The Problem of the Gaijin

Coming back to Nagano after almost 10 years, one of the biggest differences I notice is the amount of Gaijin (foreigners) around. Seeing other white people where I grew up was quite an event. I always stared at them in fascination, wondering how they ended up in such a random place in rural Japan (only later recognizing the irony in that they were probably wondering the same thing).

Granted, I now live in tourism central with the Snow Monkey Park just minutes away, where upwards of 50,000 international tourists visit every year. Shiga Kogen, the largest ski resort in Asia, is 30 minutes up the mountain. Yet things have changed too. All of the sudden Japan is on the world’s travel map. People have realized that Japan does not equal Tokyo, it’s cheaper to travel to than America or Europe, it has amazing food, history and culture, and that it gets some of the best powder snow in the world. Even with the tsunami of 2011, inbound tourism to Japan has increased 30% per annum over the last several years.

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This presents a problem and an opportunity. In the age of cheaper Chinese manufacturing and depopulation (Japan has the lowest birth rate in the world) industries like tourism are necessary to the country’s long-term financial viability. I have wondered for years why Japan did such a poor job marketing themselves to the outside world. They have finally got the word out, but as a result of so much foreign influence, Japan (or the part of Japan that I know) will not stay the same. For Western cultures built on immigration and mingling, adding more people groups to the mix feels like a positive, diversifying influence. In Japan it makes me feel nostalgic, like part of their heritage will be lost forever (again, ironic because I am part of my own so-called problem).

Through the observation of international tourists, however, I have realized that there are constructive and infuriating people who come to this country. It’s well-known here that ski resorts like Hakuba and Niseko and are filled with more Gaijin than Japanese (these resorts are called little Australia). Two weeks ago, I went to something called a fire festival in Nozawa Onsen, where they burn that year’s New Years decorations and ornaments. I was excited to see a cultural event that dates back centuries, and to get some free sake. Instead, I found drunken foreigners (and Japanese for that matter) stumbling around yelling obscenities in the streets and getting into fights. It was unfortunate. I found it disappointing that in the one place that values respect above almost everything else, these people had none.

But I suppose that’s what travel is about. Once everyone has discovered a place it’s not exciting – at least for the genuine traveler. Hawaii is relaxing but I would not call someone who sips pina coladas on Waikiki Beach a very adventurous traveler. The most genuine cultural experiences happen when there isn’t anyone else who looks like you. And even if there is, it’s about wanting to know more about a place’s people, food, values etc. As a person who loves this place and loves travel, those are the types of travelers I appreciate the most – and welcome back.

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

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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?