Back in Japan

After a month and some change in North America, I’m back in Japan for the Winter. Yes, like a few times before I have decided to write more this year, both on this blog and my new Active Travel Japan blog. So here we go.

Traveling back to the US and Mexico, it was nice to see family and the friends that I could, but the fact that nothing was open made it a different kind of trip. I’ve never sat inside so much life, or seen my family sit around for that matter. Everything was open in Mexico so the two weeks I spent there on our Camp Cabo Pickleball Trip were fun. Although back in Japan it’s some more of the same, I do have my backyard ski resort to alleviate the boredom. You can only snowboard so much though so I’m trying to find things to do, hence the writing.

My sense from visiting the US is that it’s no longer a country at peace. While Japan has its social problems, at the very least it can rally people around being Japanese. It seems that for many Americans now, political affiliation is more important than being American. Whereas during previous crises like World War II, citizens and politicians alike were willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the country, I don’t see that happening anymore. You can argue that Japan is more unified because it’s more ethnically unified, but the US has been diverse for its entire existence so that is nothing new. Its diversity is not going away so it must figure out how to unify people around being American. Even if you disagree with someone else’s views, at the end of the day you don’t know everything and both sides are trying to make America better so just work together. I know it’s not that simple, but that’s what I see looking at the US from the outside.

Like I mentioned previously, the hardest thing for me during the pandemic has been maintaining a sense of purpose. I have been fortunate financially because of the popularity of the Pickleball Masterclass, but that means I could literally sit in bed and watch Netflix all day. I haven’t done that of course, but it’s hard to do something today when there is absolutely no sense of urgency because no one is traveling anyway. I suppose it’s a good time to find purpose outside of work, but I loved what I was doing so I didn’t necessarily feel that need in the first place. I am in no position to complain, these are just my rambling thoughts.

Anyway, a new lockdown in Tokyo has cancelled my planned pickleball coaching next week. Last week people who were going to rent my house canceled as well. It’s just that kind of year. I’m less disappointed now, I feel more deflated. I have come to expect everything I plan to get cancelled so I’m not even surprised anymore. A couple of groups of friends are coming next week to ski and snowshoe though so at least that’s something. If it doesn’t get cancelled that is ūüėČ

More to come, please stay tuned.

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Rooted and Unsettled

Over the last two weeks I’ve been traveling around the Midwest and Texas, playing pickleball exhibition matches, giving lessons and selling paddles. I’ve driven over 2,000 miles and worked 7 days a week. It’s been a fruitful, tiring and long trip.

As I’ve traveled,¬†I’ve gotten to reconnect with my extended family across the region. I’ve stayed with aunts & uncles, second cousins, first cousins once removed – you name it. I love getting to meet these people as an adult, learning about how I’m connected to them and the interesting tidbits about our family tree.

It’s fascinating to me how rooted my family is in the United States. For at least 5 or 6 generations on each side, my entire family was born here. That goes back into at least the 1800s. Many have been here much longer than that. I have slave-owning ancestors in Georgia. There are abolitionists Arkansas. As legend has it, I have native American blood from Oklahoma. I get the sense of being rooted here, like I¬†should belong because my family has so much history.

So what the heck happened to me?¬†I barely qualify as American and although I have history, when asked where I’m from I don’t always answer America. It’s more complicated than that. I often wish for the simplicity of being from a single place.¬†I wish I could be content never leaving, able to invest my life somewhere. I would know people, have unquestioning resolve in what I believe¬†and listen to the global news with a concerned but uninvolved interest. I wouldn’t have any skin in the game.¬†I wouldn’t have to answer the question, “Where should I live?” because it would be answered for me and other questions like “what should I do” and “who should I marry” would follow easily. When eating a banana in America I wouldn’t have to think about how much better it was in Africa. Life would certainly be simpler being from one place; not necessarily better, just simpler. Yet for one reason or another, that is not my story.

It makes me think of this quote:

‚ÄúYou will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.‚ÄĚ

It is hard knowing people around the world. Yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything¬†– It’s now on my bucket list to know someone from every single country. People are the same everywhere, but the hardships and struggles that they have overcome in some places are baffling. After hearing those stories, you can’t ever go back to not caring about what happens in other places.

One last comment. I recently listened to a book called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche from Nigeria. What a cool name. Anyway, it made me laugh thinking about the funny quirks of Africa and how similar African cultures are. It also made me think about what it means to be an immigrant and the value of knowing more than one place. I would definitely recommend it, as in many ways it mirrored my own experiences.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading

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?