wide gap between the rich and poor. Due to the possibility of being involved in a crime if she stands out, Mai avoids wearing jewellery and watches when she goes out and avoids clothing that stands out. She doesn't carry a handbag and goes out with only the bare essentials like her mobile phone, credit cards and enough cash if necessary.
A career change in South Africa
Mai started living in South Africa but before her departure, she was introduced to a Japanese person living in the area and just two weeks after arriving there, she was offered a job with a travel agency.
Mai got the job smoothly but she says that because of this, she had some difficulties. The language barrier was especially big and since there was a rule that only English was allowed in the office, she was constantly nervous when answering the phone. Her background as a nurse was also a source of conflict.
Nursing is a profession that is very rule and norm oriented and Mai’s personality is that she always wants to be right. At her workplace in South Africa, although good performance was required, there were no rules. She had to loosen up her mindset of demanding correct answers and rules and the gap between the two was difficult for her.
Mai then went on to work in the Consulate Department of the Japanese Embassy as a local official. Many embassy staff continue to work until retirement and it is rare for a post to become vacant. She says that it is not a job that you can get if you want it and that timing is important.
Currently, Mai is supporting Japanese residents in South Africa by issuing passports and various certificates, confirming their safety in case of emergencies, and more. Although her job title is different, every day she feels that she is making good use of the work ethic she has cultivated in Japan.
Mai says that it was good timing for her employment at both the travel agency and the Japanese embassy but it takes courage to jump into a workplace where the language and culture are different from your own.
“It takes courage to take the first step in anything but once the first step has been taken, the second and third steps naturally come forward.”
Leave housework to the professionals and spend time on your own terms
Mai's husband says that she always seems to be working too hard at everything and that she always seems to be in a hurry. During these times, her husband encourages her to relax.
When Mai was busy doing household chores, her husband said, "Why don't you leave the housework to the professionals and use that free time to relax or start something new?"
There are many families in South Africa that have maids who do household chores. Therefore, it is easy for them to balance housework and childcare with work. There are also many working women.
Mai thinks that because they are women, they have to work hard doing housework but instead focus on the kind of life they want to lead. By asking maids to do housework, she thinks that it allows you to focus on what you want to do which makes life richer.
South Africa has a history of apartheid that once separated people of color from whites. People in South Africa have a high awareness of equality not only in terms of race but also gender.
Cooking Japanese food with what's available in South Africa
Mai moved to South Africa and is embarking on a new career but that doesn't mean she’s stopped cooking which she loves. With a salvage cooking mindset, she enjoys cooking with South African ingredients and seasonings.
“In South Africa, chickens are usually sold whole. I used to cut and pound them so that they would be in the cut state sold in Japan but now I cook whole chickens to make the most of them and finally I am not restricted by Japanese food culture."
Mai's Instagram is filled with delicious-looking dishes made with local ingredients.
Compared to Japan, where everything is readily available, life in South Africa can be inconvenient and time-consuming. However, everything can be overcome with a little ingenuity.
“Coming to South Africa has given me a rich spirit to enjoy one thing at a time."
Look at what we have, rather than wanting what we don't have. Salvage cooking is not just about cooking—it’s about using what you have to the fullest.
Mai has been able to live a fulfilling life in South Africa by honestly facing her own curiosity about her interests and feelings of excitement. She’s jumped into a new environment without language skills or overseas experience.
Looking at what she has, Mai's knowledge and experience, her reliable partner and friends, shine as the most important assets.
No matter what difficulties may come our way, we can overcome them positively. We look forward to seeing Mai embracing new challenges as she continues cooking and living abroad with ingenuity.
Thank you for reading and we are always here for you!
Women can fly.
Much love, xxx
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