Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fearless Solitude

I love traveling in Japan, and I especially love traveling on the train. As the rice paddies fast fly by and the faint figure of oneself vaguely reflected from the window pan emerges quietly on top of the sceneries outside, a perfect moment of contemplation is born, naturally and unobtrusively.

Took mom to Izu the past two days. A typical onsen trip at a nice, serene, Japanese-style onsen ryokan somewhere in the middle of nowhere and some full-day sightseeing the next day. 修善寺 is quite nice and well earns its reputation for being the 小京都 of Izu. Walking down the 桂川 and the bamboo forest, I became so deeply nostalgic of Kyoto and the good old days spent on trekking through the ins and outs of that lovely city that once so warmly hosted me for a school year.

I've almost forgotten what it is like to be a lone traveler on the road who depends upon nothing but a guidebook (no Lonely Planet, thank you), some last-minute planning scrambled together on the train ride over, basic human instincts, and most of all, a curious mind, a relentless heart, and an adventurous spirit that are fearless of the unknown and unexpected.

Perhaps it's about time to take on a journey of self-REdiscovery. Part of it has to do with having just finished reading "Eat, Pray, and Love" but part of it is I really need some quietude of the heart and mind to listen better to the voice of the Almighty and the voice of my own. Whether they stand in conflict with one another or in accordance - perhaps a trip as such could help me figure that out better.

And then to deal with the rest of life with much more wisdom and calm.

Chinese like to use the word 閉關, but I'd much rather seek a 閉關 state of mind via the means of a lonesome journey.

If only I could find a creative way of making such a trip happening within my packed schedule.

梅ちゃん at 12:08:00 AM


Sunday, May 18, 2008


Any taker? To teach me about how to find some balance in life?

4 months ago I was so desperate about getting myself out of the lonesome daily routine of commuting *on foot* b/t school and home or Shibuya's cafe to home via school that I was sharing with my small group folks that I want to establish another dimension in life where there's more than just the tiny academia bubble.

Like an answered prayer, 4 months later fast forwarding to now, my schedule is packed with part-time teaching and commuting b/t clients' offices from one corner of Tokyo to another far corner that I wanna reclaim a sense of balance in life and preserve enough room for purely intellectual - even if useless - activities.


But grateful.

Esp. when summer is fast approaching. Really really love the warm sun and spotless blue sky in Tokyo these days.

梅ちゃん at 1:35:00 AM


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Relentless Pursuit

On podcast I came across an interview with the writer of a recently published book, Relentless Pursuit, that documents the story of Teach for America program via the stories of 4 participants. Pros and cons and doubts and debates were raised in the interview, and issues concerning the program as well as the even more loaded issue with inner city school programs surfaced evidently throughout the interview.

However, despite the fact that more than 50% of the new teachers who join Teach for America end up leaving by the end of the 5-year mark, in the meantime statistics show that many of the Teach for America alums go on to pursue a career that creatively, partially, if not fully touches upon the issues of educational and school reforms. Many of them take the lessons that they've learned from the program to their heart - for many of those are lessons of sheer, cruel reality that one simply can't forget once having experienced them - and really allow them to transform their mindset about society and views on the lives of the underprivileged and transform their actions into ones dedicated to the serving of the underserved.

So in a way, Teach for America has achieved one of its two major goals - to raise up future generation of leaders who would seek to improve and transform the current educational system for the better - despite the fact that they continue to have trouble retaining young graduates from high-profile universities for lifelong services.

It's just like taking upon a missions trip or committing oneself to a short-term missions or peace corps or whichever kind of NGO/relief services commitment that ranges from a year to two to three for the freshly graduated young adults (before they dive right back to law school or MBA or what not). Whereas most of them don't turn out to be full-time missionaries or lifelong peace corps members, they continue to be missionaries/NGO workers/ in mind and in spirit , seeking to make an impact - hopefully in some level a greater one - wherever they are or whatever job post they occupy.

Lately snapshots of my fresh, post-graduate days in China sneak in and out of my consciousness, and almost every other few days I get this little itchy nudge in my heart or somewhere deep down in my body, reminding me the presence of those memories. I find myself wanting to long for more for those days yet constantly holding myself back with relishing the good days in the meantime. It's as if I'm standing right by the edge of a deep, wide valley with a sense of insurmountable fear yet excitement at the same time shaking my whole body around. If I look ahead, a simple spring over the valley doesn't seem all that impossible, and once over, it's all (at least it seems like) green pasture awaiting me to embrace. Yet if I look down, the impenetrable darkness extends its shadows over me, seemingly about to snatch me away, deep deep down into that dark void in which the bottom cannot be seen.

At the end of the day, perhaps the green pasture across the valley isn't all that green as it seems, and the darkness right underneath my feet isn't necessarily a bottomless void. However, the worse thing would be trying to take a leap across the valley yet with half-hearted effort that I end up losing the momentum and tumbling down the valley in the most bitter, ugly manner.

That, would be the worse nightmare yet to come.

"Relentless pursuit." A title that excites yet frightens me at the same time.

But relentless it has to be.

梅ちゃん at 1:04:00 AM


Friday, May 09, 2008

人身 Protest

My Suika (like the refillable Charlie card in Boston or Metro Card in NYC) runs out so easily. On a busy teaching day that starts from 8 am to 7 pm (or sometimes 9 pm), 2000 yen or more runs out in a single day. The 45-min commute on a round-trip JR train fare for one of the classes that I teach is 1220 yen, and running from one corner of the city to another end corner within just 3 hours has become commonplace these days. Thanks to the train-route/time-table navigation system accessible on my cell phone with a few simple clicks, I can precisely estimate my commute time and aim for the exact departure/arrival time right on the dot.

The beauty of Japanese train systems that all countries in the world should vow to learn from.

However, mankind wisdom like that of the Japanese can't really beat the spontaneous mankind decision to jump off the platform in the middle of rush hours - a.k.a. the 人身事故 incidents. It's strange how on the plasma screen TV's on many of the train compartments here only note the term, "人身事故" - while really should have been translated as "suicide attempt" - as "Accident" in its English translation. Whether it's the product of overall bad Japanese English or an deliberate attempt not to scare off the foreigners I'm not quite sure. But what I do know is - the longer I stay in Tokyo, the more and more I've gotten used to the occurrence of suicide attempts. To me and most other passengers out there, 人身事故 has become nothing more than a term that somehow stalls the train system for half an hour or delays the express trains. Last night when I was barely breathing in a jam-packed train home at 9:30 pm b/c of a suicide attempt occurred earlier in the evening, I even resented a little for without 人身事故, I would not need to stand like a mushed tuna with multiple humans' backs, shoulders, arms, and hair touching me, I thought.

But that's just really really awful, isn't it? In the very moment when a life - a human life - is lost, all I can think of is my own inconvenience and extra commute time back home?

This is an entirely overworked society here. I have a student who would take the last train home at 12:49 am and then get on the train at 7:06 am on the same day (obviously) in order to make it to my 8 am class to study English in a half-awake state b/c the company tells him so. Mind you, the commute itself takes 1 hour, which is completely normal if not mild given the Tokyo standards. I have another student who spends 3 hours on the train each day commuting - as if her 12-hour shift as a psychiatric nurse dealing with schizophrenic patients isn't draining enough.

I also know friends who would join a 合コン party (similar to the idea of a group blind-date event), drink till the wee hours of the evening, get sent home on a taxi paid by the male counterparts at the party on something close to 10,000 yen (-$100) taxi fare, then wake up just a few hours later to commute and work again.

So then one day, when age 47 hits and your boss has just given you yet another relentless reprimand at work that crushes you down like a worthless human being, on the way home or perhaps on your last trip to see your client, you decide that why not seek an alternative route to freedom by jumping off track.

One jump, then worries free.

Perhaps one's very last - if not first - protest in life. Using one's body as the very embodiment of protest.

Being a foreigner when oftentimes not everything is crystal clear or when the other party's facial expression simply isn't enough for me to get a sense of whether s/he is sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, or simply indifferent, I too begin to adopt this style of hiding - hiding my own feelings and hiding from the fact that I really do want to know more about how and what the other person is thinking but am just too afraid of asking. But all such inability to utter one's true voice - is that just the first step towards choosing a form of protest in body action years down the road?

And I too feel like I am a bit overworked. Either that, or just the Japanese ganbatte mentality has been catching up on me.

梅ちゃん at 1:34:00 PM


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Following Orders

I suppose this is a problem that I've noticed about myself a long while ago. I was one of those who really had a problem with trainers instructing cultural lessons by ways of teaching the trainees how to use chopsticks or what the word "quan xi" means back in the old days of summer Pasadena. Then I had a problem with brushing important issues by ways of quietly bowing heads to the old-fashioned, state-run bureaucratic mentality in Beijing. Then the consistent annoyance with autocratic ladies sitting in the registrar office of one of the filthy richest educational institutes on earth.

Today, once again, I got myself a long (yet thankfully gentle) rebuke of not following the instructions on how to conduct an interview. Esp. got myself into trouble by not just stating the questions AS THEY ARE printed on the question sheet.

How boring, I thought, to read out questions in long, complex sentence structure that those students sitting in front of me - shaking - for sure were not going to understand at all even if I repeat them for another thousand times. So my little rebellious mind decided to rephrase questions or toss the question sheet out all together by forming my own Q's according to the flow of the conversation.

"Your interviews sounded too much like a nice little chat," said one of the comments from above. "And you jump from job to non-job back to job-related Q's!"


What's the point of making the students all nervous and frustrated and confidence-beaten-to-death when I already know that their English proficiency level is nothing but a very very basic one from the first few sentences uttered? Why not just have a casual chat with them and walk them gently through the interviews?

But then again, that's my point of view. And in this whole wide world, there are many points of view out there when many many many other people are involved.

It's not easy, the working world out there.

梅ちゃん at 12:33:00 AM


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Prospectus for Life

"To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things - machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work - his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed."

- Henry R. Luce's prospectus for LIFE, 1936; taken from The Best of LIFE

Something that I accidentally came across in cafe/gallery ユイット in Shinjuku. Really, one of the best cafe's I've seen in Tokyo. I've generally been pretty impressed with cafe's here, but ユイット has raised the bar further.

An oasis in this mega city jungle, both for the quote and the cafe.

梅ちゃん at 12:11:00 AM


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Double Lives

The very last comment on this long unattended blog touches the issue of "self-esteem damage." Though the comments comes from a friend whom I haven't seen for years (literally), it hits the root of the problem which suddenly brings me to a moment of enlightenment.

That's is! "Self-esteem" - or better yet, a "deflated" self-esteem - perhaps that's where all the problems comes from.

It's funny how nobody ever tells you how much grad school education may do to a person, for better or for worse. But if there's ONE thing I'd ever tell somebody who's pondering about the prospect of entering a doctoral program, it'd be just this - to develop, find, take root of your self-esteem NOT from the pool of knowledge that you find yourself swimming (or most of time, drowning, simply) in or acquiring daily in classes BUT from something or somewhere else, whether being some moral values or lessons or religious beliefs learned from your folks, school, church, friends, big bullies in the previous work place, or even past relationships that turned out in vain ...

And the second piece of advice I might give may be - to hold on to some of the convictions that you once believe in and never be swayed or bogged down by the sea of postmodern, poststructuralist, postindustrial, postcolonial, post-whatever-you-name-it style of critiques and criticisms out there, for none of those things amount to anything valuable if one no longer remembers or embraces the essence of life, human beings, the values of love, trust, generosity, the act of good will, and the embodiment of good faith. Don't be intimidated by the rhetoric that call all genders and religious faiths and sexualities and cultures and races and ethnicities and nationalities "constructed," for as much as such theories are entitled to some degrees of truths, we continue to live in a world/society where genders, religious faiths, sexualities, cultures, races, ethnicities, and nationalities DO MATTER and continue to define who we are, what we do, and how we behave. As such, we might as well really just move on and deal realistically with the questions such as -- "alright, so gender may or may not be constructed, but regardless of which side you are on, the reality tells us that male-female ratio in mid-management-level or up, the chances for promotion, the concern for kids' daycare, and the struggle with how much maternity leave to take, continue to show major discrepancy across genders. So, leaving the debate of gender being constructed or not, why not focusing on the question -- "now, what do we do next?"

Recently I started signing myself up for a lot of part-time English teaching. The initial trigger was simple - I'm simply too tired of living in a 28-year-old life span but living in the quality of life that's much worse than that of the time when I was a college/high school student. I'm also too tired of commuting b/t school, dorm, school, dorm, library, and nowhere else. But once I started teaching, I realized that more than just being benefited with some extra income and *for once* not seeing single-digit dollars in my bank account when the end of the scholarship cycle hits, I am gaining tremendously by meeting people from a variety of industries who offer me great insights into the gazillion facets of Japanese society.

How else am I going to meet a psychiatric doctor who conducts clinical research and reveals to me the insider story on the FDA process in Japan? How else would I ever be able to empathize with a pharmacist in Japan whose duty also includes not only being a coordinator among doctors, patients, nurses, and pharmaceutical companies but also searching frantically for a dementia patient who disappeared after the lunch hours? Or meeting a lawyer who can tell me about the debates behind the reform of law education in Japan or the introduction of a criminal trial jury system? Or learning about the history of Japanese hospice system directly from one of the core founders of the system itself, who himself has the experience of battling with cancer at the age of 39 and whose wife now struggles with leukemia but continues to work passionately for the patients at their own hospice?

And then meeting groups of young 7/9/11-year-old's whose beaming smiles just take away all the worries and stresses of the day and reassure you the beauty of child-bearing and the importance of raising the next generation of movers and shakers in society?

The precious lives that I'm encountering and each, individual story that I'm hearing - even if it's through his or her painstaking effort to tell in very basic English - humbles and moves me. They bring me back to the center of what life sometimes is all about, what human dignity means or should mean, and eventually what we could all be doing -- even in the seemingly tiniest way at our individual job post -- to make this place that we're living a better and more hopeful one.

Then, when it comes to the friends that I've met at the most random occasions or casually introduced to --

- An Bulgarian-Australian who grew up in Japan partly and speak English and Bulgarian like a native and can start speaking Japanese like those crazy high school girls on TV if you ask her to
- A "self-claimed" whose upbringing spread across Japan, Singapore, and the U.S. and mix 3 languages in every other sentences if not every 5 secs
- Another "self-claimed" Taiwanese who really comes across much more like a native Japanese yet shares similar U.S.-college experiences as mine and utters his occasional Mandarin in an accent of someone from southern Taiwan
- A Russian whose English sounds like an U.S.-born but who speaks literally more Taiwanese than I do (!!!) and has followed the cause of improving the lives of the refugees previously in Thailand and Cambodia and now in Japan
- Another Russian lady who who lives off comfortably as a model in town, got a U.S. college degree "in Japan" and speaks Russian, English, and Japanese across the same table from me
- A Japanese-American who is continuously mistaken for a Chinese take-out delivery boy in the U.S., a yakuza assistance selling extacy on the streets of Roppongi, or a high school drop/convenient store employee and who eventually puts all such experiences together into a 14-min short film that wins him invitations to short film festivals across 5 continents
- A Japanese who does not think of herself as a regular Japanese like most others out there b/c of her Okinawa identity and passionate interest in guarding her hometown ID, culture, and the history oftentimes brutalized by history textbooks
- A Japanese who's never been abroad yet is such a "language mania" that he speaks English with perfect "r" sounds, catches Chinese slang phrases from 超級星期天, and is on his way to adopting French as his 4th language

Then the lady at church whom I met today -- a 残留孤児 (left-behind orphans) post-WWII and raised in northeastern part of China by the Chinese before she finally came back to Japan to claim her Japanese citizenship?

Man, these people for sure humble me.

With them, for once in my life I no longer find self-introduction intimidating or frustrating b/c sometimes theirs are much more messy, confusing and incoherent than mine. With them, introductions actually sometimes become unnecessary b/c with or without those long, tortuous narratives, we seem to be able to strike some decent understanding right from the beginning.

So, instead of feeling like I'm drown in a sea of infinite knowledge like how I used to feel since day 1 in grad school, feeling as if I'm never going to measure up to the erudite forerunners before me, these days, I feel like I've fallen into a sea of infinitely diverse mix of people and life stories -- yet swimming within very happily. For their each and every unique personality and experience challenges me yet in the meantime encourages me to think positively about my own unique make-up and life story. They don't point to me what I do lack or how much I have not worked enough towards (or whatever or not my brain capacity has reached its tiny limit); rather, they show me how each of their own experiences, despite some inevitable woes or pains alongside many joys and cheers, could serve as an encouragement for someone to go on and not give up exploring how a particular chapter in life may unfold or result in until the very end.

I am running double lives, one that contains all my regular struggles with, doubts about, and cynicism towards academia while trying to still fulfill my duty within as best as I can, and the other that eagerly embraces the world outside academia that is less book-filled and more human-centered.

It's not easy; it really is not. Sometimes *standing* in a 40+ min train ride back from teaching in late evening and then scrambling to get a report done for the next day, I just wonder whether the whole idea of running double lives is just all wrong. But without it, I'm not sure if I could even go on running a life at all. Both lives bring in different perspectives that sharpen and clarify the other, it seems like. And sooner or later - hopefully - one may emerge to grapple the root of my heart much more tighter than the other that saying goodbye to latter and taking the courage to run the former full-heartedly with no more doubts and hesitation would not seem too scary of an act to take on.

We shall see.

At least for now, I do have a little "repaired" self-esteem, if I may quote from my friend who left the previous comment.

梅ちゃん at 9:12:00 PM