Introducing… #SujInJapan

Technically this isn’t my first post FROM Japan but it is the first one ABOUT Japan.

(Actually, most people still don’t know that I’m not living in Canada anymore so… hello (konichiwa!)! I’m… in Japan!)

I’ve been here since August with the JET Programme, teaching English at a Japanese public high school in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Yes. I’m teaching English. Overseas.

And if you’re anything like me, this is probably what went on in your head: WTFteachingEnglishYouUnqualifiedPOSwhoDoYouThinkYouAreSpreadingYourPrivilegedColonialBS.

I had a lot of feelings about what this before coming to Japan. I think that I probably have even more feelings now that I’m in the system.
But that deserves its own post, another day.

This post is kind of a preview for the imminent transition of this blog.

I’ve been having a lot of different thoughts since I’ve been here on globalisation, colonialism, education, and just living in Japan. And especially as a Korean-Canadian who already struggles with identity, Japan has been an enlightening experience so far. Since I can’t really speak Japanese (yet!), I don’t really have anywhere to share my amusing musings so I’ve revived my blog!

I’ll try to post weekly and also share some cool culture shock photos.

So please stay tuned! (And leave me comments about things to talk about)

 

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Sometimes, I just want to disappear

As we get older and move into the next phases of our lives, it is inevitable that we grow apart.

I am at that crossroads.

Recently graduated from University, my friend groups have scattered across the country and around the world. Some of us are still in school, others are embarking on the frightening task of being in the real world. Getting careers. Houses. Adult things.

I feel like I’m in between – in limbo. Stuck. I’m making real money and living a real adult life… But teaching in Japan is just temporary. This isn’t a career.

The longer I’m here, the gap between my relationships grows. I live a temporary life while others are moving on with theirs. At one point, we all converged and shared the bond of shared experiences. We gruelled through mini theses and endless nights studying (procrastinating) together.

But all of that has ended. And now I am here. A million kilometers away in a foreign land. The tightly knotted bonds from that lifetime ago (because it was a lifetime ago) are fraying. I struggle to hold on but I also know… it is inevitable. Because we are all at a crossroads.

Life goes on.

Trying to Understand Instead of Trying to be Right

“Echo chamber.”

It’s a word that has been reverberating around social media more often in recent years, and especially in light of the (fairly) recent US elections.

“a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition”

 

“official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

[Wikipedia “Echo chamber (media)”

When it is used, it feels akin to an accusation, conjuring up the image of a cave full of bats who don’t know what else there is to the world outside. That there is even a world beyond the chamber. It kinda feels like being called ignorant and people don’t like that. I don’t like that. It’s not a good feeling.

The uncomfortable feeling of being accused of living in an echo chamber is not dissimilar to the reasons why we end up surrounded by only our own opinions in the first place. Defensiveness is a reaction that causes us to retreat into ourselves, or in this case, into our little groups of same opinions, where we feel safe and comfortable. And sometimes, that’s okay.

Sometimes, we don’t want to be “on” all the time, sorting through facts, opinions, and biases. We need that safe place where we don’t have to justify our feelings to others or feel like we have to defend our values tirelessly. Educating others is not an obligation and those who demand it are not helping anyone, really. We all need a break sometimes.

However, when we do venture out into the world and encounter people of different opinions, it would do well to remember that,

“I don’t have to be right all the time.” 

Maybe “different opinions” is too weak of a term to adequately describe the tensions that we are increasingly encountering in our daily lives. And I’m not even claiming to be an authority on what is “the objective truth.”

But I do know that when I argue with someone, it is usually like talking to a wall because we’re both trying to convince the other of our own version of “the objective truth.” Yet who is to say that my version is more true or right than the other person’s version?

I think that in times like these, when every conversation feels like thrashing against an immovable wall, it is important to remind ourselves that it would be more productive to try to UNDERSTAND someone else’s point of view, their values, their upbringing, and why they’ve come to believe in something like that – rather than trying to wonder at how you can convince them otherwise.

Why do we talk about echo chambers like it’s a bad thing? Because it implies that we stopped talking to each other because it made us feel uncomfortable to disagree. It calls out our egos on an inability to admit when we might be wrong. It redefines conversations as what they actually are – a competition for who can yell the loudest instead of a dialogue for understanding our fellow human beings.

It’s a problem. I have it too.

So the next time I enter into a conversation to with someone who disagrees with me, I’m going to try to remember these 5 things:

  1. How can I better understand this person’s point of view?
  2. It’s okay to admit that I was wrong.
  3. It’s okay to disagree.
  4. A debate doesn’t have to be an argument.
  5. What would Daryl Davis do?*

* Daryl Davis is a black musician who befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan in America. His story is a much more compelling testament to the challenge of engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with you. 

 

There is a famine in Africa… again.

Two weeks ago I learnt that my host father in Malawi was facing some financial difficulties.

This week my friend told me that his mother in Malawi said that there is a food shortage in the country.

Today I realized that the two were related. But I don’t think I would’ve cared about the latter if it wasn’t for the former. 

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Actually, Malawi isn’t the only country in Africa that is currently facing a food shortage problem. Many other countries including Ethiopia are affected as well. The relatively poor harvests of last year are partially to blame as are the irregular weather patterns that bring floods and disease. Perhaps the government also bears some responsibility for the sufferings of some of its citizens because they manage the apparently abundant food reserves yet some people are feeling the strain of last year’s poor harvests. That is not to say that everybody in Malawi is on the brink of death – some people are managing just fine. However, food insecurity as a country is reportedly one of the worst in the last few years.

However, none of this is reflected in the mainstream media in Canada or the United States. I mean, sure, food shortages aren’t exactly domestic news material and there is so much going on in the world internationally that something like this is probably difficult to slip in among the crowded boxes of an 11.75″ X 21.5″. Yet that is exactly the problem. A man dying of starvation in Malawi is not “new” news. Why is that? Is it because it’s “just another famine in Africa?” Or is it because the famine is not severe enough to be a famine but is merely a food shortage?

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One of my former colleagues from the Chikwawa District Water Office challenged me today when I inquired about the food shortage. He asked me if I was asking because I wanted to donate. My immediate internal reaction was defensive.

‘I’m still a student. I don’t have a steady income and a ton of loans. Besides, doesn’t donating just create systemic dependence?’

I skirted around the uncomfortable question with some unsatisfactory response about not having an income or knowing where to donate to which he said something along the lines of ‘If you ask, you will find a place.’

And that made me uncomfortable because, in some ways, he was right. If I really wanted to donate, I could probably find a way. So instead of saying “I can’t donate,” a more honest response would be “I don’t want to donate,” as uncomfortable as it may be to say that.

I don’t want to donate. 

My reasons are legitimate, for me. I DO have student debt and I DON’T have a secure income at the moment. I DON’T WANT to risk being financially insecure in the immediate future so I’m being selective about my spending habits.

Yet I think I need to acknowledge that I’m not going to contribute financially to this problem out of CHOICE and live with the uncomfortable feeling of that decision, regardless of any moral judgment.

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I’m not really sure if there was a point to this blog post. I just felt like I needed to organize my thoughts because I had a lot of strong feelings about the issue this week.

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For people who wish to donate or help 

in some other capacity, I strongly urge doing research so that you can have the most positive impact. From just the news articles I’ve seen after a preliminary google search, it seems like the World Food Programme (WFP) and Unicef are trying to alleviate the situation. I’m not too sure what kind of methods they are using for this particular issue but it’d probably be a good place to start.

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A view of the beautiful gardens in Chikwawa

After Malawi: 10 things that did or did not happen but that I thought would

Before I left for Malawi, I made a list of 10 things that I thought might happen. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, and whole lot of other things occurred in between. The following is a recounting of my list with some anecdotes of what actually did happen.

  1. I totally offended someone

Offended

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I did. But the other thing is, I’m pretty sure the people I offended either didn’t speak enough English to convey their annoyance to me properly or were too polite to say anything about it.

  1. Loneliness was an abstract concept

bunk beds

I did feel homesick for the first couple of weeks but between the buzz of village life (where you are never, EVER, alone) and the constant whatsapp/facebooking with homies in Canada and across the continent, I never felt alone. In fact, I probably felt more lonely prior to coming to Malawi, when I was a sad little University student holed up in her room with only a tub of ice cream and Gilmore Girls on Netflix…

  1. Gonna save the world.

What happened

Actually… nope. Didn’t save the world. Wish I had been wrong about this one too but come on… 3 months to save Africa? Let’s be realistic (plus I was only in one small district in Malawi). What I did accomplish was a lot of self-growth and many little wins like getting a project rolling at the District Water Development Office where I was based, stopping my host family from using a plastic bag when boiling their yams (which I really hope they won’t start again after I leave), and telling everybody I met that homeless people exist in Canada. Really proud of that last one.

  1. Internet withdrawal was kinda hard (but not really)

no internet

I had a good enough connection to be on whatsapp and facebook messenger all the time. Streaming videos was not possible but streaming music through google play was definitely possible (and good for late night dance parties). For those odd times (like OSAP applications), when I had to use mildly fast internet, I was forced to go to the local print shop where I ended up making a friend (yay!). Didn’t miss Netflix tho. Surprisingly…

  1. People were friendly and nice…

Forced Hug

So nice. So unbelievably friendly. Everybody greets everybody and gets super appalled when I try to explain that people just walk by each other without saying hi in Canada if they don’t know each other personally. Like whut? You don’t greet strangers?

  1. I stood out like a sore thumb.

Sticking Out

One of the most uncomfortable feelings is going out on a busy market day and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of attention people (vendors, children, random passerbys) are giving you because you’re white. To the vendors, it means you automatically have money and are therefore a prime customer. To everybody else, it’s like being an amusement park attraction. On the flipside, I never have to greet my friends first because they always spot me from a mile away since I’m like that bleached spot on your black dress pants.

  1. The biggest danger was not Ebola.

Ebola

It was actually the absence of electricity. The number of scars on my body from walking into things at night are countless and come attached with really embarrassing stories.

  1. Food was bland for the most part…

meh

Or just really salty. Or sweet. And for a country that can’t handle a lot of spice, the chilli sauces available are like a dream. I think I’m bringing back a bottle of Nali for myself.

  1. My toilet was the least of my concerns.

elmo dancing on toilet

Hot water or a refrigerator were fonder memories.

  1. This was the most important and incredible thing that has happened to me since birth.

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Word.

Learning to be alone again…

Today has been the first really normal day since I’ve returned to Canada. And it sucks.

I’ve been unpacking and cleaning all day without seeing a soul except for the brief encounter with one of my roommates. This was my norm before I left. I treasured these moments of solitude when I could think and dance and just do whatever I wanted in the privacy of my own space.

But now.. It’s different.

When I first arrived in Malawi, I fought so hard to find my quiet place, to take some alone time away from my host family. I needed it. To organize my thoughts, to take a breather from the culture shock, to be myself in the presence of only myself…

Near the end of my placement, I hardly ever took any alone time. I’d grown used to the routines and become comfortable in the communal space where you are only ever alone in your mind. I now realize that I dearly miss the community, especially since nothing like it exists in my Canadian cultural norms.

So now what?

Instead of turning to netflix as an emotional handicap and substitute for being alone, I think I might just finish cleaning my room first. Then I’m going to order some takeout and maybe read a book and knit.

It’s lonelier, for sure. But I think I just need to accept that I’ll always love that part about village life in Malawi and try to rediscover the solitary activities that are different, but are also of value.

There is no such thing as the perfect environment. You just gotta work with what you’ve got… Or at least that’s what Malawi has taught me this summer.

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Today’s Reverse Culture Shock: I found myself frowning at the bus stop the other day and forced myself to smile. But it just felt awkward and out of place. In Malawi I had always tried to smile and be approachable but I’m finding that my norm here in Ottawa is to be as unapproachable as possible. The same seems to go for everybody else. But it’s funny because nobody would ever approach anybody else anyhow, regardless of a smile on their face or not.

There and Back Again…

We landed today. Especially in the midst of story sharing with my fellow JFs, Malawi already seems like a distant dream. Did that really happen?

At least I have the photos and WhatsApp messages to remind me that it was indeed very real.

But now that I’m back in Canada, I’m starting to afford an outsider’s look on my placement. What was my impact? Did I actually work with my stakeholders in mind? In what state did I leave my partner, the Chikwawa District Water Development Office?

Canada poses many questions of its own as well. This is the donor side of the world and I’m finding that I am questioning the coherence of the marketed work here with the actual work across the ocean. EWB certainly does not escape scrutiny.

But right now, I’m too jet lagged and haggard from the 24+ hours of travel from Lilongwe to Toronto to dig too deep into these systemic issues.

So until the next time…

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