Lousy Japan photos

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #16 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

When I lived in Japan, I took a lot of pictures. Over 5,000. Then, when I returned home, I did what everyone with a digital camera does these days–put them all on my external hard drive and forgot about them.

There are some really great memories in there, but there are also a bunch of pictures that I have absolutely no reason to keep, and have just kept around anyway. I’ll pull out the great photos and share their stories some other time, but today, I want to look at a small portion of the goofy, pointless, or just plain inexplicable photos from my time in Japan. Continue reading

Here’s my problem with my study abroad program.

In the next week and a half, I have to:

  • translate interview questions in to Japanese
  • interview five Japanese people (in Japanese)
  • prepare a 25-minute presentation based on that data (in Japanese)
  • take a Japanese test
  • listen to and critique my performance on my most recent 20-minute Japanese oral exam
  • write a 600-character composition (in Japanese)
  • finish writing a 4-minute script for a film (in Japanese)
  • work with classmates to create the aforementioned film from my and others’ scripts
  • read approximately 200 pages of articles regarding minorities and immigrants in Japan
  • read a Japanese article for my reading comprehension class

This does not include any daily incidental homework that may be assigned in clas–this is just the stuff that I can see coming. And indeed, I’ve seen most of this coming from a mile away.

But I’ve been so swamped with the daily incidental stuff that I’ve been unable to make any headway on these long-standing projects. To illustrate this, in the last week and a half, I had to:

  • read 20 pages of a comic (in Japanese)
  • prepare a vocabulary list/task sheet for those pages (in Japanese)
  • do a Japanese listening practice assignment
  • read roughly 100 pages of articles regarding minorities and immigrants in Japan
  • take two Japanese vocabulary quizzes
  • take two kanji quizzes
  • translate a dozen complicated sentences into Japanese in preparation for a test
  • interview my host family about jobs and employment
  • select (and clean up) pictures to showcase in my photography class
  • write an article in Japanese about my experience with お正月 (oshougatsu– the Japanese New Year)
  • read a Japanese story for my reading comprehension class
  • write a 5-page midterm essay for Minorities and Immigrants in Japan

And that list’s probably not exhaustive. That’s mostly the daily incidental stuff that just came up. The longer-term projects, such as the midterm essay and the article on お正月 were pushed back to far later than one might consider prudent–not from laziness, but from sheer lack of time.

There is so much daily busy work simply required by my classes that I can not touch the long-term projects. I see them coming. I want to get them out of the way. But thanks to all of the stuff I have to do for class just to stay on top of the daily requirements, I cannot get a head start on them.

There are corners I can cut. I can come to Minorities and Immigrants having not read the articles (which I’m doing lately), and I can cut my sleep schedule short (which I’m doing, drastically). But skipping articles means that I don’t get as much as possible out of my Minorities class, which will bite me in a few more weeks when I have to write a final. Cutting my sleep–I’m already getting only about 5-6 hours each night anyway–means that I doze off in class (bad) or when trying to work, so I either get less out of class or my working efficiency drops. Beyond those two, I have a hard time seeing anything I can do (save for not writing blog posts, but this venting is preventing me from just completely breaking down into a nervous wreck, so I believe I can justify it on grounds of preserving my health).

This burns all the more because, for Pete’s sake, I’m in Kyoto. There are a million and a half things I want to be doing. I want to be roaming the streets, checking out temples that catch my fancy. I want to continue my as-of-yet-fruitless search for a double-edged razor (seriously; every drug store in Japan sells Feather brand double-edged razor blades, but none sell the razor itself). I want to peruse the wacky offerings of the enigmatic store called Don Quijote, buy manga at Book Off!, try crepes at a restaurant near campus, or just wander Uji and see what sights pop up to surprise me. I want to go on walks. I want to sing karaoke on Shijo and then slip into the weekend with a visit to a bath. I want to experience Kyoto again.

But I can’t. I can’t even spare time for the long-term projects that are required of me, to say nothing of my personal whims.

Rather than someone experiencing life in Kyoto while studying as a student, I’ve become a student grinding away at the piles of work he has, who just happens to be in Japan. I eat Japanese food for dinner and nobody’s speaking in English, but that’s the current extent of my daily–weekly–monthly experience in Japan. I can’t afford to do anything more.

It’s a recipe for disaster. Take one Spencer, marinated for years in “prone to stress out about work”. Coat in daily obligations. In a separate bowl, mix long-term projects. Keep separate. Sear until the juices of”possible stress relief” have all come out, then throw in a pan and bake on high until carbonized.

This is not, as a keen reader might deduce, ideal.

Damn, it happened again.

I have this unfortunate tendency to stifle my own writing and put off writing about easy or simple things because I have multiple big ideas for posts, and I feel like I owe it to someone to write something “of substance” instead of “shallow” day-to-day posts. For instance, part of the reason I haven’t written in my study abroad blog here for a while is that I feel that, since I’m getting space on the Whitman Pioneer website, I ought to do my liberal arts education at least a bit of good and try to post content that’s actually analytical or thoughtful, and not merely, “I went here! I saw this!” I’m not sure how much there is to that–while it would be good to apply some thinkin’ to my experiences over here, I imagine it would be better to post shallow day-to-day content than post nothing because I want to be deep and significant.

I suppose I can always write analyses after I return, too. After all, I do get to take my experiences through customs.

Of course, there’s also the excuse that I haven’t had too much time, what with homework and adventures, and that much is true. Still, a moderate chunk of my excuse for not writing has simply been my (misguided) desire to write something “worthwhile”.

So, worthwhile or not, here’s what’s on my mind.

Lately, I’ve been starting to think about America again. Not just in my typical terrified-of-how-absurd-American-politics-is way, but in a more real sense. I’ve been mentally placing myself in the US again, thinking about the foods I want to eat, the places I want to go, the things I’ll be able to do when I return. I think about all the packages I’ve had shipped to my house, and–maybe most dangerously–how I’ll be able to “continue” my life when I get back. As if my time spent over here in Japan was just a diversion, a detour from our regularly-scheduled programming. As Sam says, I’m “slipping out of Japan”.

The problem is that I’m a whole two and a half months away from being done here. It makes no sense to be thinking as if my time here is already done when I have all of this time left.

This is what Ben, a previous student who stayed with my host family, described as “culture fatigue”, one of the steps of the cross-cultural experience. After being immersed in a foreign culture for six months, it’s starting to wear me down. Not in any conscious way–it’s not as if I’m actively hating anything at all about Japan–but rather in a subconscious way. It’s not easy to spend six months straight in a country vastly different from your own, and after a while, the difficulty of navigating daily activities, making yourself understood and understanding others, and ultimately attempting to be a functional human being in an entirely new context all piles up. My brain has decided to take a cultural holiday, and it’s pushing me hard to just go back to being American again.

So, I’m speaking more English. I’m enjoying my (scarce) leisure time by reading English books and English websites. I’m hanging out with American friends. It’s as if I’m doing everything in my power to avoid Japanese culture and language.

Which, y’know, is absolutely stupid.

It wasn’t really a conscious choice to begin with. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror and say, “Well, we’ve had a good haul–time to stop all that Japanese stuff.” (However, now that I’m aware of it, it must be conscious to some extent, since choosing not to address it is a conscious choice.) But even if it’s not conscious, it’s moronic. Or, more accurately, it would be moronic to keep doing this now that I see what’s going on.

According to literature on the topic that we studied last semester in my cultural psych class, cultural fatigue is part of the study abroad process. It happens to many. I’m not unusual in trying to revert to my American lifestyle. However, as is likely obvious, it’s the make-or-break point of a cross-cultural experience like studying abroad. If I allow myself to continue insulating myself from Japanese culture, that’s essentially the end of my experiences here in Japan. If I let my mind resituate itself in America now, then I might as well be there in the flesh for all the good I’ll get out of the rest of the semester. On the other hand, if I take this opportunity, bunker down, and throw myself full-force back into Japanese culture, I have the feeling I’m going to reach a very happy place by the time the year is done.

It’s a tempting trap, though, particularly because completely pushing America out of my thoughts is impossible for all practical purposes. I have to secure housing for next year. I have to look at job and internship opportunities. My future doesn’t end when I leave Japan, so there will be some things that require me to switch back into “American mode”.

I suppose the trick, then, is finding how to switch into “American mode” when necessary–and then going promptly back into “Japan mode”.

I finally finished my last final a week or so ago, which means that winter break has officially begun. Victory!

It also means that I’ve been here for a whole semester, which is a little more difficult to believe. Time has flown by like I never would have anticipated. But I’ve also had more amazing experiences than I can count, and I’ve been learning a ton, so although this year is already half over, I don’t feel in the slightest like it’s been wasted.

Being at the end of a semester, as well as just about the end of the calendar year, I thought it’d make sense to reflect a little on what I learned so far in Japan. When thinking about this post, I’ve been unable to decide if I want to style it as a letter to my past self–what I wish I knew–or a note to future AKP students, or who knows what. In the end, though, I think I’m just going to leave it as reflections.

Here, in no real order, are some reflections on this first semester in Japan.

Continue reading

In which I sample a “proprietary milk-based pop”, and then do things with it that I never should have even considered.

I will write a real blog post soon, honest. Things have just been remarkably busy. Excuses, excuses.