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

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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

Know Thine Enemy

In 1910, Korea was officially colonised by Japan via a Treaty of Annexation. According to the treaty, the Emperor of Korea relinquished total control over the peninsula to the Emperor of Japan.

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On March 1, 1919, thousands of Koreans resisted Japanese colonisation and were unjustly massacred by the Japanese police and army. They were lead by Ryu Gwan-Sun, a 16 year old student who was eventually tortured to death. This day was the Independence Movement Day. It is now a national holiday in Korea.

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In 1928, my grandmother was born in a colonised Korea. She had a Japanese name and was treated as a second-class citizen in the country of her ancestors. She was married off at age 16 because her family feared that she may be taken by the Japanese to suffer as a “comfort woman*.”

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In 2017, I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and bowed to the flag of The Land of the Rising Sun. Although it wasn’t its oppressive predecessor, the “Rising Sun Flag,” I thought of my grandmother, of Ryu Gwan-Sun, and felt ashamed all the same.

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Until I was about 8, I hated Japanese people. I’d also never met a Japanese person prior to that time.

The first Japanese person I met was a girl from school, a friend of a friend. She was half-Japanese, 3rd generation Japanese-Canadian. And she was nice.

She was nice.

At 8 years old, I realised that I was prejudiced.

It didn’t matter where it came from – be it from dinner table conversations, war-time dramas, or history books. I thought I hated Japanese people without ever having met a real Japanese person. And at such a young age. That was wrong.

And to be honest, I don’t think that that prejudice ever really disappeared completely even as I grew into adulthood, made Japanese friends, and became a more educated, better human being.

A part of me is still angry about the things that my grandmother had to suffer. That my countrymen and women had to suffer. The list is long and the injustices are numerous. Korea’s colonisation was probably the shortest in the history of all colonisation and it has probably had the least crippling effects on the society as a whole when compared to other colonised nations. Within one lifetime, South Korea has become one of the richest countries in the world when it had been one of the poorest countries at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Yet, I am still angry because the past cannot be erased.

I thought that coming to Japan would quell my anger. I thought that it would help me understand Japanese people and Japan’s society to the point where I can forgive and forget.

I’m realising that although there are many things about Japan and Japanese people that I like, I cannot get rid of my anger towards the immovable past. It flares up inside at odd moments in my life such as when I have to bow to the Japanese flag, when I read about Prime Minister Abe’s military policies, and when I notice that nobody has ever talked to me about it all since I got here.

But maybe that is okay. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out, as I live my life here in the land of my ancestors’ enemies.

What do you think?

 

 

 

* Japan has apologised to Korea recently for the sufferings of “comfort women” but it has yet to apologise to the Philippines for the same atrocity. So much for sincerity?

 

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)

 

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