Aside

Heading to DC for the 4th

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Sometimes adventures just seem to fall in my lap.

It looks like I will be having plans for my last 4th of July in America. I was able to throw together a last-minute road trip to DC with a friend. Not sure exactly what we’ll be doing there, but I’m sure there will be a lot going on. I’m trying to do a little research before I go. This site was helpful. We’ll see what ends up happening there! I love spontaneous trips.

So, Did I Like Paris or Not?

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Eiffel Tower

A few months ago, I was very fortunate to have a chance to go on an almost free trip to Paris for spring break. Free spring break trips to anywhere are wonderful, but I feel extremely lucky to have gotten to go to Europe. That being said, and at the risk of sounding really ungrateful, I don’t really think Paris is the city for me. I actually think I experienced some culture shock there, which hasn’t ever happened to me before while staying in a country for such a short period of time. (For more on my experiences with culture shock, go here).

Of course, it wasn’t bad. I mean, it’s Paris. But there are definitely some things that rubbed me the wrong way. On the other hand, there were some things that I absolutely loved. Ultimately, I’ve decided to compose a few lists to help me sort through my complex feelings concerning the City of Light.

Things I Didn’t Like About Paris that Everyone Doesn’t Like About Paris:

  • Smell. A lot of the alleys and the subways really do smell bad. Like urine or beer or both.
  • It’s a dirty city. I mean, trash everywhere, broken bottles, mattresses laying in alleys, graffiti everywhere (and I don’t mean cool graffiti, just ugly tags), broken glass lamps…
  •  French snobbery. I never had any problem with French people being rude to me. At restaurants, on the street, or anywhere else. They can actually be really nice, if you’re willing to grovel and pretend that everything in France is so much better than back home.

Things that I didn’t Like about Paris that other people DO Like:

  • French food. All that meat and bread and cheese and wine was great for the first 2 days, but then I started feeling sick. It was difficult for me to eat it every day. I know it’s a strange complaint, but everything was too rich and heavy and left me with bad tummy aches.
  • French men. They’re cool I guess, but maybe too aggressive for my tastes. None of my personal experiences were that good, but I don’t want to say anything too rude about an entire group of men who I’m sure are not all the same.
  • French Art. I mean, I love art in general and it’s always interesting, but I was never that big into the French Revolution, the Salon paintings, impressionism… or I guess anything made in France after the Renaissance. Hmm. Unfortunately, that’s what is in most French museums, just French stuff.
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but buttresses are cool

The thing I liked the Least about Paris:

The general attitude people seemed to have about treating others, their surroundings, and the world in general like shit. I mean, New York can be pretty aggressive and pretty cold-hearted, but I never feel like New Yorkers are really out to fuck over the next guy, which is exactly the feeling I kept getting in Paris. I think the huge reason why the city is so dirty is because no one feels a sense of pride or duty towards their town. I regularly saw people chuck garbage down steps, into the subway tracks, or just leave it when they walked away from where they were sitting. All these beautiful old buildings were covered with graffiti and I couldn’t help but wonder why no seemed to care. Other cities I’ve been to and lived in, most taggers stuck to abandoned or crappy buildings, and owners would usually have it cleaned up fairly quickly if it looked bad. But not in Paris. It’s difficult to describe the attitude, but it definitely wasn’t for me. My Francophile professor loves it though. He believes that Parisians are rebellious and aggressively individualistic, which I guess just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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HOWEVER.

As I said, not everything in Paris was the worst.

Things I liked about Paris that everyone likes:

  • The famous stuff. You know, the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur, The Louvre, all the monuments, churches, and museums that we’ve all seen in movies and read about since childhood. It’s always exciting to see these things in person. I think the catacombs was my favorite “touristy thing” in Paris.
  • The atmosphere. Little cafes and boutiques, winding cobblestone streets, beautiful architecture of almost every building. Everything was pretty cute. Of course, I think I could have spent more time appreciating this part of Paris if I had more money to spend in the nicer neighborhoods.
  • The wine. Cheap, good wine everywhere and no one judging you for drinking whenever you want. How I wish I could have smuggled back a suitcase full of 1 Euro bottles…

Sacre Couer Louvre stained glass

 

 

Things I liked that may have been unique to my experience:Nicole teaching

  • Because it was an art history school trip, I had experts traveling with me to tell me about the churches and cathedrals we were visiting.
  • I have a friend who lives just outside of Paris. I was able to go to his town and have dinner with him and his girlfriend. His town was small and I liked it a lot. Even the drive from the city, through a little bit of the countryside, was very pretty.
  • Because I was traveling with a school group, I didn’t have any close friends with me. As a result, I ended up spending a lot of time alone. Paris is certainly a great city for wandering around aimlessly, even if I did have a lot of strange men constantly trying to approach me.

 

 

 

The thing I Liked the Most About Paris:

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Despite all my complaints, Paris still has a sort of mystique that’s captivating. I can’t think of any solid reason, but watching the sun rise over Montmartre from the steps of the Sacre Coeur, gazing out at the Seine from the clock windows of the Musee D’Orsay, and getting into some trouble outside the Moulin Rouge at three in the morning will always stick with me as beautiful memories of this controversial city.

 

The Only Conclusion that I can come to is

that I have a love/hate relationship with Paris. I love it, I hate it, and I love to hate it. Fortunately, Paris is possibly the best place in the world to be miserable. To sit in a café, chain-smoking cigarettes, drinking far too early in the day, and hating everyone around you. It’s ok, the entire city is commiserating with you.

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Repost: Culture Shock Part 4: Reverse Culture Shock

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My Student Housing cooperative AKA Home

 

 

 

 originally written on January 29, 2014

Continued from Culture Shock Part 3: Assimilation/Integration

A lot of the differences I faced after returning home weren’t cultural as much as they were lifestyle. I went from living with a family and having to check in with them, waking up every morning at 7am,  and not having a job but going to school Monday through Friday to living in my housing cooperative and working as a waitress. The shift in daily routine was a shock, but of course cultural differences weren’t surprising because I was reintegrating into the society I had been raised in.

Mostly I just missed the adventure of it. I came back to the same town, same school, same house, and same job. I loved all those things, but after living on the other side of the world, suddenly my college town felt very small. And isolated. I found myself slipping into a depression, but did what I could to keep my head above the water.

It helped that when I came back, I became president of my cooperative. It was a nice, solid rock of responsibility that I could hold on to, even if I felt sad or lonely. Also, one of my good friends from the study abroad program moved in to the same co-op. It was nice to have someone who was going through a lot of the same things, who could understand exactly what I meant. He had lived through many of the same experiences right there with me, after all.

I started studying Japanese more. I didn’t want to lose what I had gained, and by now my reading level is higher than it was while I was there. I also started watching movies and dramas in Japanese, mostly due to missing it, but also for language practice. I still specifically seek out movies and dramas set in Kyoto or Osaka. While there, I guess I formed a pretty strong bond with the Kansai region, and hearing the Kansai dialect(s) always makes me nostalgic.

Reverse culture shock and reintegration was predictably less intense than what I had previously been through. But it seemed to take longer to feel truly at peace. It was a long, steady climb upwards. I still get very nostalgic and homesick for Japan. Going abroad made me certain that I can’t stay here forever. While parts of it were difficult, it was still the single greatest experience of my life, and I can’t wait to go through it again after I move abroad.

Repost: Culture Shock Part 3: Assimilation/Integration

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Originally written on January 29, 2014

 

Continued from Stages Part 2: Culture Fatigue

 

I know I just spent the last two posts talking about all the rough parts of study abroad, but really for most of it I was insanely happy. Once I fully adjusted, I had the time of my life and experienced all those great life-changing adventures that they promise you in university study abroad offices.

Some parts of Japan are so beautiful they don’t even seem real.

Adopting Japanese Culture (at least, some parts)

While I will never be fully integrated into a different culture, I did adopt many new customs and practices. I got really good and used to eating with chopsticks. I still love taking baths at night and wish I could go to a hot spring. My host-mother’s cooking was amazing and I always looked forward to coming home at the end of the day and eating one of her meals.

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Eventually, I began to miss home less. When I was coming back to Kyoto from spring break, after spending a week traveling around other parts of Japan, I found myself dreaming of being in my own bed and house. It was startling to realise that I was thinking of my host parents house in Kyoto as my home.

Standing above Kyoto on Daimonji

Even so, being in such a foreign place made me learn a lot about my own cultural background. I’m truly an American. I’m practical, individualistic, an egalitarian, and ambitious. While certainly not limited to just Americans, these traits are among those that puzzled many of my Japanese friends. They’re also a little stereotypical of the Japanese perception of Westerners, but fortunately or not, I certainly fit the stereotype in this case. And It was never a problem. Exchanging cultures is a two-way street, and I was happy to learn more about Japan (which is a part of my own cultural heritage) as well as pass on my own experiences.

I also miss purikura

Returning Home

God, that was depressing. I felt like I was really loving life, only to have to give it up and move back home, not knowing when or if I would come back to Japan. I was so upset that I didn’t even make it to my own good-bye party. I just stayed out late, trying to forget that I would be leaving the next morning. It’s not that life in America was so dismal, but the thought of returning to the exact same place, finishing a whole year of school, and having to wait for more than a year before applying for jobs was sad-making.

That said, the last week in Japan was one of the most beautiful times in my life. I met amazing people at a hostel. I saw one of the best art shows I’ve ever been to in Roppongi. I met my Japanese relatives and spent a few days exploring more rural parts of Japan. I befriended a very talented obi maker, who showed me his showcase and let me try on a kimono worth more than all the clothing I have ever owned in my life put together. That week brought me many of my favorite memories of Japan.

                              

 

Now it’s been almost 9 months since I’ve returned. It feels so long ago, and yet it also feels like I stepped off that plane in America no more than 2 weeks ago. And my life hasn’t been the same since.

Repost: Culture Shock Part 2: Culture Fatigue

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Originally written on January 27, 2014

 

Continued from Stages Part 1: Culture Shock

Not everyone experiences culture shock as strongly as I did, or even at all. And even though it was pretty intense for me, it didn’t really last longer than a couple of weeks. I adjusted fairly easily, and found myself feeling back to “normal”.

 

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“hot communication”
YOU CAN DO IT!!

The Setting in of Culture Fatigue

Over time, though, I started feeling something else. It wasn’t as intense as a shock, more of a slow, weary feeling of being drained. Everything was frustrating, but rather than being upsetting, it was just tired-making. While not everyone I knew went through culture shock, almost everyone went through some period of fatigue. Many people speak of just feeling annoyed at the new culture. Every society has stupid beliefs and practices, and once you get over the initial honeymoon and/or shock, you begin to see the more irritating aspects of a culture.

I seemed to notice this most when talking with travelers who hadn’t been in Japan for very long. For example, when I was in Hokkaido I stayed in a hostel. I had already been in Japan for more than two months, which made it interesting to hear the perspectives of travelers who were new to the country I was starting to become accustomed to. When we were talking about recycling, one of the other travelers waxed on about the wonders of the Japanese, with recycling bins next to every trash can and in every home, all misty-eyed at the thought of such a considerate and clean people. I found myself getting annoyed, and couldn’t help but point out how wasteful the Japanese practices of wrapping consumer goods is. Everything, even trinkets from dollar stores, are carefully wrapped in layer upon layer of plastic and paper, and then often put in a box, and then given to you in a bag. Even with much of the paper and plastic in Japan being recycled, it’s still extremely wasteful.  It’s really not a big deal, but little things add up. The language barrier can also contribute to an overall sense of frustration and feeling alone.

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Many Japanese also believe in heating their toilet seats. But not their houses.

Culture Shock vs. Culture Fatigue

I read in one of the pamphlets they made us read that there are two stages of culture shock. The first comes when you’re exposed/surrounded by new customs, foods, languages, manners, etc. The second comes when you run into differences with deep-seated cultural norms, expectations, beliefs about society and the world, and human nature. The first is easy to get over, once you get used to the new aspects of daily life. The second however, is much more complicated and may never feel resolved. The second stage is what I’m referring to as “culture fatigue”.

The example I just used (of recycling and waste) is one that many foreigners struggle with in Japan. But it’s a pretty harmless negative of Japanese society. Unfortunately there are many other differences that were much more difficult to accept or understand. One is that I often encountered people who were openly racist. I found it really shocking, as even though I’ve come across many racially insensitive individuals in my life, I had never had someone sit across from me and casually state sweeping generalizations about people based on their color/ethnicity/nationality. I heard things like “People with darker skin are always more violent”, or “Japanese and Chinese are smarter than other Asians”. Of course, not every Japanese person believed these, but it was pretty common, and statements such as these seemed to go unquestioned.

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I might have to write a whole post later about gender roles and expectations in Japan… It’s a very complex issue that I couldn’t do justice in a few sentences, but its safe to say that it was strange to get used to.

Getting Over the Fatigue?

Of course, over time I also became adjusted to the things that caused the weariness. It never completely went away though, and I don’t think it should. It’s bad to get overwhelmed by feelings of fatigue, but it’s perfectly healthy to not like some parts of a culture. To this day, there are some things about Japan I find downright infuriating, but I’m still dying to go back. When I arrived in Japan last January, one of my good friends had already been there a semester and was going through a small period of fatigue. It’s evidence that you’re past an infatuation, and have started to actually integrate into a new culture.

Repost: Culture Shock Part 1

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Originally written on January 24, 2014.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

When preparing to study abroad for four months, they made us read all these informational handouts to make sure we would survive with our mental and physical health more or less intact. I remember reading all this information about culture shock, and how difficult it would be to deal with. I’m glad for it, because I ended up struggling more than I thought I would. Most of the time, advice about the transition is divided into four parts:

  1. arrival- honeymoon and then culture shock
  2. adaptation/assimilation into new culture
  3. return home- reverse culture shock
  4. eventually- reintegration of home culture and new culture together

However, my own experience went a little differently. My four parts were more like:

  1. culture shock
  2. culture fatigue
  3. assimilation
  4. reverse culture shock/fatigue

A graph of which would look something like this:

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It’s easy to forget after the fact what going through all these ups and downs was like, so I looked through my old journal. Because this tale is quite long, I’ve chosen to divide it into four parts, the first of which is about culture shock.

What they prepare you for:

The average graph explaining culture shock looks something like this:

While there are some ups and downs, there’s really mostly just a big up for the honeymoon period, then a big down for culture shock, then adjustment until it’s time to think about returning home. It seemed like it would be fairly simple. I also didn’t think I would feel much of a culture shock, as I’ve always been very independent, I usually love traveling and jumping into new situations, and I’ve grown up with a lot of aspects of Japanese culture. It’s safe to say that I was very wrong.

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Akihabara, in Tokyo

 

The Big Shock

It’s hard to define what culture shock is. I felt like I didn’t have much of a honeymoon period, maybe only around a couple of days. Pretty quickly the situation grew grim, and I felt very confused and lost. This is what I wrote in my journal about a year ago:

January 10, 2013: This is the most foreign place I’ve ever been. All the big things, like the airport and train stations, the buildings, and the roads all look the same. But it’s a lot of little things. The custodial uniforms, the toilets… everything seems weirdly shaped.

January 12: It was very difficult trying to get to Kyoto. I had to ask a lot of people for help, no one spoke English, and I didn’t realize just how bad my Japanese was until then. I keep telling myself that if I could get through Tokyo Station alone, then I can get through anything in Japan. But that might not be true.

This is so much. I feel overwhelmed, but I think it will get easier after a week or two…

(after meeting my host family) I can’t really speak to them though, because my Japanese is so bad. It just made me feel worse after that terrible placement interview. I started crying in the bath. Everything is just so strange. I’m in a stranger’s house, in their daughter’s bed. I miss home. Every little thing is difficult. I can’t read labels or directions. And mostly, I feel like every conversation is a test, one that I fail miserably. I keep telling myself that this is one of the hardest things I’ll ever do. And that it will get better. And that other people are probably struggling too. But I still feel very lonely and very sad.

:( Sad.

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How I Dealt with It

This first part was hard. It was the lowest point on my happiness graph (see above), but luckily it only lasted about 2 weeks. Eventually I overcame it and started adjusting. One of the most important conclusions I came to was that I was putting too much pressure on myself to feel comfortable when I didn’t, and trying too hard to get some life changing experience out of everything I was doing instead of enjoying the simple things. Here are some things I did that helped me feel less sad/homesick:

  • took a lot of walks. It helped me feel better, and made my neighborhood and town feel more familiar
  • kept watching my favorite shows. There’s no reason to put life (even tv) on hold, especially when you’ll be in the same place for months. At first it seemed wasteful to spend time in Japan watching American tv, but then I realised moping around wasn’t any better
  • ate familiar food. Again, four months in Japan. The occasional pretzel from Auntie Anne’s wasn’t going to take away from all the Japanese food I ate. Also, they serve hot lemonade there!
  • hung out more. Went to bars and cafes more. Started going clubbing. It’s how I met a bunch of new friends and how I really started to have fun in Japan.
  • Did the same thing every day for a while. Routine is boring, but it also helps things feel familiar. And once they feel familiar, they start to feel better. Boredom is a luxury that only comes with comfort.
  • Talked about it with other study abroad people and foreigners living abroad. People back home never understood that while it’s a ton of fun, a life-changing experience, blah blah blah, it can also be really hard. And it’s difficult to discuss your homesickness with people who want to go on and on about how they’re “soooo jealous!”. It usually just made me feel guilty for not loving every second of it.
  • Talked about home with people from home. On the flip side, those Skype and facebook conversations about all the gossip I was missing helped me feel more connected to my friends back home. I liked being in the loop, even if I was far away.

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Eventually things became more fun and more normal. I still wasn’t having the time of my life, but I adjusted within a month. I still look back on that time as one of the loneliest in my life, but my belief that I would get through it helped me ride it out. I think I mostly just tried to distract myself from it, and look for the little things. Like vending machines that sell beer and whiskey:

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Why I am OK with Teaching English Abroad

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originally written on January 18, 2014

 

Some of you may be wondering why this post isn’t simply titled something like “Why I want to Teach English Abroad”. The answer is that it really isn’t so simple. Since coming back from Japan with the idea that I would pursue teaching English to non-native speakers, many have been happy for me, but many have also questioned my decision. Isn’t it some form of soft power, of cultural imperialism? They ask. Don’t you feel bad about pushing your culture and language on others?

No matter how much my Japanese friends insisted they were thankful to their English teachers and grateful they had the chance to learn English, I felt guilty. I don’t know if people should have to learn my language to be able to connect with the global community, and I feel like it’s unfair that I was just born to an English-speaking family and country.

However, there is one experience that I always think of when people ask why I want to teach English in Japan. My last week in Tokyo I was staying in a great hostel, with a large staff of Japanese and foreigners on their work visas. The staff would often hang out with the guests in the common areas of the hostel, making food and drinking together. One night was especially crowded, with guests from Malaysia, Belgium, Germany, China, Peru, and France, as well as the mostly Japanese staff. At one point I looked around the room as I watched people forming connections and friendships, and realized that although I was the only native speaker of English, everyone was using the language to communicate. Even those who only knew a few words and phrases were using English to get their point across. At first I was surprised, but then I realized that it made sense. People in China don’t often learn how to speak Spanish, and Malaysians don’t usually study German, and I don’t think anyone learns Flemish outside of Belgium. Instead, they all studied English, and now they could all communicate with one another.

Part of a mural from the hostel (which was ninja themed).

I don’t know if English really should be the lingua franca of today’s world. But, fortunately or not, that’s what it’s functioning as. It’s the language of business, technology, and the internet. Perhaps we should find a new global language, but that would take decades to put in place. In the meantime, learning English is still extremely useful. And that’s why I’m OK with teaching it.

 

(side note: Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who has a bad holier-than-thou attitude about teaching English, as if they’re somehow a martyr doing the world a HUGE favor by capitalizing on one of their most basic skills. Fear not, I am not trying to say I’m a saint for teaching English. Just that I don’t feel so bad about it.)

5 Things I Miss About Japan

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  1. The food.

I love Japanese food. I can easily get tired of eating one type of food from other places, but Asian cuisine in general I can usually eat for days on end. Okonomiyaki, yaki-tori, sushi, gyouza, udon, ramen… My mouth is watering remembering all the delicious things my host mother used to make for me and that I used to buy for lunch at school. Even the cafeteria food was good. Some people ask me if Japanese people only eat fish and rice everyday. No, there’s so much more! A lot of fried chicken, actually. And I think miso soup is the best cure for a hangover I’ve ever tried. A+, host-mom!

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2. The Nature

It’s very stereotypical, but it’s also a little true. Not only is Japan a naturally beautiful place, but many people there place a big value on preserving nature and appreciating it’s beauty. The best date I’ve ever been on was to go look at cherry blossoms. Instead of giving me flowers, he led me on a walk through tunnels of flowering trees with petals falling down around us… It was super cheesy but cute. And I don’t see that happening for me again anywhere else but Japan. Not many cultures turn “going outside to look at trees that flower once a year” into basically a national holiday.

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3. The Art

I’m an art person, and Japan has some great art museums and installations. Also, there seemed to be artists and artisans everywhere I looked, whether they were calligraphy teachers who headed their own school or potters who owned their own shops. I even met a few weavers and dyers of fabric for kimono, and one particularly wonderful obi-maker. I’m sure much of this is my own good luck, but in Japan I encountered so many wonderful people for whom art was a part of their daily existance. And I’m also a big fan of contemporary Japanese art (particularly Kusama Yayoi!).

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A classic of Japanese art history, I saw these famous depictions of the wind and thunder gods in several places throughout Japan. This recreation was in a shopping center in Kyoto Station.

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Some of the original obi creations made by my friend. They were even more beautiful in person (and very expensive!)

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Inside a Kusama Yayoi installation at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

4. The Cute Things

Now I’m not usually into cutesy stuff. But every once in a while, nothing melts my heart like a little kitty-chan.

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At Universal Studies Osaka

 

 

 

 

 

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Little boys didn’t seem to mind all the pink and all the cute too much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The Nightlife

I love bars, clubs, drinking, and dancing, and Tokyo has it all. I truly miss those nights staying out until the first trains in the morning, wandering through Roppongi towards the station with all the others who had been kicked out as the clubs closed, and trying to avoid the Turkish men selling kabobs. It was a real bonding experience, and I met some of the most interesting people on those nights. Many places around the world have great nightlife scenes, but there’s something about the Japanese spirit of hard work that forces them to also party as hard as possible when they can. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of those nights, as I don’t think any of us wanted a permanent record of our activities.

Moving

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In 48 days, I will be packing up everything I can carry in two checked bags and a carry-on and moving halfway around the world. A good friend recently asked me if I was more excited or nervous. I had to stop and think about it. Am I excited? I’ve had a bad case of wanderlust my entire life, and have really only had the freedom to act on it in the few years that I’ve been a legal adult. I’m finally achieving a dream I’ve had since childhood. Am I nervous? I’m nervous about my new job, but not about creating a new life for myself there. I’m sure the next few months will be extremely difficult, but I like a challege.

I started this blog to record my thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned to any interested readers who might find it useful or entertaining. Like my new life that I’ll soon be starting, I’m sure it will take shape on its own and turn into something that would be impossible to predict at this moment.

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Returning Home

 

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