Japan Round 2

It’s been over a year since I’ve moved to Japan, specifically my humble city of Mitsukaido in Ibaraki prefecture, and it’s been one hell of a ride.

I can’t even begin to talk about my experiences here, everything I’ve learned, everything I stand to learn, and all the in-betweens.

So, I’m not gonna.

In short, I’ve learned so much. This is probably one of the biggest years of growth in my entire life. The Japanese language. Teaching in a classroom. Cultural differences and similarities (Japan and other countries). Living alone. Making due. Being proactive but also going with the flow. etcetcetc.

From a social issue perspective, my mind is racing 100 times a minute every day, learning so many things but also encountering so many problematic things too: How things are sometimes not even cultural but just person-to-person, socioeconomic, race-related, and so-on. What it’s like to be Asian-American in Japan. White privilege ever-so-real. Sexism and rape culture ever-so-real. LGBT issues and beyond, or more inclusively (or exclusively), queer issues. English privilege. People from mostly Westernized countries (US, Canada, UK, etc) coming to Japan and suddenly becoming an expert with sweeping generalizations (OMG Japanese people always do this, trust me).

But on the whole, it’s an extremely positive experience and I’m grateful for all my interactions with other foreigners and locals.

I’d also like to acknowledge my privilege in being able to live and work in Japan. I’m really lucky to, in a sense, pause my life back in my home country, get up and move to a completely different country with little understanding of the language, and still be able to function normally. Even more-so that I didn’t even need any training whatsoever and I just flew on the coattails of 1. Being a native English-speaker and 2. Having a 4-year degree, both of which are also things that I’ve privileged to have.

Here’s to the next year of unlimited growth, exciting experiences, and unforgettable memories. Thank you Japan for everything so far and let’s keep killin it shall we?14102799_10154998581805656_1945122972205989908_o

Getting Lost Somewhere Familiar

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First and foremost, I love traveling somewhere new. That sense of adventure I feel when I set foot in a new land, whether it be a new city, state, or country, is powerful. But here in Japan, as  my bank account thins and the novelty of constant trips to Tokyo or Mito wear off, I am slowly starting to seclude a little bit more to my humble city of Joso. This is a city most recently stricken by the flood, a city that doesn’t know if it wants to be suburban or rural, a city unlike most of homogenous Japan due to its multinational, multiethnic population. Slowly but surely, this is where I’m getting lost.

I was never averse to the prospect of getting to know my neighbors, my city, and my community, but it just took so long in the first few months that it never crossed my mind how much I needed to invest in it.

It’s halfway through my first year though and I’m so glad I decided to recontract and so glad that I decided to continue to put myself out there and say “yes” to almost every opportunity that came my way. And it’s not just that sense of adventure that comes from going to a new natural wonder, city, or prefecture every time (trust me, that still exists deep within me) but from any community announcement that winds up on my desk, phone call that comes my way, or Facebook post about something local. Here are some of the ways, both expected and unexpected, of the ways that I’m currently lost.

  1. Dance

It all started when I asked my co-teachers about places to take dance classes. Lo and behold, a co-teacher came through for me and I started to attend a local class every Wednesday. Little by little, we grew a little bit closer and closer, staying later to talk about random things like dancer names or watch some dance videos (sometimes to my chagrin though since class ends at 10:15 and I’m about ready to pass out from sleepiness). We even went so far as to perform at a local “meat festival” (yes you read that right) that was a charity event for the flood recovery, with our team aptly named “Moriya Groove” (Moriya is the name of the city where the studio is).

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(Wednesday nights with “Moriya Groove”)

Dance in Japan feels so different, from more attention to fundamentals to the mini-history lesson attached to every class. This is definitely a post for another day…

  1. Volunteering

Ever since the flood hit, I have been looking for more ways to volunteer. Any attempts to reach out never resulted in anything, but about two months ago, there was a handout on my desk, entirely in Japanese. I could read a little of it, eventually making out it was about volunteering. After getting a co-teacher to help translate it and make a call, I was all set-up to start helping out!

Basically, now that construction companies are doing the bulk of the physical recovery effort, this organization has been relegated to mostly social recovery through sponsoring community events, providing spaces for students in case their homes are still not adequate enough for concentrated study, and so on. I’ve started to see the volunteer organization at least once a month, sometimes every week even, doing some random tasks like advertising events through flyers or packing extra donated goods, or going to local events like making mochi or meeting local celebrities!

(making mochi on the left and meeting a local celebrity on the right)

I had this fun little experience of helping tutor one kid in basic Japanese, but then speaking to group of them in a mix of Tagalog and English since they were from the Philippines. Suddenly, kids were talking across the room in Tagalog and the Japanese helpers were completely lost to what was going on.

I’ve also gotten to slowly learn a lot about the flood itself too, from the criticism of the government response to the methods of reaching out and it’s pretty interesting.

  1. Japanese Class

After calling up my local International Organization, I learned about Japanese classes on Tuesdays! Although it’s not structured at all, it’s interesting to be in a class with people from all different backgrounds (China, Brazil, Peru, India) where we have no common language except the one we struggle with and are trying to learn. While in a normal language class in our schools back home, we could default to English when talking to our classmates, that kind of fallback does not exist here at all, but it still works anyways.

  1. Language Exchange

It all started with a Facebook post that asked if someone wanted to do a language exchange with a local. After exchanging contact information and after numerous meet-ups, it feels less like a “scheduled class” and more like, “Hey let’s hang out, and we’ll end up practicing English and Japanese anyways!” This has also given me a lot of insight about the pursuit of English even beyond high school/regimented education structures. And I enjoy the company too! I think these kind of language exchanges are one of the best because it comes the closest, I think, to an equal playing field, rather than a class that you pay into or something like that. Granted, you need buy-in from both sides, which can get difficult unless the motivation is equalized, but I think it can end up being really wonderful too.

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  1. Basketball

It all started when I wanted to pick up basketball again, so I went to the local gym and asked to play. I soon learned that pick-up games like back in the U.S. are just not a big thing here. You have to make a reservation with a set number of people, requiring you to actually have a solid group of people that you know that play basketball.

Well, being new in Japan, I was basically SOL. I almost gave up until the worker said to me (in Japanese btw), “Wait. Are you Filipino? Do you know Rome?”

In my mind, all the previous microaggressions I’ve experienced ran through my head. “OMG YOU’RE FILIPINO? YOU MUST KNOW ALL THE OTHER FILIPINOS”. Japan? America? Happens everywhere.

But at the same time, it’s all about context. It’s a different country and I don’t know enough about it, and hey, I wanted to play basketball. While I replied that I didn’t know him, the worker offered to give my number to him so that the next time he plays, he would call me.

Lo and behold, a month later, I finally get that call. Luckily, I left an event early and I was able to make it! Thus began my slow, and currently still occurring, inception into the local Filipino community here in Japan.

It’s almost like being back at home again with my family and cousins with many different nuances still. There’s a mix of Tagalog, English, Japanese, and other Filipino dialects thrown around. I get to eat Filipino food again. There is a kind of indescribable “Filipino” sense of humor that resonates a bit too. On a deeper level, I get to see the immigrant experience in Japan from a different point of view, not from the privileged Westerner perspective but from a community that actually came for a better life, not for a “traveling experience”.

Also, my love for basketball is back again and my one of my life goals has been achieved with someone saying I was “Sakuragi Hanamichi”. Gotta keep working hard.

  1. My School

I’ve wrote about this time and time again but I seriously just can’t get enough of my schools. I’m staying later and later to the point where I leave only because I feel bad that I’m staying so late. I’m lucky to have so much to do (granted, much of it is self-created) but even the random interruptions of teachers wanting to have a chat with me about the education system in America, students stopping by and asking the meaning of Queen lyrics, or the administrators asking me to teach them random English words like “hangover” are so few and far between that I have this urge to just stay at school longer or just sit at my desk/wander around and find ways to engage or become engaged.

I’ve only even scratched the surface of the layers and layers that exist at my school. I want to get involved in every single club, not just basketball or English drama club or English conversation club. I don’t like baseball but I’ll come watch just to support! I know nothing about Japanese archery or calligraphy but I’d love to see it! I even scheduled my travels around school events like teachers’ goodbyes or my school festival because I would not want to miss them for the world.

I’ve already passed the halfway mark on the year and I can already feel my time here is too short. I know I could keep recontracting and whatnot and extend my stay here, but the point is, it’s not Japan that I really love.

I could honestly have this feeling wherever I go. I just have to invest myself in the community.

Looking back, I think this was such a failure on my part in living in West Oakland. I could make the excuse that I already had my core group of friends, being that they were my roommates or that almost all my college friends still lived in the Bay, so I didn’t really need to “venture out”. But that’s just laziness on my part.

Going back to being here in Japan, there is still so much to do and get involved in. For example, while my time at school is great, I have yet to develop any deep friendships with other co-teachers that other JETs sometimes talk about, and I’ve only seen one of my JTEs once outside of anything school-related. I’ve only scratched the surface.

Also, one thing I’m also starting to be conscious of is making sure I don’t objectify my “foreign interactions” to the point of collecting them like Pokemon. The point is not to immerse myself in the community just to say I’ve done it and check a box off the foreign experience bucket list but because it is a truly and equally enjoyable experience for me and for everyone involved. Also, I still love my fellow ALTs and that should go without saying. Getting involved in the community and hanging out with Westerners are not, at least not always, mutually exclusive.

Anyways, wherever I go next in life after Japan, I really need to make a concerted effort to really invest myself, in the community, in the people there, in everything. As our attention spans shorten and the world and the people in it become ever more transient, a little consistency and permanence can go a really long way. Apologies to the great city of Oakland, a city that I loved and adored for 3 years but did not do a good job of being a part of, so I will turn a new leaf here in my beloved city of Joso.

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Renewal: From Contracts to Resolutions

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I’m a little late on the announcement train in relation to my other fellow JETs, but better late than never! I’ve decided to renew my JET contract, meaning that I’ll be staying another year, contracted until August 2017! It’s weird because I applied for JET back in 2014 thinking that I would most likely only stay for one year. Come August 2015 and each succeeding month after, my percentage of only staying one year slowly dwindled from 90% to 70% to 50% and so on, with tons of conversations and introspective bike and trains rides to solidify my decision.

But how? How did I go from 90% to 0%?

*cue that Buzzfeed sound effect when the video starts and the Buzzfeed sign unravels*

 5 Reasons Why Armand Decided to Stay in Japan Another Year

 

  1. Learning to Live Alone

 

 

(Constant stimulation at home. Never a dull moment)

I’ve always lived with or been surrounded by a lot of people and the solitary life in Japan has been a bit of a shock to my system. I’ve come to realize that I’m more-so driven by other people, whether through inspiration (you’re amazing!), disgust (don’t want to be like that), or competition (I can do better than you!). Unfortunately, living alone has led to a plateau in some sorts and I find myself less motivated when I get home after work. Developing a more long-lasting self-motivation is tantamount to my future aspirations, especially if I plan to be god-damn amazing. Sounds arrogant but it’s not! The key phrase is “plan to be”, insinuating I’m not amazing. At least, not yet.

 

  1. Learning Japanese

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(I’d love to know how all that translated to THE GALAXY)

My failure as a Filipino American to understand my family’s own language, my lack of seriousness in my high school French class, my inability to balance Japanese class in college alongside extracurriculars, my poor Tagalog education in college, and my exposure to tons of amazing people who are bilingual, trilingual, and so on and so forth, all contribute to my desire to be able to claim, at the very least, bilingualism. Learning Japanese has actually kind of become a fun game now, one that is no longer frustrating but exciting. Every day, I’m learning new words and new Kanji (Chinese characters) that expand my understanding of my surroundings; sometimes, a word I studied a month ago suddenly pops up in a casual conversation and my understanding of the context expands even further. As the conversation continues, I silently and invisibly pat myself on the back for such studying, after which I then tumble into confusion from conceit blinding me from the following sentences -__-. Regardless, learning a new language is both a lot of fun, but it also feels really important to dethroning “English privilege” with what I talked about in my previous blog.

 

  1. Expand My Mindset Beyond California/USA

 

(A smattering of people from all over America, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, and Jamaica)

Never before have I been surrounded by so many people from other countries. While that is a fairly obvious observation, it is still something that I relish in and enjoy everyday, whether it’s sharing how my experiences in California are the same or different with local Japanese people, or discussions between other foreign teachers about whether it’s called a biscuit or cookie. While these rapports can sometimes get repetitive, banal, and subjective, for the most part, they are still fairly interesting and really help broaden my narrow, California-is-where-it’s-at perspective.

 

Furthermore, I find myself learning more about not just the silly technicalities in regional English language differences but deeper issues like perceptions of America from other countries, how foreign language learning there, views of the government from the eyes of locals rather than from my typical news sources, among countless other list-able tidbits. Granted, I still have a relatively narrow source of perspectives since I’m mainly conversing with people from rich, White, Westernized countries, even Japan still being a rich, Westernized country sans the white privilege. Regardless, it’s new, different, and important.

 

Lastly, I’m not just here to still be surrounded by my fellow native-English peers. I truly enjoy immersing myself in the community, hanging out with locals, taking the local dance classes, volunteering, and so on, so here’s to more cultural and communal immersion. Looking back at my time in Oakland, I lament my failure to really be part of the Oakland community, so here’s to start anew.

 

  1. Being a Part of Something Bigger

 

I’m currently part of an executive committee, IAJET, that serves as an overarching organization to all the JETs in my prefecture. The added responsibility has really pushed me in ways to think about both structural improvement and being an officer again and how to conduct myself. While it pales in comparison to the administrative headache and bureaucracy of my Alpha Phi Omega days, it does exceed it in terms of widespread effect since we are all teachers here, in turn affecting thousands upon thousands of students throughout Ibaraki.

 

  1. Grow as an Educator

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(A gift from a student during Halloween)

This is probably my biggest reason for wanting to stay since my career pathway is education. Originally, I came to Japan looking for a chance to simultaneously grow as a teacher, learn about a different educational system, and take back my experience back to America, all awhile enjoying myself in a different country with a culture that I really enjoyed.

 

Of course, all of the above is still true, but this onion called Japan has so many layers that I’m still peeling and have yet to fully grasp. How could I expect to fully understand a country’s entire educational system in only year, especially when I don’t even understand my own?

 

On top of that, I’m getting a ton of practice as a teacher here too. I work at three different high schools: a high level, a mid-low level, and a low level school. I get to see a wide variety of students of varying abilities, motivations, interests, and backgrounds. Students at my high level school spend their weekdays and weekdays at juku (cram school) and studying for hours and hours on end. Students at my low level school work part time jobs, with 90% of one of my classes working a part-time job with crazy hours like Mon/Wed/Friday 5pm-10pm and Saturday/Sunday 8am-10pm.

 

Along with my variety of schools, I’m lucky enough to have teachers at all my schools trust me and give me almost complete control. Quick recap: My official title is Assistant Language Teacher, or ALT. I act as an assistant to the main Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) with whatever support they need. Luckily, I’ve avoided the pitfall that some ALTs encounter (being a tape recorder and just reading text out loud) as I have almost full autonomy of the lessons I’m given. At most, one of my schools requests lessons revolving around the current holiday, but they still give me full reign of the planning, grammar points, and even classroom management. At the other two schools, they literally say, “Do whatever you want” and won’t even care to know what I have planned until five minutes before class starts. Although this is problematic in a sense because, as much of a control freak I am, I’m still officially an “assistant” and the JTE needs to have some agency in his/her own class, I’m still relishing in this freedom while finding ways to really involve my JTEs more. After all, having two teachers in a classroom is invaluable for students and relegating one of them to the sidelines is an utter waste.

Most importantly, I love my schools, with the wonderful teachers and the especially awesome students. I’m here, first and foremost, for my students, and that’s that.

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(I love my students)

And there you have it. My 5 reasons for staying in Japan.

 

Going along with the “Renewal” title of this blog, I didn’t mean to just talk about my contract renewal but a “renewal” of myself as well. Isn’t that just beautiful.

 

I’ve been meaning to instate these resolutions actually since October, but due to life in a new country being such a whirlwind of constantly new experiences, it’s been hard to set up a solid routine. Excuses right? However, a new year is a new “beginning” and it’s just easier for my mind to wrap around new habits when it chronologically also is being reset.

 

So, here are my resolutions to a better “me” in 2016. Some of these are lost habits from pre-Japan life that have fallen to the wayside for one reason or another, so they are back with a vengeance.

 

Daily:

-timewasters (Facebook, Youtube, Tinder, etc): no more than 30 min a day and use a timer
-no using your phone in bed (‘cause then you never leave)
-read 1 hour a day
-practice Kanji everyday
-practice vocabulary everyday
-stretch for 15 min
-sleep 7-8 hours

 

Weekly:

-outside of dance class, practice freestyle once
-basketball once (even if it’s just dribbling outside)
-strength training 4 times (push-ups, pull-ups, etc)
-core training 3 times (abs, balancing, etc)
-outside of dance and basketball, cardio for at least 30 min twice (running, biking, etc)

 

 

General:

-watch your posture
-practice more direct eye contact
-be less shy in my schools or less shy speaking Japanese
-be more conscious of yourself, not self-conscious but more-so aware of the things you say and the actions you make and their effect on others, as well as people’s general lack of being direct by being more perceptive, sensitive, and considerate
-eat out a little more (such an opposite resolution but I personally feel that money saved by cooking at home isn’t substantial enough to offset the time saved, the adventure had, and the relationships developed through eating out)
-work-life balance (don’t leave any later than 7pm!)
-practice French and Tagalog (currently a general goal, will work out a way to make it a measurable goal as opportunities present themselves)

 

Specific Goals by the end of 2016:

-take either the N1, N2, or N3 exam and pass
-be able to understand the Japanese morning meetings
-understand my local Japanese newspaper
-know all 1,000 of my students’ names and faces
-make a considerable and positive change to my schools and to JET in my prefecture
-learn all the Joyo Kanji (most of the Kanji that is used in everyday Japanese life)

 

 

I’ll be printing out a checklist to keep track of all my goals and follow up with it once a week, and I’ll be reassessing all my resolutions in April to make sure which ones I’m succeeding at and which ones I’m not, as well as adding newly relevant resolutions or removing archaic ones.

 

Here’s to a renewed sense of self in 2016. A big shoutout to life (the people, the environment, everything) for being so good to me. It was exciting typing all of this out and I’m hella looking forward to killin it this year. 2015 was already pretty damn good and 2016 is only going to be better.

(Below: Me at the end of 2015)

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(Below: Me at the end of 2016)

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Vietnam-Musings: From Solo Traveling to English Privilege

10494556_10154437300855656_7272896401517238464_nBack by popular demand, here’s my ode to Vietnam sung to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Don’t worry, there’s more afterwards.

“You’re just too good to be true
You make Saigon feel like new
Food’s just like heaven to touch
I wanna eat so damn much
At long last pho has arrived
Banh mi makes me feel alive
Street food too good to be true
Can’t take my mind off of food

Pardon the way that I stare
Can Tho village can’t compare
The sight of you leaves me weak
sand dunes of Mui Ne beach
But it’s the people, I feel
That make Vietnam feel so real
You’re just too good, and hot damn,
Can’t take my mind off Vietnam

Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh DUHHHHHH

Oh Vietnam baby
Your endless motorbikes
Oh Vietnam baby
Your hot and humid nights
Oh Vietnam baby
What else more can I say?
Oh Vietnam baby
I wish that I could stay
And learn your culture
And all your history
Vietnam, I love you, Vietnam
I will miss you”

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Vietnam was a whirlwind of adventure, and after hopping around the south of Vietnam for two weeks, from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, to the touristic paradise of Mui Ne, to the relatively relaxed pace of Can Tho, it was weird to return to my home in Ibaraki, Japan and settle back into the work life.

But even though I’m back in my normal routine, I can’t help but shake off my time in Vietnam, from the cultural similarities and differences I gathered, my first experience of traveling alone, the problems that still exist within Vietnam, and my even positive yet problematic run-ins with other tourists. And all of that continues to tie in with being in Japan and my experiences with both the locals and other foreigners, whether English teachers or not.

First of all, traveling alone for the first time was absolutely amazing. I guess you could say that moving abroad to Japan alone was, in a sense, “traveling alone” but there was still a huge support group of English teachers from all over the English-speaking world, and even my own home of California. But going to a country where I had absolutely no knowledge of language and little understanding of the country’s history or culture was something that I was both excited for and worried about. The excitement though was well-above the worry, especially since the worry was more-so instilled in me by others than an actual deep-seated fear, so I thought, “Eff it!” and bought my plane ticket.

Anyways, we’ve all heard the benefits of traveling alone, and to my lack of surprise, they were all incredibly true. I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I never have to consider other people’s feelings, desires, and concerns, and I can change cities and destinations at the blink of eye. Sounds selfish, I know, but hey, it’s my travel! Even though there was the concern that traveling alone might be lonely or dangerous, I’ve stayed long enough in certain cities or destinations that you eventually build up rapport and friendships with other fellow travelers or workers so you feel social and safe. I did have an odd experience with couchsurfing but that’s a story for another day.

But also, traveling alone in hostels and meeting other solo travelers has made me see somewhat of a dark side in the booming travel industry and the growing desirability of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia in general. To put it in very blunt and off-putting terms, “Southeast Asia has become a playground for White Westerners”. Obviously, I’m complicit in this, and there are tons of exceptions, especially with an influx of the newfound riches of Chinese tourists and the established travel habits of other rich Asian countries like Japan and Korea, but I couldn’t shake that notion from my head.

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(an excerpt from the Ho Chi Minh museum)

What is the problem of having White Westerners come to these slowly but surely developing countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc anyways? Honestly, I have no developed opinion or answer for that yet. Although my statement of SE Asia being the white playground has a tinge of disdain, there are plenty of positive aspects to it as well. Just like it did for me, it opens and closes the cultural divides between places that are “othered” in society. It humanizes places that often mired in stereotypes. It exposes us to the notion that despite their labels as “poor or developing countries”, they are developed in many ways that we would not expect. (For example, Vietnam had tons of “sleeper buses” for both tourists and citizens alike with seats resembling pseudo-beds, something I’ve never experienced or seen in America or my six months in Japan.) Of course, at the same time, the stretch of the yen/dollar is very real and as one local said, “You were born in America. You are already rich.” Although America has a broad range of poverty that is its own set of problems, generally speaking, it is very true, and it’s a good reminder for such visitors from America or Germany or Finland that the rest of the world is not as fortunate as them.

There’s also the added benefit of the injection of foreign money into the Vietnam tourism industry, but that also opens up a whole host of other issues, like travelers still trying to pinch pennies despite it actually being a difference of $1-$3 given the conversion rate, or the sustainability and strain on increased tourism on the environment.

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(while this hostel/hotel looks really nice and expensive, the conversion rate is beneficial enough that it was only $6 a night)

The biggest thing that stands out to me with traveling, especially to a country with a range of problems from poverty to the suppression of freedom of speech, is the lack of cultural foresight on part of the travelers, and this was something I was both guilty of in some aspects, and proud to have prepared for it in others.

I’ll admit my biggest faux pas: I went into Vietnam forgetting that it was a communist country and I forgot that after the Vietnam War, it was the communist North that succeeded and not the other way around.

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Shameful. I know. Upon arrival, within the first two days, I spent a couple hours in my hotel room on my phone just reading and reading about everything, from the sights to see to the food to eat to Vietnam’s long and complicated history. I’d like to blame my lack of cultural foresight on my being incredibly busy before leaving, but that’s not a solid excuse. So throughout the trip, I always tried to have at-length conversations about Vietnam with locals, being lucky enough to find some people that were very passionate and willing to talk about the problems that Vietnam faces. My questions were sometimes difficult and heavy, but I was glad to really learn about the country from the eyes of locals.

On the other hand, one thing I was proud of was my foray into attempting to learn the Vietnamese language. I watched a couple YouTube videos, asked some friends about their opinion of certain “travel Vietnamese phrases”, and even made flashcards that I studied about four days before leaving. I studied on and off during the trip (sadly, I lost them four days into my trip) but I retained enough that I was successfully able to ask “How much?” and understand the Vietnamese numbers. Someone on the shuttle asked me where I was going and I could successful understand right away and produce the address. I could say “Thank you” in my terrible accent and still garner smiles from store clerks and restaurant workers. Even another traveler commented on “how good my Vietnamese was”.

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(good but it’s not like karaoke was a piece of cake…)

That was one thing I found problematic among many travelers, and continue to find problematic with myself and other teachers here in Japan. Here you are, in a foreign country, and you didn’t even bother to learn the language, not even how to say “Thank You”? This country is not here to serve your Western whims. This country is not here to cater to your English-speaking wants and desires. Vietnam doesn’t need drunk foreigners reveling on the streets and haggling with locals, trying to save 20,000VND (to an American, that’s less than $1 but in Vietnam, that buys you a meal). Japan doesn’t need confused foreigners unable to understand or unwilling to follow certain customs AKA Gaijin Smash.

Language is one of the basic and innate parts of culture because it represents the way of communication, communication being the foundation of human connection, and you won’t even bother to learn it?

This lends to something I’ve been musing about for the past couple of months: English privilege. We’ve heard of White privilege and male privilege, such as in the context of racially-incensed America or institutionalized sexism in leadership positions. But I’ve never really considered the idea of English privilege until coming to Japan and traveling Vietnam.

Basically, being born in an English-speaking country and speaking English well already gives you a sort of power that millions of people wish to have.

You have an ability to work in tons of countries. The desire for English teachers is strong all over Asia and the barrier of entry is so low that many people who have never taught before or have never even considered the profession are suddenly given the reins of a classroom. The need to learn the native language at your profession is weak too since English is the de-facto language in power.

You aren’t really pushed to learn other languages. Despite meeting travelers from France, Germany, Finland, Austria, Japan, China, India and so on, our primary language of communication was English. It’s nice that English is so widespread that we have a means of cross-cultural communication, but as one traveler pointed out, other languages fall by the wayside, with some countries or places really struggling to maintain their language, thus maintaining their culture, from west Ireland to Native American tribes.

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(left to right: Austria, America, France, Vietnam, Germany  but currently Switzerland, and Germany. English united us all (and German to some extent…)

Depending on which country or which region, you more-or-less have a choice. In my high school, I could learn Spanish, French, Mandarin, or Korean. In most countries, you have to learn English, whether you like it or not. And, you have to learn it for the rest of your public school life, dependent on when you start, while I only had 2 years of mandatory language learning in high school.

Even when traveling in non-English speaking countries, the country, in a sense, caters to you by putting everything in English. Of course, it’s nonsensical to learn a foreign language well enough to navigate a 3-page menu or the terms and conditions of your hotel room, especially if you are there for a short time. But, while you can’t help but feel pretty lucky that while we can travel to virtually any country in the world and have our English tongues catered to, a Japanese person can’t easily travel to Sweden or a Finnish person to Mexico without some semblance of English understanding.

It’s even important to note that being born in that native-speaking country is another level of privilege not enjoyed by fluent English speakers in non-native English countries. Take the anecdotal case of a friend I met from India who, despite having flawless English abound with the rhythms, slang, and “ums” of a native speaker, was hard-pressed to find a teaching job in Vietnam because he was from India and not your typical white Westernized English-speaking nation.

Granted, there is a span of generalizations and anecdotal cases here short of anything profoundly academic, but I can’t shake these musings and I’d always love to start a discussion on these issues (or non-issues). Here’s a good article that expands further on my musings on English language privilege.

All in all though, my big takeaways are continuing to stay educated and make it a priority to keep up with world events, world news, and world history. Nothing worse than fulfilling the stereotype of the uncultured, self-centered American. I want to visit Singapore this year to see my cousin, and places like Korea, China, and the Philippines are on my radar. When I visit such countries, learning the language is a priority on my list right after buying my plane ticket, alongside reviewing the history and culture of these places.

I’ve also been inspired to be serious about my language study. The number of languages that people know from other countries is so impressive and it’s such a shame that I don’t really know much else other than English. So, I will continue to study Japanese everyday in an effort to both make sense of the world around me and to really show that I am willing to be part of this community. Otherwise, I’m just another outsider expecting my “home” to cater to my English whims. I also have let my previous languages of French and Tagalog fall by the wayside. I find it especially terrible that I don’t know Tagalog, the language of my parents and home country. The college Tagalog class I took in order to reconnect with that part of myself wasn’t exactly rigorous enough to make me even remotely able to hold a conversation. I don’t have a specific course of action yet but it’s definitely on my radar. Lastly, once I feel like I have gotten a grasp of Japanese, I’ll re-take French again and possibly foray into Spanish as well.

Traveling has been and will continue to be a reminder that the world is much bigger than yourself. Bigger than the city, state, country, or continent you live in. I failed to mention this before but it is also integral to building empathy, learning about the lives of others and seeing experiences that are you foreign to you. Not foreign in the nationalistic sense but foreign in never having lived it yourself.

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(a slice of life at Turtle Lake, a common hangout in Saigon for locals and foreigners alike)

Sigh. Rereading this sounds like a lot of work. I’m motivated. But let’s hope I don’t get overwhelmed by it all and be a hermit. It is 4pm right now and I haven’t seen the sunlight beyond looking out my window yet. China seems doable but the local grocery store feels like it’s own struggle. I could also just cruise through life and simply enjoy it like this fella below…but that’s too easy.

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Sayounara 2015

12087845_10154292119120656_7947106900138375453_o.jpgOh 2015.

I was hoping to write a thought-provoking, in-depth look at my past year, a year that probably is one of the most eventful years in my life, ranking up there with senior year high school/freshman year college and the year that had the summer where I worked for Breakthrough.

Alas, with the train that will soon take me to the airport leaving in less than an hour, I only have a few moments left to throw something together as a last hurrah since I won’t have any opportunities until the new year has already begun.

But, I feel like the haphazardness and succinctness of this writing will accurately summarize how this year went, from almost getting evicted to moving back home to LA for literally less than a week. Then there’s a month of nonstop hopping around the world, from Hawaii to Europe to Japan. August onwards was an onslaught of a steep learning curve packed with language barriers, cultural differences and similarities, disaster events, and the challenging job of being the best educator you can be in three vastly different high schools.

To put it bluntly, 2015 was pretty friggin awesome. I’ve grown in ways I never could have imagined and failed in other ways that only continue to inspire and push me. Moving to Japan, to a completely different country with barely any familiar faces (luckily a strong support system was in place), was definitely the most momentous event of the year, vying tops in my entire life, and I can’t even imagine what 2016 and 2017 will even hold.

All in all, I have no regrets this year; despite the many failures, they were perfect learning opportunities. The shortfalls from my poor Japanese ability lends to the importance of being prepared, but also lends to my slowly growing criticism I have of the JET Program/teaching English in Japan. The shortfalls from living alone (my discipline has taken a huge hit) has made me realize how dependent I am on motivation from others (either from encouragement or competition) and how I need to find better ways to self-discipline and self-motivate without excessive reliance on external factors. As someone who’s never lived alone and constantly surrounded himself with good company, this is one of my current challenges.

I have a huge list of new years resolutions and goals for 2016 and onwards and I can’t wait to start implementing them come January 2016. God, as I continue to type this out, I can’t help but feel like some cliché thoughtcatalog article or something, but I guess that’s what fifteen minutes of word vomit turns into when your mind is in such a state of mind. We’ll see what happens when I do a quick proofread for grammar, omitting content check due to lack of time.

However, for the next two weeks, it’s merely vacation time, a time to recharge my batteries. People ask in disbelief, “You’re staying in Vietnam for two weeks? Nowhere else?” but honestly, after the travel hopping of summer 2015, a stationary two weeks sounds good to me.

Also, a shoutout to everyone in my life, from my hometown friends, college friends, work friends, dance friends, Japan friends, non-categorizable friends, and of course, my family. 2015 wasn’t a solitary effort and my appreciation for y’all is unexplainable.

Anyways, goodbye 2015. It’s been real.

A Not-So-Mizu-rable Time

(NOTE: Mizu is water in Japanese)

It all started on a regular old Thursday morning. I woke up to a flurry of Line messages from other ALTs discussing the endless rain and powerful winds throughout the night; the night before, I read a little bit about Typhoon Etau currently passing over the middle of Japan. “That’s pretty far from me,” I thought, “so I probably won’t be affected too much.” What a fool I was.

The bike to school was already a struggle as the rain was pouring and the force of wind rendered biking futile. Once I got to school, things weren’t as normal as I thought they’d be as classes were cancelled and everyone, students and faculty, was advised to go home, everyone who wasn’t living in a disaster zone at least. Needless to say, I had to stay.

My school turned on the news and there were reports of homes being washed away, families rendered homeless, and a flurry of airlifts throughout the northern part of the city. Luckily, my part of the city had yet to see any major flooding, so, in the afternoon, once it was deemed safe enough to go home, I did, albeit not without a little bit of exploring.

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Luckily, before the typhoon, I did a lot of exploring around the city, taking some pictures of the local river on a nearby bridge. Recreating the same shot and going for a before-and-after documentation felt a bit risky since the water edged closer and closer to the bridge, but it felt safe enough to give it a shot anyways. This resulted in some glorious pictures that I emailed to the BBC who later used it in an article! Here were the before and after pictures I took that got featured.

BEFORE: Facing north on the river

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AFTER: Facing north on the river

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BEFORE: Facing south on the river

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AFTER: Facing south on the river

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The email I sent also paved the way for an interview too! A news interview, with the BBC!

As I biked around the neighborhood, I bumped into a local Japanese friend on his way to the evacuation center who strongly recommended I come with him. I decided to check it out but probably not stay for too long, considering I felt pretty safe in my dry neighborhood anyways and many locals said that it was probably OK to return home. After dropping in for a bit, meeting some other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers IE English teachers from other countries besides Japan), and conversing about our situations, I headed home, ready for my Skype BBC interview that night and a meeting with other JET English teachers all over my prefecture the next day. My interview, as you can see here (warning: it’s bad), felt pretty standard; however, she asked me many leading questions that made it seem like the situation was absolutely bananas, yet my neighborhood was luckily in tip-top shape. After the interview, just to be safe, I left the windows open so I could hear any emergencies and proceeded to sleep soundly in my comfortable bed.

This is where my ability to sleep through anything proved somewhat disastrous as I woke up that morning with nonstop helicopters whirring about. I looked out my window and what was normally a quiet suburban neighborhood was a slowly moving brown sea; the flood waters in the northern part of the city finally flowed down to my seemingly safe neighborhood.

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Luckily, I live on the second floor so no water was even close to my apartment, but I still didn’t want to take any chances so I packed everything absolutely necessary, put on some snowpants and rainboots, and headed out the door towards the evacuation center, trudging slowly through waist-deep water and trying to remember the parking lot and streets well enough to avoid tripping and falling over.

A rude awakening indeed.

Now, I won’t go into the nitty gritty details as I did above with the remainder of my flood experience. I just wanted to set up what suddenly became one of the most interesting experiences so far in my life. Barely one month and a half into living in a completely new and different country and after finally getting settled in, this tragedy occurred.

The next two days, I stayed at the evacuation center with the other ALTs, quickly developing a new friendship forged on random games, recanting our teaching experiences, and of course, good ol’ crisis. I met locals who were also affected by the flooding and we swapped stories, pictures, and experiences. My time at the evacuation center was a very positive one, with plentiful food and water, a hospitable atmosphere, and accommodations all around. As the waters slowly subsided, the other ALTs and I started to venture out into the town little by little, and this is where it really started to get heavy.

It’s one thing to see a disaster on TV or in news articles, but it’s completely different living through it. Even though you know deep down that everyone is powering through (compared to other natural disasters, the Joso flooding has an incredibly low death toll. That’s not the way I judge disasters, but its still a number that the general public and media often use when reporting), seeing Joso, a city that you finally almost fully explored for the past month, completely submerged was such a visceral, heartbreaking experience.

I remember when I looked up the road towards one of the three high schools that I teach at, the road completely flooded with trash strewn about and little boats floating down with newly rescued locals.

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I remember the anxiety in my teachers’ voices as they hurried to their school, calling all their homerooms’ students to verify their safety. I remember biking for hours to see my northernmost school, the one in the center of the flooding, relieved to see that it was OK but horrified upon seeing firsthand the overturned cars and demolished houses only a mile or so away.

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As life slowly returned back to normal over the next month for me, the after effects continued to linger in different ways. From the smallest disruptions like an irregular train service, to actual changes, like almost two weeks of cancelled classes due to recovery efforts on part of both the students and the school. For most of that period, I spent my time helping out at my most severely affected school with a range of cleaning tasks, from mundanely wiping down the walls to using a sledgehammer to destroy the bookshelves, as the books expanded so much from the water volume that it was almost impossible to remove them. The trash generated by the flooding was crazy; a nearby lot that was normally completely empty was now over 7 feet tall with trash and debris. My friend had to wait in line of cars for a couple hours to dispose of all the debris from his restaurant business.

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I also gained a newfound appreciation for water. Coming from drought-stricken California, I was already relatively frugal with my H2O usage, taking five-minute showers and using a tub while washing dishes to catch water that I could reuse to soak future dirty dishes. But then, I had to learn to be even more resourceful. Even though it makes perfect sense, there was still a slight sense of irony that an inundation of water incapacitated the water supply for a week or so, resulting in constant trips to emergency water supply areas, showering with squirt water bottles, and washing my clothes for the first time ever by hand. Now, I have three buckets in my shower to catch the water when you initially turn on the shower while waiting for it to get to your desired temperature. Then, I use this water to either flush my toilet or for laundry. I recommend this method to everyone!

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Another big thing was how completely powerless I felt. Of course I wanted to help, but despite asking around everywhere, it seemed like my assistance wasn’t wholly necessary at many points. I was able to help out at one of my schools, but I wasn’t able to find anywhere else that really needed assistance. Even at the evacuation center, I wasn’t deemed necessary to the cause. While it sounds like I heavily lament this reality, it kind of lends to the idea of independence. Yes, some help is probably useful, but they can do it on their own. They’ve done it before and they can do it again. After all, I’m new here; I don’t know everything about this world yet so who am I to impose my assistance and insinuate that I am the help that they’ve been waiting for. (damn “American exceptionalism”)

As the weeks continued on, everyone showed resilience and the desire for normalcy was strong, to the point where sometimes, you even wonder if anything bad even happened. Another local friend mentioned to me in a mix of English and Japanese, “We are resilient. It may be tough, but we focus on the good.” Despite the displacement that many of my students faced, attendance at all my schools has pretty much remained 100% even though some of them now travel almost two hours to get to school due to all the rerouting of buses and trains. I informed my aunt of this experience and she replied, “Oh that sounds tough, but it’s probably fine. What you are describing sounds completely normal coming from the Philippines.” With a bit of research (read: with a bit of Wikipedia), the Philippines is arguably the most natural disaster-stricken country in the world, although Japan is still not too far behind. After all, it was only three years ago that this area in Japan was also affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown. When catastrophes become normalized, such resilience is not surprising at all really.

I’m grateful that I didn’t really suffer any direct personal loss through this event thanks to solely my location; if anything, I learned and grew immensely in so many ways. I no longer had my supervisor to help translate as I was often on my own, using my rusty, five-year old Japanese class knowledge. As mentioned above, now I try to avoid being wasteful as much as possible. I am prepared for the next natural disaster as I was affected enough to finally prepare that emergency kit I procrastinated on for so long. I learned about the resilience of the Japanese people and the city around me. I witnessed first hand all the things to do (and not to do) in any dire situations (stay in the evacuation center!).

As terrible as the flooding was, I can’t help but feel grateful for the experience. That sounds horrible; obviously, if I were some omnipotent being, I would not have allowed this, but since I could not prevent it in any way, might as well “go with the flow” (Sorry, too soon?) But anyways, as my Japanese friend said, “it may be tough, but focus on the good.”

Control

Within the past three or four years, I have recently discovered that I am one who likes to be in control. I remember a Robert Reich lecture I attended at Cal where he posed five questions and asked which resonated the most with us. I remember choosing “I want to be loved” but towards the end of my senior year, I found that changing to “I want to be in control”

I did not like the unknown. I wanted to be in control of my future and know exactly I what I was up against.
I did not like how a few people handled problems or events or anything that I was involved with. I have always found myself a pretty competent, organized person and it pained me to see others do something incorrectly or inefficiently that severely inconvenienced me or made me pay extra money or something like that. I realize that sounds really stuck-up. “Sorrynotsorry”
Lastly, there was some relief in knowing that if I did make a mistake, it was on me. I have pretty thick skin so handling failure or blame is not a big deal for me and I won’t take it personally.

But as I transition into life in Japan, I need to really let go of the desire to be in control.

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This is my life right now. An air hockey game with five too many pucks, a lack of direction, and no semblance of control.

Also, I am exaggerating a bit. Most people have it fine and if you stick any normal person in my shoes, adjusting to life in Japan is absolutely not hard at all. My predecessor is incredibly helpful and answers all my questions. There are a few people who do speak English and help me out at my school. Japanese people are, for the most part, incredibly nice and accommodating. Everything is priced reasonably, even pretty cheap at times (thank you 100 yen store, recycle shops, and the favorable dollar-to-yen conversion). Japan is one of the richest countries in the world; although some things seem outdated (lack of digitization of some things), Japan is still a developed country with all the amenities (and then some) to rival my cushy life in California.

But I am not a normal person, and I crave control. I need to know every single thing that is going on or else I either feel like I am missing out on something like a new experience or a cheaper option.

Language barrier is definitely the biggest thing. Although most people can get around fine with absolutely no Japanese, I still can understand and read some basic things, yet I still get frustrated. I want to know all the details of my internet and cell phone plan options so I know how I can make the most savings. I want to know exactly why this ramen is 100 yen more than this ramen so I can make the most delicious choice. I want to know the caloric contents of this food or at least be able to read the directions instead of popping it into the microwave and punching in the only number I see in the instructions. I want to understand the non-English speaking teachers and workers at my school so I can develop an actual relationship with them, not just the shallow pleasantries of “good morning” and “have a good weekend”. I want to be able to speak with my students on a deeper level than just “what is your favorite food” since my limited Japanese and their limited English can only take us through questions on an 8th grade MySpace survey.

There are a few other things too, like the lack of cultural competency or the lack of knowledge about a place. Living in California for 24 years, I knew everything I needed to know: social cues, where to obtain certain kinds of food, the cheapest deals, even the little details like your hometown based off just your area code.

But here, I still am slowly learning all the cues. When to say thank you or excuse me, and the correct way to say it. How to sound polite, but not too polite because then it’s just weird. Where to buy the cheapest food or specific amenities for my house. What is the polite way to sit on a train or at my desk.

And with all these minor inconveniences that, to me, seem like the sky is falling, I have to get used to it all, roll with the punches, and be OK with letting things go and being OK with making honest mistakes, wasting a bit of time or money, or embarrassing myself. As an educator who encourages my students to make mistakes, shouldn’t I be OK with doing the same thing?

So far, my lack of understanding has led to a few funny experiences. For example, I got a spray to cool myself down since it is so goddamn hot and humid here. The lady at the store instructed me to spray it on my shirt, which I did, and it didn’t work that well. I thought, to hell with it. It’s too damn hot, so I sprayed it directly on my skin, all over my back and arms. It felt amazing, so then I biked to dinner and thought all was well. Right after I ordered, this stinging pain enveloped my body. I wasn’t dying, but it was probably the most painful dinner I have ever eaten.

Also, I started to eat at home more often after the first few days so I needed to start washing my dishes. I thought I was using dish soap, but after awhile, the lack of sudsiness made me skeptical so I took a picture of the back instructions and asked my native Japanese friend. She started cracking up and said that I was using a really strong kitchen cleaner for the tiles and floor and whatnot. It wasn’t dangerous, but she was concerned and asked if I felt sick this past week.

This brings me to final realization of why I don’t like losing control. I did not like inconveniencing others, wanting to be on my own without the need to ask for help. If I ask for help, it is almost as if I reveal that I am incapable of doing it on my own, feeling vulnerable and not as competent as I thought I was. Too much pride you could say, which is odd because I am devoting my life to a career that is helping others, yet I am averse to this notion myself.

So swallow my pride and ask for help. And be OK with losing control. People really do like to help others, and people were in your shoes at some point in time asking for help, even if it was for something completely different.

I can call my cellphone and internet companies as they luckily have an English line. I have to ask the right questions though, but it’s still an option. If I don’t know why this ramen is 100 yen more than this ramen even after an explanation from the server, then I just have to come back a second time and try it, and then see which I like better. I can take pictures of my food’s calories and instructions to show other teachers at work, maybe asking different teachers each time so as to spread the labor around while building connections. Even if I can’t talk about politics or life goals with a Japanese-only-speaking teacher, we can share a good laugh about how it was supposed to be 3 minutes AFTER you pour in the water, not before. And lastly, I may not be able to create meaningful relationships with students, but we can still bond in other ways like talking about American and Japanese music or communicating with our hands since words sometimes fail.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I stop give up trying to gain some control. Asking nonstop questions and practicing Japanese at least an hour every day has become habit, but it is not the be-all-end-all solution to my problems.

As the great Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott advocated, it is OK to lose control (with the aid of music) and as Queen Elsa stated, it is time to let it go.