Life in Limbo

I have been traveling a lot. I love it and I chose to do it, but it gets tiring just the same. Since my last post, I flew to Oita Prefecture on Japan’s Southernmost major island of Kyushu for a work seminar. I learned all about the Walk Japan business in what was the largest gathering of foreigners fluent in Japanese I have ever attended. Later I flew to Tokyo and took the bullet train to Nagano where we had a 4th of July pickleball event (not really, we just happened to be playing pickleball on July 4th). I came back to Tokyo, only to wait all day for a plane to Portland that I was destined not to board (I’m flying standby). I then got a great last-minute deal on a hotel close by, waiting the next day for another doomed attempt at Portland. Frustrated, I got a bus to Tokyo’s international airport and flew to Seattle, where I am currently staying in a youth hostel waiting to take the bus to Portland in the morning. It is an elusive city.

Sunset in Ooita

Sunset in Oita

All of this waiting, however, provided me with plenty of time for reflection and for work on my travel website, which I will reveal soon. My conclusion upon pondering is that I am thankful for where I am right now. A year ago after coming back from Africa I didn’t know what I wanted to do. More importantly for me I think, I didn’t know where I wanted to do it. I now have a couple of jobs I love and creative, interesting projects. I am working towards bigger and better things. Life is crazy but it is so much better than being bored.

Some people mistake my like of Japan for dislike of America. I don’t dislike the States, it just never felt like home for me. It doesn’t make me want to dig down and stay. I am a little fish in a very big pond, and while speaking Japanese makes me an interesting novelty, it’s not necessarily very useful. Sometimes I describe it to people like this: “In America, I look like I should belong and as the conversation goes on people gradually realize how different we are. In Japan, I obviously don’t look like I belong, but as the conversation goes on people realize how similar we are.” I like that. People tell me all the time that as a foreigner, you can never fully be accepted as Japanese. Perhaps that’s true, but instead of trying to be accepted as Japanese I think I’m content with just being accepted.

A final note to please use common sense and at least gain a cursory knowledge of world events when traveling abroad. Also, eavesdropping makes for great blog material. The other day in Narita Airport, I overheard a 19-year old American kid from Texas chatting up three Russian girls. After hearing they were from Russia, he couldn’t remember if Russia was still communist and said he vaguely remembered something about a wall. He then asked if they were Sophomores or Juniors in high school, at which point they had no clue what he was saying and the conversation started falling apart. I’m not saying everyone needs to be expert world historians – just be interested in the world around you and aware that language can be a barrier or a bridge.

That’s all for now. I’m headed tomorrow to my brother’s wedding in Eugene, Oregon. Congratulations Jon and Makaya, I’m happy for you.

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The Importance of Wearing Hats

As I write this, I’m sitting at my hotel in Yudanaka, Japan watching the snow fall outside through the huge stain glass windows. I can see the mountains leading up to the ski resorts, trees lightly frosted with this morning’s dusting. I see ancient buildings nestled up against modern apartments, steam rising in various places from the town’s dozens of public hot springs. And I think again about how different my life is from just a week ago. Last week I was winning money with my uncle at Black Jack tables in Vegas. This week I’m here. I’m not sure I could think of anything more opposite.

Snow in the Mountains

Snow in the Mountains

Yet I’ve come to accept irregularity as part of my life. Someday I want a more stable job, something that pays well, gives me the freedom to spend time with my family and something in which I gain autonomy, mastery and purpose (see the TED talk). Yet for now, I appreciate the experiences and lessons I’ve learned from doing so many things. I was trying to count yesterday how many jobs and internships I have done in my life. I counted 24, but I’m sure there are more. Some of the crazier ones include tour guiding for a Japanese movie star in Kenya, growing chili peppers in the desert, playing pickleball for money and working at a Japanese ski resort. There are lots of lessons to be learned from doing so many things, and I wanted to share a few of those:

1. One Thing Usually Leads to Another

It’s strange, but the things you learn from previous jobs always come in handy in whatever you do next. I don’t know how that happens, but it always has for me. Living and working in Kenya, I learned to think on my feet and use the resources available to me. We frequently dealt with delays, lack of electricity, traffic, corruption. Comparatively, driving Japanese customers around Colorado and dealing with the hiccups that inevitably occur seems like a piece of cake.

2. You Gain Lifelong Friendships & Networks

Yesterday I put on my previously nonexistent bartender hat and waited on Taiwanese guests. Besides learning to make mixed drinks on the fly, we had a fascinating conversation, less because of the content and more because of the linguistic challenges. There were three of us, the Taiwanese tour guide, the Taiwanese customer, and myself. I spoke English and Japanese, the tour guide spoke Japanese and Taiwanese, and the customer spoke Taiwanese and English. We had a roundabout three-way conversation, constantly having to translate everything to the odd man out, both of them becoming increasingly intoxicated. As a result, they both gave me their business cards and I have places to stay in Taichung, Taiwan if I ever visit (which is coincidentally where another close friend of mine lives). One of my bucket list items is to know someone personally from every country in the world. Doing these jobs helps me achieve that.

Wearing another kind of hat

Wearing another kind of hat

3. People are Amazed at Your Life Experience

Things like growing up in Japan and working in Kenya make you an interesting person, which in turn makes people want to talk to you. In my most memorable class at Azusa Pacific, I remember the president telling us to strive to become interesting people, not to boast about our individual achievements but to be able to share our lives with other people. And hopefully that will enrich theirs. I want to be someone who exudes humble confidence, knowing that I can do almost anything but realizing that many other people have helped me along the way and nothing is accomplished by my own strength.

Japanese Friends

Japanese Friends

4. You Learn What You Love & Hate

I love cooking but I could never work in a restaurant. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. I love helping people create memorable vacations and digging deeper into what makes a place special. That’s the sort of thing that makes me tick, and having done various jobs, I better appreciate the importance of doing something you love. Sometimes you have to do things that you know aren’t the best, but as long as those are pushing you towards something better, those are all just opportunities to learn and grow.

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Reflecting on Syria

4 and a half years ago I quit college tennis to pursue my dream of living in the Middle East. I joined a study abroad program, residing in Egypt for 3 months and traveling to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. I got to talk with journalists, politicians, religious leaders, cultural icons and average citizens in a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, historic, religious and political landscape of each country. I did things I never could have imagined. I lived in a lower-class Egyptian family’s home (no English) for a week. I talked to Israeli and Palestinian college students on consecutive days who had irreconcilably conflicting world views. I experienced Palm Sunday on The Street Called Straight in Damascus and Easter in Jerusalem, getting recruited to carry a cross with Serbian Orthodox Christians down the Via Dolorosa. That semester will be forever ingrained in my memory – without a doubt, I learned and expanded my worldview more during that semester than the other seven combined.

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

It was not without its struggles. The Middle East is the most complicated place on earth and coming back to America, people didn’t understand my experiences. It’s easy to laugh about all Muslims being terrorists when you don’t know any.  Much of what I had been told about Israel and Palestine was wrong, simplistic or biased. I learned that people are the same everywhere. I didn’t want to be spoon fed information or be told what to believe anymore because there are at least two sides to every story.

The most complicated of all places

The most complicated of all places

And perhaps the hardest part was having my understanding of God shaken. In an essay titled, “Who gets into heaven and why?” I had to answer precisely that question. Having made life-long Muslim friends and coming to the realization that if I had been born in Egypt, I would have wholeheartedly believed in Islam made writing this essay instrumentally more difficult.

I have been to Syria, and my reaction to what’s happened over the last three years is that it’s incredibly sad for the people. When you’ve seen a place, you can no longer think of what happens there as merely news or statistics. Syrians were some of my favorite people in the Middle East. They were so talkative and friendly – even when we only spoke limited Egyptian Arabic. One street musician invited my friends and I to his Aladin-esque home where we sipped tea on the floor while listening to his live performance. And I learned how incredibly diverse people are. On Palm Sunday, throngs of Syrian Orthodox Christians paraded in the streets of Damascus, carrying dyed chicks instead of Easter eggs. While there, we also visited one of two towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic – the language that Jesus spoke. Other parts of the country are made up of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Druze, and various other minority sects and religious groups. American news channels tell a single story about Syria and the Middle East but it’s more complicated than that: There are so many good things amongst the bad, just like anywhere else.

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I don’t even know what to say…

There is a TED Talk by a Nigerian author on the dangers of telling a single story, check it out if you get the chance.

I think it’s interesting that Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Europe and The United States have all rallied around defeating ISIS. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, my guess is the world hasn’t unequivocally agreed on something this strongly since World War II (And not everyone agreed about that) and right after defeating ISIS we will go right back to bickering.

As a hypothetical question I wonder though, given the choice, if ordinary Syrians would choose to overthrow Assad’s regime again? Assad was a brutal dictator and there’s no doubt freedoms were restricted under his rule, especially for Sunni Muslims. There were soviet-style torture chambers and secret police. We didn’t have access to Facebook or YouTube and we had to be extremely careful about what we wrote or e-mailed because big brother was always watching. And yet I think most people now would probably give up those freedoms in exchange for the security they had under Assad. I don’t know if that’s depressing or just human nature. One could potentially argue the same thing in Iraq and to a lesser extend, places like China and Singapore. Everyone gives up freedom in exchange for security – our choices are just not as drastic as theirs.

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

I wish I could offer hope or an easy solution to the conflict in Syria. I can’t. But I can stay informed, acknowledging that we live in a broken world and offering prayers for people in suffering. Hopefully we learn something from the lessons it has to offer and use those to make this world a better place.

Spices make the world a better place, why can't we?

Spices make the world a better place, why can’t we?