Countdown: 28 Days

I’m currently sitting at a Seattle based coffee shop, across from a different Seattle based coffee shop, observing the stream of homogeneous faces. It’s late Saturday afternoon but there’s no end to the parade of middle-aged men in crisp, white button-downs carrying black briefcases. I have to crease my brows to understand a single word of the conversations buzzing around me. A few teens pass by across the street in their school uniforms.

I’m still in Japan, but not for much longer.

In 28 days, I expect to be sitting at a similar Seattle based coffee shop. The cup sizes on display will be a little bigger, the people louder, and I expect I’ll be utterly shell-shocked by the sea of colourful faces and accents.

I’ll be back, in Canada. But I wonder, will it still feel like home?

It’s been less than a year yet I can’t imagine a life where I can’t just go anywhere across the country at the tap of a transit card. I wonder if I’ll feel embarrassed when I buy pads because they won’t be handed to me in discreet black or brown bags. When people brush by me in the streets, I can’t help but think I’ll be really irritated that they didn’t stop to apologise. “How dare they? No manners whatsoever.”

I know that with time, all things become neutral. That’s what it means to be human, after all. History has shown that even in the direst situations, our minds and bodies find ways to adapt, forget, or edit into survival. The alternative is just too depressing.

Dramatics aside, I know I’ll be okay. But if home is where the heart is, then I think my home will be in Japan for a little while longer. Even though my body will move back to Canada, I know my heart will be jet lagging behind just a tad.

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“Just Passing Through” (A Love Story)

Let’s talk about dating.

Dating – not love, because as so many people already know, love is more of a choice than a fatalistic happening when you are “just passing through.”

I wish someone had told me that earlier in life – before the failed long distance relationships and the misplaced vulnerabilities. When you choose to live a life that doesn’t leave room for a matching set of furniture (or any furniture), you are also choosing to fortify your heart behind 10 feet of denial, deflection, and a deliberate silence. Nobody tells you this, but those of us who “pass through” seemingly indefinitely, we eventually catch on.

I’ve caught on. Albeit a little later than my heart would’ve liked.

Whereas some others leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake… I think that I lose a piece of mine every couple of years.

With increased mobility everywhere around the world and people migrating for work more and more often, I often wonder how many others like me exist out there, on this vast, teeming world of ours.

If we string together all the little pieces of the hearts we choose to deny, deflect, and deliberately silence… Could we go around the world at least once?

In the meantime… all this dating that people do anyways… Practically, perhaps it is useless. What is dating when you can’t feel free to love? Yet we do it anyways.

Are we lonely? I know I am.

If I travel so far and wide, I wonder when and where my cookie crumb trail of denial, deflection, and deliberate silence will run out.

And what will happen then?

On life, on love

Last night, I learnt that some moments in life are universal.

As the time for the last train approached, I sat around two coffee tables pushed together, drunk with alcohol and camaraderie with three, very different Japanese women. One with a family of her own, one who had chosen to not have one, and one who was trying to have one. And then there was me, simply too young to even begin to know how those choices are even made.

The country was different, the language was different, and the expectations were different. But this was a conversation about love, about life, and about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

I sat in the corner, sipping my iced tea and mostly providing a stationary reminder to the three women of what it had once meant to be 25 and so naive, so open to the possibilities of the world – perhaps because the world has yet to force me to choose just yet.

In those wee hours of the night, we spun advice, sympathy, empathy, and exasperation. “No, it is not too late.”
“Yes, sometimes this is how it turns out.”
You are so young, you are so old, these are the choices and these are the cautionary tales from a friend of a friend of mine.

When we parted, our steps lingered a minute or two more to catch the last of the moment before it slipped through into memory.

The moment… it made me feel connected to what it means to be a woman – rather, what it means to be human! I had taken part in the ancient ritual that has waxed and waned throughout history, in all its four corners, since the beginning of when we learnt to love and live.

As the end of my time in Japan nears, I think more about how one day, these memories will remind me that although short, Japan was a special period in my life.

Every. Last. Moment.

 

24 Lessons I’ve Learnt So Far

A friend suggested that I make this list for the last day of my Year 24.

I wonder how much different these lessons may be 10 years from now.

Soundtrack: Adele – 21

1. Life Goes On regardless of how you feel about it. People move on, trends change, children grow up, and you somehow end up living one day after the next.

2. People Will Also Come and Go. They’ll make you smile on a street corner or share a single summer of laughs and secrets out on a cigarette littered porch. They will break your heart and cut you open so deep that the scars never go away. They will take you in when you have nowhere else to turn and be a burden, a confidant, a trauma, and above all else… a memory.

3. Freedom is In Letting Go and letting go means not caring. Not caring what people think, not caring what your peers are doing, not caring about having too much or too little, and not caring that there are an unknown number of breaths, days, and slices of pizza.

4. My Parents are Human Too and therefore fallible, fragile, needing nurture and people with their own lives. People who should have their own lives apart from mine.

5. Good Friends are Family. Not like family. They are family. And usually better.

6. Relationships Require Boundaries. This applies to family, friends, and lovers.

7. There is Always Someone Worse Off but Your Feelings Are Still Valid. 

8. When in Doubt, Apply to Everything and something is bound to stick.

9. Self-Care is More Than A Mani-Pedi. It is also therapy, going to the dentist, exercising, and eating all your vegetables.

10. Being Uncomfortable is Okay. There is a lot to be learned in feeling uncomfortable. “Why do I feel this way?” “Maybe this is something that will always feel like this and that is okay.”

11. People from Your Past Are Exactly That. So it may be fun to creep once in a while, but don’t let it go beyond that. You’ve changed. They’ve probably changed. Leave it.

12. Figure Out Your Finances. Educate yourself. Podcasts, books, random nerdy financial websites… it’ll be worth it in the end. The earlier, the better (and higher returns).

13. Read. Read books, read poems, read… everything. Words are the collection of our combined memories, feelings, thoughts… even if no one understands you, some 11th century poet or a dead rockstar will.

14. Travelling is Always a Good Investment. I’ve never regretted any single trip I’ve ever been on and I’ve always gained perspectives that have been priceless.

15. But Travel Responsibly. Don’t be a douchebag tourist. Don’t be a stereotypical [insert country here] tourist. Everything seems inconsequential when you are on vacation but actually your actions have consequences for the people who live there full time.

16. There are Cities in the Developing World. Like, really big cities with skyscrapers, mass consumerism, and uber. It will change your perspective about the world and about your world. Educate yourself. Hence the travel.

17.   You are More Resilient than You Think You are. The years will harden you in ways that you cannot yet foresee. What you endured and overcame at 22 would’ve seemed overwhelming at 14 but after being 19, you saw that it was possible.

18. Home is Where the Food is. No matter what country, city, or street corner, the smells and tastes of the food from your childhood can be a comfort to most emotional ailments.

19. If it’s Important to You, It isn’t a Waste of Money. Going to an amusement park? Travelling the world for a month? A new pair of shoes? Dinner out on the town? Other people may not understand but they don’t need to for it to be the right decision for you.

20. Actually, Most People Give Shitty Advice so it’s better to not care what other people think… which is easier said than done but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.

21. Every Once in a While, People Do Give Great Advice. And those people are usually the ones who ask more questions than give lectures.

22. Some Things Do Become Clearer with Age. If only because we tend to accumulate a greater variety of experiences over time.

23. Your Feelings Will Show Through Your Actions. If you do it out of love, people will feel that warmth. If you do it out of spite, they’ll also feel that too.

24. Adele is a Better Soundtrack to Life and Love than Taylor Swift. This is just a fact.

My Japanese Mother

It’s been a rough few months.

Living abroad is often said to follow a graph – The Culture Shock Graph. There are 4 or 5 stages to this graph, depending on who you follow. But they are all in consensus that your journey begins with the “honeymoon phase” and the real struggles begin right after.

I can’t pinpoint when my honeymoon phase ended but I can say that Christmas was rough, being in an LDR (long-distance relationship) had run its course by January, and one of my neighbours had called my workplace for a noise complaint.

By mid-January, I was fully depressed, and alone in more than one sense.

Throughout this still ongoing time of difficulty, there were, and are, many people who tried to help me and were there for me. One particular person was the obaasan (grandmother) who lived in the next building from mine.

When I first moved into my neighbourhood, I signed up for a weekly Japanese class at the local community centre, as per the advertisement pamphlet I got from city hall when I registered my address. I had come to Japan to learn Japanese, and it was a really cheap class. Why not? And it was there that I met my obaasan friend.

The classes consist of Japanese instruction by levels for the first half, followed by a free conversation time where volunteers come in to teach and share Japanese culture with the foreigners, aka me. She was one of the volunteers who came in to chat with foreigners and share her culture. Although she couldn’t speak much English, she loved to travel and hence had a lot of openness and curiosity about other people and cultures.

To be honest, that wasn’t the first time we met.

Within the first couple of weeks when I moved in to my new Japanese apartment, I got a knock on the door from someone to pay a monthly community fee. That was my obaasan friend. She introduced herself to me, explained that someone else will come to collect the monthly fee next time, and corrected the Japanese spelling of my name on the paper scrap I had stuck to the nameplate beside my door. I was embarrassed, grateful, and a little sad that I couldn’t communicate with this very friendly neighbour who I would probably never see again.

She recognised me when we met again at the community centre and I was surprisingly pleased. As we got to know each other, and my language skills improved, she would sometimes trek over from her building to share food with me. One time, she said that she knew that I was home because I didn’t have a curtain over my kitchen window. She could see me clearly from across the way. So the next time, she brought me dinner and a lace curtain.

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Oden – The first dish she shared with me

When a neighbour called my school to complain about the noise levels, I was culture shocked to the highest degree and at a loss of what to do. My inability to communicate loomed over me like a dark cloud and paralysed all thoughts and actions. I cried a lot that night after receiving the news at work. It felt like I wasn’t wanted in this country and that I wasn’t safe to be myself in my own home. I ended up telling my obaasan friend about the complaint during a Japanese class and she used her connections to find out who called and spoke on my behalf. I was so grateful.

In December, my then-boyfriend and I had decided to take a break to figure out what to do about our relationship – a futile attempt on my part to delay the impending breakup. I was sad and having difficulty coping with the foreseeable doom. My obaasan friend didn’t know what was happening in my life, but she took me to the neighbourhood community centre across the street from our apartment danchi and helped me enroll in calligraphy classes. She spoke to the teacher, filled out my paperwork, and even stuck around for a little while to marvel at my amateur work that first class. I felt like a kid again, with a mom hovering nearby in case something went wrong, looking out for me. When I got home from calligraphy classes on that first day, she came by to bring me dinner, fully knowing that I probably hadn’t had the time to cook any before calligraphy class.

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It came with fruit for dessert

The last time I went on vacation, I bought an omiyage – a souvenir – for her and delivered it to her apartment. I didn’t know how to say the words that I appreciate her so much and that she has become an important person to me in my life here. That sometimes, when it feels like I made the wrong decision in coming here, she brings me dinner and I am so comforted by her home cooking that it feels like a big hug. That she jokingly calls herself my Japanese mom but it really does feel like it to me.

Japanese home cooking

Living in Japan is proving to be one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do. At the same time, it has been an incredible blessing because of the many wonderful people that I have met here. My obaasan friend is one of the main characters of that cast who have played a big part in making my little corner of this archipelago feel like home.

When I leave, I’m really going to miss her.

Christmas Alone

Apparently Christmas is one of the hardest times for Westerners living abroad. I guess because it is a major holiday spent with friends, family, loved ones…

I thought I was being smart by booking a trip to Korea for a week to spend Christmas with family.

Yet here I am, on Christmas. Alone, sick, and without any presents. Yes. No Christmas presents. A travesty, really.

Turns out that celebrating Christmas in Korea is still not the same as being home with friends and family.

No dinners, no parties, no gift exchange… Just a lot of church. That seems to be the only universal thing.

So maybe next year, I’ll save my gift-buying budget and spend it on a trip to someplace nice and warm.

Because if I have to do this alone… Might as well be the best kind of alone – on a beach, under a toasty tropical sun.

*FYI if you know someone who is away from home this holiday season, give them a shout-out. Aside from Christmas, this is still the biggest concentration of major holidays. I’m sure that tons of people are crying alone in a corner right now.

Merry Christmas

A Day in Sujin’s Village Life

This is a post I wrote in August 2015, near the end of my time in Chikwawa, Malawi with EWB (Engineers without Borders Canada).

I don’t remember why I didn’t post it two years ago, but I found it collecting dust in the mess of my drafts and decided that it deserved to see the light of day.

There are many things that I loved about that time in my life and many things that I regret. I experienced a peace and happiness living in the village that I have never experienced again, if only because I am not as naive as I had been then. This post embodies some of those feelings.

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A rooster’s crow pierces through the haze of my slumber. I open my eyes to the light streaming in through my uncovered window which filters onto my bed through the blue mesh of my mosquito net. It must be 6 o’clock. Sleepily, I rise and wrap a chintenge (African cloth) around me like a skirt, tucking the ends tightly so that they won’t slip while I sweep the yard outside. So begins my morning at the village where I live, in Chikwawa District, Malawi.

The first chore of the morning, for any household, is to sweep away the remnants of yesterday’s activities. And it just so happens to be my job. As I rhythmically circle round the yard, huge dust clouds choke the air in my wake. The distinct patter of water splashing into a bucket is the sole accompaniment to the shushing of my broom. Reluctantly, the village around me stirs and comes alive.

Breakfast is almost an afterthought in the morning. Before the cooking fire is lit, already the yard is swept, last night’s dishes washed, and laundry hung out to dry. At our house, most days, the cooking fire is set for the tea. That word is synonymous with “breakfast,” but it is also the word for hot water saturated with copious amounts of sugar. Another thing I’ve gotten used to here.

On weekdays, my shoes fill with sand as I walk to the Chikwawa District Water Office. It is dwarfed by the surrounding unkempt yard partially occupied by rusting play pumps. The building is a sad comparison to its neighbouring government counterparts, with its cracked walls sorely in need of a new paint job. Inside, there is a wealth of motorbikes and PVC pipes, a computer at a table, and an oddly placed spare office desk that had been dragged out of the boss’ room for me. Aesthetically, the office doesn’t amount to much but it has proven to be completely functional otherwise… when there is electricity. And the staff are some of the most hardworking and passionate government employees I’ve ever met.

At around half 4 (16:30), I trudge back across the sandy bumps and winding paths to our yard. As long as the sun is up, the routine is like clockwork. I fill a basin with water and carry it from the tap, through the house, and into the bathing stall in the backyard. My hair is strategically dowsed first and I use my little red cup to immerse the rest of my body in methodical sections. Outside the bathing stall, my host cousin is watching the fire, waiting patiently for the water to boil to cook that day’s last meal.

After brushing my hair and hanging my towel out to dry, a number of things may happen before dinner is ready. There are days when I try (and fail) to help my host sister cook nsima (staple Malawian food made from maize flour). Sometimes I waste away the hours chatting with friends. Perhaps I brought my laptop home with me and all the village children crowd around as Disney cartoons faintly glow in the otherwise darkened yard. No activity happens in solitude. There is community buzzing all around until the last of the candles are snuffed out at 9 and everybody is soundly sleeping in their houses.

The few minutes in my room before I drift off to dreamland are the ones when I am the most alone. Although I am usually too tired from the day’s activities to collect my thoughts properly, even in that moment. So I let my mind slip further and further… and I fall asleep to the sounds of night. The last thing I usually remember is the bray of a cow, or the bark of a dog – underlying it all are the even breaths of my host sisters sleeping on the mat next door.

Good night