“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
A famous line used and reused in the United States, and one that we hear often today. It was written by American journalist Horace Greely in 1865 at a point in history when the whole country was on the move – building, farming and claiming land, rushing toward open space and opportunity in the American West. Greely’s words reflected the attitude of the nation of that time. The country was growing, hands were needed and fortunes were waiting to be made. That generation responded swiftly and hungrily – it was, after all, their Manifest Destiny.
The attitude of the youth of the nation today is something quite different. Many now call my generation the new “Lost Generation”. There are no open skies or untouched soil waiting for us, and opportunities are slim. The Great Recession has taken a great toll. Those of us who would if we could spend our time and energy creating, building and imagining solutions for the problems that face us in the future, are now more often than not occupied solely with the task of daily survival.
Unlike our parent’s generation or that of Greely’s, the youth of today’s America has faced college tuition fees that are upwards of five figures for every year at many institutions. However, often the only way to get even a minimum wage job is to have at least a 4-year degree. At the same time, jobs have disappeared. The two largest employers in the US today are Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s – minimum wage traps one can hardly call a part of the American Dream, let alone self-sustaining employment. Finding work with enough pay to support oneself has become an almost insurmountable task for many of us, and returning home is often the only option. In a culture that views independence as one of its greatest virtues, the return to Mom and Dad’s house is the ultimate sign of failure. Sadly, I think many of my generation have taken that to heart.
So what to do? This is no longer a world of encapsulated nations. “Globalization” is the word of the day. And this is by no means a problem that remains confined to the United States. Save for a few regions, the whole world has had a taste of the Recession. But in some places, East Asia in particular, the future still seems to be surging ahead. And many of my generation American or otherwise, are picking up stakes and going with it.
In mid 2010, I threw in my lot, and took a job in Japan. I had been abroad before, but never like this. It was a trip that had no return date. Sticking to Horace Greely’s advice, I did go West. I took a flight across the ocean westward, until at some point that imaginary human line dissolved and West became East. I left to grow up with the world. I cannot say I regret this decision. Yes, I get homesick now and then. Yes, I miss my culture, the good and the bad. But it was a decision that I felt was necessary for my future, because back home I didn’t see one, at least not until long after my time had passed.
Many people my age are feeling the same and many are doing the same. There is a new kind of traveler out there now, a large group of people that are not in China for sightseeing or South Korea to study Business. There are young people from all over the western world – Europe, Australia, North America and elsewhere that have left their homes for better lives and opportunities. Are they immigrants? Only time will tell, as they say.
I have met scores of English teachers with Korean or Chinese or Japanese students. I have met long-time expats that now run their own bars or hostels on the beaches of Thailand or the bustling center of Tokyo. Their stories are inspiring. I’ve heard it said that the East has a head start on the old pillars of the West because in the past they have had to learn about us in order to do well in business and other kinds of competition on the global stage. They have had to familiarize themselves with our cultures and to use that knowledge to become bigger, smarter players in the global marketplace. Now, I think, it is our turn to learn about them.
When I look back at what I have seen and learned over my years abroad, about education and the universal human mind in Japanese classrooms, about spirituality in Himalayan Nepal, about human rights on the borders of Myanmar, I am grateful and inspired. There are so many of us out there, living, learning, growing and teaching. We enrich ourselves, we enrich each other, and someday, if and when we return, we will enrich our home countries.
I come from a long line of immigrants. My great-great-great-something grandfather came over the Atlantic to the New World in 1630. He and others in my family left the comforts of home and culture and set out for a mysterious place that offered both opportunity for success and the danger of failure. Of the 700 people in his fleet, 200 died on the way over. But he took that step, made that decision knowing what may wait for him on the other side of the water before he ever set foot on that boat. His story is similar to so many other thousands of stories that any American can tell about their grandfather’s grandfather, or even their own fathers and mothers. From a nation that was built on the hopes and backs of those leaving home to seek a better future, I see my actions as a continuation of a tradition of hope, and of the eternal search for something better. I think that man who stepped on that boat, whose son’s son’s son’s son would someday produce me, would be proud.
Author Archives: Culturewhore
“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
It’s lonely out here.
Slowly, minute by minute, day by day, it leaves you. Maybe one day it’s a smell you can’t remember. Maybe a name. It could be the tune of a TV show who’s name you can’t recall playing over and over in your head. It is subtle, and slow. Things disappear. For a long while you don’t notice, as you try to deal with the never-ending conveyor belt of the strange and new that moves past you every second of every day, until slowly it becomes the normal that you learn to navigate. But one day, in a breath, you might turn around and realize you have forgotten once familiar faces and places. And on that day when you do go home for a visit or even to stay – you realize you have lost your culture, and something else has taken hold and changed you.
It could be in the way you walk. How you carry yourself. It could be that you don’t remember proper table manners anymore, or your physical “bubble” has grown larger or shrunk. Somehow, you are different. You don’t belong – not like you used to.
It won’t be like this forever.
“Disconnect” they call it. “Reverse culture shock.” I have been in Asia for three years. I don’t belong here, and I won’t be staying much longer either. The time to move on is approaching. But where? I have no connection with what is happening at home, nor any real desire to return. And now what was once familiar has become foreign. I left home for opportunity, for change and hope. Opportunity I found. Change I found. Hope comes and goes. She is so flighty. Tonight she is probably out hanging on the shoulders of some high rollers in a Macau casino. Or maybe she isn’t anywhere near my vicinity – even if I called her phone is out of range. So here I sit in my apartment and wonder – where do I go from here?
Times are hard. Everyone is saying so. Most days I don’t let myself believe it. I keep pushing on and working hard and hoping for the best. Today I wonder – I am I going where I hope to be going? Is it even possible? I’ve had highs and lows out here. I’ve seen magic and mayhem. I’ve felt misery and joy. The world is laid out as a carpet at my feet for as long as I wish, and as long as I stay clever.
Where to go? What to do? My heart is drumming somewhere out there but I can’t find the source of the vibrations.
I need some god damn sleep.
As my return back into the digital world after a long hiatus, I bring you the best photos from one of my favorite places in the world. After finishing my work contract in Japan, I set off on a 7-month-long trip around Asia. I traveled to such places as South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and India (more on these later) – and I have to say that among them all, Nepal has stolen my heart by a very long mile.
I went on my first trek, a month along the famous Annapurna Circuit. It’s difficult to describe such a place – where the people are so gentle and the land so harsh. But all of it is beautiful. I present to you, Nepal:
They say that you cannot visit Nepal only once. I know I will be going back again and again.
He is a doctor of archeology, doing the best job of making scraping at rocks sexy since Howard Carter found the tomb of King Tut (and come on, that guy didn’t even have a fedora).
So why bring up Indiana Jones? First of all, my computer has finally died (RIP Frankenputer) and I don’t currently have access to anything that will allow me to put my own pictures up :/. So until I get a new one, it shall just be prose and pictures I found on the internet. Second, I just (finally, after years of putting my hands over my ears and shouting “LA LA LA!”) watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I will pause for a moment and give the people for whom those words are sacrilige time to scream and throw something if they wish. (I assume these are the people who have the same reaction to the Star Wars – uh…things-that-shall-not-be-mentioned. Do I sound like a nerd yet?) In the meantime, here is a picture of a kitty:
I’m a little late to the party (i.e. hatefest) but I’ll say what I have to say anyway.
Most people who know me or have ever interacted with me for more than five seconds know that I am a tough critic. So in the spirit of fairness, I entered into the fourth Indiana Jones film with as open a mind as possible.
And in all honesty, it was not as bad as I thought it would be. From what I had heard (and watched on South Park) I almost expected a scene where George Lucas literally steals into Indy’s room at night and rapes him to death – with Steven Spielberg looking on and weeping. This was not the case. However, I must admit that it DOES have aliens in it. And disappointingly, it is very obvious it’s heading to a flying saucer of some sort from the very beginning. From what I hear it was George Lucas (of course) that insisted on going the 1950’s ooo-look-aliens! route. Steven Spielberg expressed his initial reluctance, but was eventually won over. I imagine the conversation between them to have gone something like this:
Lucas: Hey, Steeeeeve……
Lucas: Can we do another Indiana Joooooones?
Spielberg: I’ve told you a million times, George – no. Our time making those films has passed, and now we’ve* grown up and moved onto more mature material. Let the youth of Indiana stay in the past.
Lucas: But, but….
A few years later:
Lucas: Hey, Steve….
Lucas: I have this really great idea for a new Indiana Jones movie…
Spielberg: No George.
Lucas: But Harrison is already on…
Lucas: It will make a TON of money….
Lucas: And there will be aliens!
A few years later:
Spielberg: What, George?
Lucas: I know you don’t want to make a new Indiana Jones, but…
Spielberg: George, I’m not doing an Indiana Jones film with aliens in it – I’ve already done two alien movies!
Lucas: Well how about this then: they aren’t really aliens from another planet.
Lucas: Yeah – they aren’t aliens, they’re interdimensional beings.
And so the latest Indiana Jones was born. And that part about the interdimensional beings? Fact. Spielberg said in an interview that the “interdimensional beings are totally NOT aliens” argument eventually won him over.
So now we have this new movie with an older Indy, facing a rough new world full of Sputnik, the bomb, Russian spies – and of course, Area 51.
At the surface level, I kind of like this idea. While the previous Indiana Jones films were set during the 30s and 40s, meant to reflect action serials of the time, the new film had to be updated to match Harrison Ford’s age. Cool, fine by me. There is a lot that can be done with such an interesting time period. But there is also a lot that has to be lost for aging Indiana out of 30’s surrealism and into 50’s paranoia.
Which brings me to my next point: while Indiana Jones perpetually belongs to said era (the 30s and 80s respectively) of surrealism and multicultural innocence (sounds better than ignorance), the audience has aged and matured without him for the last 20 years. A lot has happened since we last saw Indiana ride off into the sunset – and our expectations at the movie theater reflect that.
Gone are the days when blatant racism can be played out in a movie theater and only professors and well-traveled individuals will make a fuss. Nowadays we have words like globalism, interracial, multicultural and politically correct on the tips of our tongues. These days, racist stereotypes are pretty much offensive to everyone (I would like to think).
We accept the old Indiana Jones films as they are because they are considered classics. Many of us have grown up with them, and watch them for what they are meant to be: a good time. The stereotypes involved are only just part of making the fun funner, and aren’t really there to make a statement about anything.
Things like this:
(Okay, it was mostly Temple of Doom that turned out to be a racist asshole, but you get my meaning.)
But now, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a different audience to please – and no one is telling anyone else that it is a must-watch classic. So when, in the new film, Indy and Mutt (a play off of the joke about Indy naming himself after a dog, I guess) are stalked and attacked by creepy, nameless natives that makes screeching sounds like monkeys, it makes me squirm a little bit. They showed respect for the power of the skull which means they know something about it, and you would think as an anthropologist Indiana Jones would think to ask them. And what about when they are mowed down by the Russians? What an academic waste.
Ah well. This is a movie damn it! And awesome movie scenes it has (though I didn’t think much of the A-bomb and the refridgerator). Lucas, Spielberg and Ford did their best to bring back some of that old Indy badass magic, and it is helped by the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (queen of female lead badassery) and the not-so-bad addition of Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s son Mutt. But what it really needed was Sean Connery.
But we must remember that the Indiana Jones movies gave us this:
Anyway anway: what has Indiana taught us about culture over the years? In my opinion, he has taught us that our perspective on culture changes all the time. And sometimes that means we want our movies to change with it.
Was the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a bad movie? On it’s own, no. Was it the best (or even a good Indiana Jones movie)? Certainly not. And the parts of Spielberg’s good direction that were hijacked by silly ol’ George are obvious (and riddled in CGI). But it did it’s best to harken back to a more innocent time and give us one more good round with a good friend.
I love you Indy!
A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to the city of Hiroshima. The purpose was, as the city promotes itself as an international center of peace and anti-nuclear sentiment, to garner a true appreciation of nuclear threat. Little did I know how relevant this trip would turn out to be.
The city nowadays shows little sign of its tragic past, though it is more spacious than other Japanese cities of its size, for obvious reasons. A beautiful park stands in the center of the city, in the place where the A-bomb went off, which was once the bustling city center. At the edge of the Memorial Peace Park and along a branch of the river stands the famous Hiroshima “A-Bomb Dome”, and across from that, the monument dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki and other children killed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If you have not heard the story of 12-year-old Sadako and her thousand paper cranes, I highly suggest looking it up. The young Sadako seemingly escaped the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing unscathed at the age of 2, but was discovered to have developed radiation-induced leukemia by the age of 12. An ancient Japanese story says that anyone who can fold a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish by a crane. Sadako folded over one thousand cranes in her hospital bed, each with a wish to live. However, she died within a year of her diagnosis.
The final attraction of the Memorial Peace Park is the museum. Inside it is divided into two sections, one detailing the city of Hiroshima, its development from its founding up to the bombing and why it was chosen as a target, and the other detailing the toll of the destruction and the impact on human lives. What makes this museum particularly legitimate is its entrance fee: 50 Yen, the equivalent of 1 US dollar per person.
While the section of the museum that extols on the city is fascinating in its own right, the real “juice” in my opinion was the latter section. The collection of personal items, photos and debris gathered and preserved bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the human element of the tragedy. Displaying clothes to melted roof tiles to sections of preserved leukemia-filled bone marrow, the Memorial Museum, no matter how full of people, is perpetually quiet.
And finally, what is most relevant to those of us in Japan right now:
This brings me to current events. Before I continue, let me be clear: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very different from the current nuclear reactor crisis in northeastern Japan. However I will say, even though the bombs were designed to destroy and the plants were designed with several safety redundancies, in both cases uranium and plutonium have been used. These are radioactive and dangerous, and ties between them are undeniable.
That being said, the current nuclear crisis affecting over 6 Japanese reactors has put one of the only nations to have ever known nuclear fallout into an understandable state of panic (the others being Ukraine and much of Europe after the Chernobyl disaster, of which I know too little about to speak of with any authority at this time). And all of this after the 5th largest earthquake recorded in over 100 years and a tsunami that wiped out entire towns.
People are panicked. Food and supplies that are desperately needed in the disaster zone are disappearing from shelves up north, and droves are fleeing Tokyo by train or air. And while out where I live people still keep their firm Japanese calm in place, they nervously check the news. They whisper. They wait.
But for what?
As an American citizen, I cannot have faith in any kind of government and still claim to possess a single brain cell. And though I may personally find Japan to be more (shall I say) honorable than many other countries, my almost natural (and hard-earned) suspicions of government communication have me on the alert. They can’t be telling us the whole story.
So for me it comes down to this question: what shall I do? If (or rather when) a reactor blows, I don’t want to be downwind. Luckily the wind is currently blowing east and out to sea, where it will disperse before harming anyone on the North American continent, but that can change at any moment.
They say it can be controlled, and they say that radiation levels outside of a certain radius are not harmful to human health. But one reactor after another has either exploded or caught on fire – and it is difficult not to conclude that the Japanese government is trying to keep people from panicking. Experts from around the world ensure us that nothing extremely bad can happen.
People can speculate about how safe radiation levels are from across oceans in their university chairs, but I’m HERE now. When it comes to the reality of harm to one’s own person, the speculation of others from far away is often hardly worth a damn.
I don’t plan on leaving the country. There is a chance that I don’t need to be worrying so much, especially since I myself am not an expert on anything nuclear. I am not panicked. But the potential prospect of contracting leukemia in 15 years or telling my deformed children why they turned out they way they did is not appealing to me. Right now I can only hope for the best.
It may be a few years until another museum dedicated to disaster and nuclear tragedy is built in the country of Japan, but I can only hope that this is a lesson to the rest of the world to put aside plans for nuclear energy. Thirty one countries operate nuclear power stations, and many have plans to build more. It is just a bad idea. You can’t get rid of the stuff – ever. You have to bury it and hope it will go away in a few million years. And if something goes wrong politically in any country that operates plants, what happens to those plants? Who will man them? These are not risks, in the interest of the environment or humanity, to be taking. As of right now, I hope this ends soon so we can get back to concentrating on helping those who really need the help.
Ultimately, I do not and will not ever regret coming to Japan. A terrible series of events like this could happen anywhere at any time, so I cannot partake in any woulda-coulda-shouldas. Japan is a wonderful country that has opened up so many doors of opportunity for me, and greatly added to my life. I can see my poor mother now – chiding me for leaving her safe country town in Middle-of-Nowhere America to go out into the dangerous world, but despite these events, I would still say to her: sorry. I’d rather die alive than live dead.
As we all should know by now, there has been a terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami in the north of Japan this weekend. Everyone is abuzz about it right now (as they should be) so, as I am here, I will give you my “where were you when…?” story.
This Friday was graduation day for the third-year students in the junior high school I teach in. After a rewarding, though tearful, ceremony, my kids left the school grounds for the last time, all full of smiles and future hopes. After the last pictures were snapped and the final waves waved – we teachers went back to an emptied school and had a special graduation lunch.
We all gave speeches commemorating good work and dedication (I think so anyway…my Japanese is not that good yet…) and went back to the staff room to relax and begin preparations for the next term.
It was not long after we settled in that one of my fellow teachers turned on the television and yelped, calling us over. Then we watched it all unfold, slowly, horribly before our eyes. As the waters washed over the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and the fires burned in Tokyo, all need for translation deteriorated. We were all yelling the same thing at the people in cars, in houses, running on the streets and empty rice paddies away from the fires that engulfed buildings or from the wall of water rushing to swallow them, : “Run! Get out of there!”
While the footage of the tsunami rushing inland (a wave with so much force and speed that it left a cloud of spray lifted behind it – a testament to it’s almost angry power) was rare and in a scientifically speaking way, significant, that fact alone could not turn our attention away from the humanity of the situation.
And while the Japanese are quite used to earthquakes and tsunamis, as they rest on one of the most active regions of the Ring of Fire and see natural disasters as not only something to prepare for, but as a part of life, none of their preparation could have shielded them against this. They have widened rivers and raised roads and bridges – they have earthquake proof buildings and evacuations plans – but when an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale hits you – who would have a chance?
So we watched in horror as the helicopters circled clusters of building about to be hit by the water in Sendai, and though they exercised some delicacy – changing the picture to one of that of an office building during the quake or a press conference just as someone was about to be swallowed inescapably before our eyes – they were not always quick enough.
As the wave of sea water black with sludge and debris, carrying boats, cars, and houses on fire pushed ever further inland, all we could do was watch as cars attempting to drive away on the highway were pushed over by the wave, as people stuck in a traffic jam leaped out of their cars in desperation and ran, as a motorcyclist did his best to race death – and lost. What struck me the hardest was hearing of the school gymnasium that collapsed in Tokyo during a graduation ceremony…
I went home to call my family and tell them I was alright. As I got in, Boyfriend yelled from the other room that the quake had hit and he had felt it, shaking our apartment for several minutes and how could I not have felt it? The best I could do was say that my school is a brand-new quake-proof building. Granted, I live a little north of the city of Kobe (another Japanese city with a history of deadly earthquakes) and far from the epicenter of the quake. But I wondered that myself – how did I not feel it? Part of me almost felt guilty – as if it was somehow shameful that I didn’t physically share in this dreadful tragedy. Perhaps I am starting to empathize with the collectivist culture of Japan.
I had noticed when I got in that my friend’s car was in my driveway, but she hadn’t come in. I called her and she told me that she couldn’t park in her spot because there were police covering the parking lot of her apartment. She sounded panicked. The two of us went down the street to check on her.
While from New Zealand, my friend is proficient in Japanese and has a lot of friends all over the country – many of them living up north. She was panicked because phone lines were down and she hadn’t/couldn’t hear from her friends to see if they were alright. What made it worse: an old woman who lived upstairs had apparently died – either from the shock of the earthquake or the tragedy or perhaps even days before – we don’t know how or when, and her family stood outside waiting and weeping.
So we three strangers from faraway lands huddled together under the scent of formaldehyde (covering something rotten) that leaked down from the ceiling. We could not escape the fact of death that day.
My heart goes out to the people of Japan. 2011 has so far been a year of dreadful disaster and tragedy, from the floods of Australia and Brazil to the earthquakes of New Zealand and Japan, and even to the atrocious acts against basic human rights happening in Libya…
My heart goes out to us all. Let’s hope that 2011 has something better to bring us soon.
Among the Japanese, there are three “views” in Japan that are considered the most beautiful.
The first is a group of about 260 islands off of the coast of Miyagi Prefecture called Matsushima. The second is a sandbar in Miyazu bay in the Kyoto prefecture, called Amanohashidate. And the third is a shrine called Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima, located on an island in the Inland Sea of Japan, northwest of Hiroshima Bay.
I recently visited the city of Hiroshima, and made a quick trip to Itsukushima. I want to visit all of these “views” so consider this the first installment.
Itsukushima (Miyajima): (Keep in mind I visited in February)
The Pagoda from town
The famous floating Torii
A sign depicting a shrine that cannot be photographed
A protector of buddhism (I like this guy’s face)
Apparently if you turn the prayers they have in the middle of these stairs it is like meditation – and gives you good luck
Blessings for children