A Delayed Recount of my life-changing spring travels

March 31, 2014

It is currently the tail end of my two-month-long spring break, and I have just returned (April 1, after a 16-hour delay) from China.

Finishing the First Semester

The end of my first semester went as smoothly as I could have hoped. My reading students, while not so stellar on their chapter reading quizzes, studied hard for their final exams and did fairly well. My writing students wrote humorous essays on their ideal future lives. On the last days we took class pictures and said farewell, see you around!

My Transformative Two-Month Travels

I have just returned from an epic spring journey to the Kansai area of Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China. The first leg of my trip was a visit to Osaka, where I planned to meet with as many friends from my time as a student as possible. After a very busy first five days, plans were foiled when I suddenly became very sick, the mild stress cold I’d caught in Tokyo combined with physical exertion with winter cold and finally some sort of stomach virus. I was feverish and bedridden for my last three nights in Japan, only recovering right before my trip to Indonesia. I’d lost weight from eating very little, but the worst was over. The next night I was zooming through Banda Aceh on the back of Karl Orozco’s motor scooter through crazy Indonesian traffic.

Indonesia (Banda Aceh, Yogyakarta) – two weeks

            Arriving in Indonesia was shocking for a handful of reasons. The contrast with pristine and orderly Japan was immediately astounding, starting with a confusing Medan airport experience in which I met sleeping attendants and somehow accidentally bypassed customs. After staring at a ceiling and being under the covers for the past few days, in Aceh I was suddenly surrounded by summer heat and radically new sights, sensations, sounds. I was greeted by a whole reunion of fellows: Karl, Anabel, Amelea, Xenna, Lissette (who flew in the same day), and Tino, whom I met for the first time. Charlotte would also stop by Aceh for a few nights. This trip to Aceh was a transformative time, as more than ever in my life I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone. I was immediately greeted by unfamiliar Bahasa, street food, spicy dishes, squat toilets, bucket flushes and showers. Constantly surrounded by the contagious energy, enthusiasm, and vitality of my amazing and hilarious co-fellows, I slowly shed the self-suppressing instincts I’d cultivated in Japan and began to embrace and seek these new experiences that would previously have given me pause. The exhilarated apprehension on my first motorbike ride turned into exhilarated love for it. On Valentine’s Day we went to and participated in a coffee shop poetry reading, during which I quietly wrote and passionately performed a three-minute poem in front of countless Indonesian strangers, surprising and moving my friends. One day I cut my hair short for the first time in my life, and Karl and the others cheered for the “New Cassie”. The wonderful memories and friends we made made leaving Aceh difficult. The Indonesia trip ended with a few days in Yogyakarta with Julie, who was an excellent hostess. Highlights were visiting Borobudur and watching a UGM performance of Javanese dance, the Ramayana, right near Prambanan. I decided that two weeks in Indonesia was not enough, and decided to try and go back before my fellowship ends.

 

Shansi Fellows Unite!!

Shansi Fellows Unite!!

before the haircut...

before the haircut…

after!

after!

Philippines (Manila, Baguio, Iloilo, Manila) – 3 weeks

I spent three weeks in the Philippines with family, including my mother and two aunts who had flown in from New York and Ontario, Canada. It was a challenging adjustment from going out and exploring with friends all the time to relaxing in the house most of the time, but it was wonderful to see all my relatives again. After eating street food for two weeks I felt strange eating in nice restaurants again. Each night was a feast with at least ten relatives and as many different dishes. It’s not a trip back home to the Philippines unless you’ve gained ten pounds. This time around I was more active in studying Ilonggo, the dialect my family speaks in Iloilo. I spent my last day with an aunt in an upper-class shopping area, and then at night with a cousin I walked through and got scammed by a horse cab driver in dirt-poor, garbage-filled Old Manila. It was astounding to experience those two drastically different sides of Manila in a day. I’ve begun to consider spending at least a consecutive year of my life in the Philippines sometime after Shansi.

with a TON of Lola Naty's pancit palabok.

with a TON of Lola Naty’s pancit palabok.

with some lovely Filipino art at the BenCab museum in Baguio.
with some lovely Filipino art at the BenCab museum in Baguio.

World Heritage Site, Miag-ao, Iloilo.

World Heritage Site, Miag-ao, Iloilo.

family!

family!

last day with my Mom <3

last day with my Mom ❤

China (Beijing, Taigu, Xian, Beijing) – 2 weeks

My first visit to China was another jarring and incredible experience. I stayed with Alessandra in Beijing, then visited the Taigu Fellows, took a solo trip to see the terracotta soldiers in Xian, and ended the trip back in Beijing. My first two days were spent apprehensively adjusting to people’s normal interactions (directness and a lot of yelling that contrast with Japanese indirectness, politeness, and quiet) and getting tricked once again by a tricycle driver who okay’ed one price before the ride and asked for double at the end. I soon became accustomed to the street spitting and babies pooping and peeing in the streets. It took a bit, but I also learned to be more direct in ignoring or turning down people hoping to sell me things, and also got used to pushing forward rather than waiting for non-existent lines to form. While I loved spending time with Fellows in busy Beijing and laidback Taigu, where I sat in on four of the five Fellows’ classes, I appreciated my solo time in which I could quietly observe society as it moved and worked around me. I also enjoyed practicing the Mandarin I’d learned at Oberlin, though it took time to get comfortable.

Lama Temple - Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing.

Lama Temple – Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing.

Oh hi, Mao. I see you.

Oh hi, Mao. I see you.

Visiting the friends in Taigu!

Visiting the friends in Taigu!

Drum Tower in Xian.

Drum Tower in Xian.

Springtime at the Great Wall.

Springtime at the Great Wall.

A Delayed Homecoming

I had the worst and best possible ending to my travels when my Pakistan International Airlines flight from Beijing to Tokyo was delayed by 16 hours due to equipment malfunction. I spent over 24 hours with people of all ages from China, Pakistan, Japan, London, and South Africa. Many of the Pakistani travelers were eye doctors and surgeons on their way to a conference in Tokyo. Together we waited without updates for four hours in the airport, were bussed to a hotel for supposedly the rest of the night and paired with strangers in rooms, were suddenly with ten minutes of warning returned to the airport for a 3AM flight, and were pushed through security again, this time with new friends. While I may have been stressed out about this roadblock in the past, I had a wonderful time and treated it as a surprise end to my adventures. I saw good people find humor in an undesirable situation, and witnessed and experienced friendships formed among strangers. I have only been with Shansi for a little over one semester now, but I feel I have grown and changed so much in that time. I am so grateful for these opportunities to travel, and feel confident and excited about going into the world and building even more new connections.

 

Don't see that every time you fly.

Don’t see that every time you fly.

Everyone waiting around and asking for updates.

Everyone waiting around and asking for updates.

Should've eaten this on the plane, ate it in Beijing instead.

Should’ve eaten this on the plane, ate it in Beijing instead.

Free dinner and conversation with new friends.

Free dinner and conversation with new friends.

See ya later.

See ya later.

Two new friends who watched over me as we went through this ordeal. Both are Chinese men living in Japan.

Two new friends who watched over me as we went through this ordeal. Both are Chinese men living in Japan.

The lot of us waiting, again, for our flight back to Tokyo.

The lot of us waiting, again, for our flight back to Tokyo.

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A haiku for my last night in Banda Aceh

By the way, I don’t know much about writing haikus.

Original version (or actually version 3, where I wrote by word count 5-7-5)

Midnight bathing in the sea-

Moonlit friends sing under stars by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Version 2 (or actually six, seven, and eight or so, where I struggled to go by syllable count)

Midnight sea bathing-

Moon and starlit song by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Moon and stars light song by caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Song heard by moon, stars, and caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Sea bath at midnight-

Moonlit friends sing by dark caves

Pushed and pulled by waves

Dedicated to the wonderful, vivacious friends who were there with me that late night before the Japan Fellows’ 6am flight to Yogyakarta. Thanks for making sure I lived it up til the very last moments. (No sleep for me.)

(Japan and Banda Aceh Fellows + 1 Obie)

(so worth the village spectacle we caused.)

Shrimp for Dinner with Lola Naty

It is now my spring break (end of January to beginning of April), and I have traveled from Tokyo to Osaka (where I was sick and bedridden for the last four days), spent two weeks visiting Shansi Fellows in Indonesia (Banda Aceh and Yogyakarta), and have now settled for three weeks in the Philippines.

Currently I am in the mountainous Baguio City staying at the house of my late grandmother’s sister, Lola Naty. (Nah-tee)

Pre-dinner:

We are watching a potful of live shrimp hop and pop, flailing in their last moments against the lid. I’ve witnessed the boiling of live crab before, but the beating of little shrimp bodies against the glass fills me with some pity.

Cassie: Oh noo, the poor little guys.

Lola Naty: Soon they will turn red. Then we will flip them over.

We watch as the frantic jumping begins to cease, one crustacean quieting after the other. The red pigment slowly spreads through their bodies, lighting them up from their dark grey, making them look a bit more vibrant than when they were alive. Before long there is stillness, apart from the bubbling, boiling water.

Lola Naty: See? Now we flip them over.

With her small, soft, wrinkly veined hands she takes hold of the spatula and turns over the shrimp with a graceful deftness that I could never wield over a cooking utensil.

Cassie, repeating: The poor shrimp!

She just laughs at me.

During Dinner:

Lola Naty peels the skin from the shrimp quickly, plowing through five for every one of mine. I ask her to teach me her technique.

Lola Naty: First, you start with the head.

She flicks up the shell from behind the head, but keeps it on.

Lola Naty: Then you peel from the bottom like this.

She peels off the shell up from the bottom by the legs and gets the whole thing off in less than two seconds. Then she proceeds to plop the de-shelled shrimp onto my plate.

Cassie: Okay! It’s my turn now, thank you!

I start practicing, but I am too slow, as she has already de-shelled and plopped one, two, three, four, onto my plate.

Cassie *stopping her*: Thanks Lola Naty! Now I have to practice for myself.

I eat all of the shrimp she has given me to be polite, but by the time I have done this three more are waiting for me.

Cassie *putting a hand out*: Thank you, Lola Naty, but no more! I want to do this by myself.

Lola Naty: Okay, last one.

As she plops one more onto my plate.

And then another.

And then another.

I keep eating the shrimp she is giving me, and by now there is a small mountain of shrimp heads on the corner of my plate. I didn’t plan to eat this much.

Cassie: No mooore please!

Lola Naty: Okay, last one.

And repeat.

A Letter to Myself (’14) from Myself (’13)

Today I was delighted and excited to see this letter in my mailbox from Oberlin Shansi.

photo

I had written it almost exactly a year ago at the end of the intensive month-long ESL/Shansi training session at Oberlin. (Oh, memories of Shansi House come flooding back.) It is quite an experience to read such a personal message, a written time capsule, from someone who knows me more than anyone else. As cheesy as some of the words sound, I could not have been  more sincere at that time. I knew I’d be thrown into classes with unmotivated students, so I’d need 10x more of my usual energy, enthusiasm, and optimism to both impress them (or just keep their attention) and fight off any disillusionment. Now that I’m in my last few days of teaching for the semester, I can say that I kept surprisingly true to my goals that I set back then, though I certainly haven’t done enough dancing!

(I have written my reactions to the letter at the bottom of this post.)

Dear Cassie,

Hello!I hope your time in Japan has been wonderful so far. I hope you have made time to explore and make great friends, and if not, start working on that! (*1) Today is the last full day of the Shansi retreat, and I have many hopes,fears, dreams to fulfill.

I hope to become an official member of the professional world. I want to be treated with respect and admiration by my students and my co-workers. I want to be fair and consistent and well-prepared for each day. (*2) I want to be fearless (just like Oberlin’s motto) and try new things without being such a worrier. I want to be able to move forward constantly without feeling down or getting bogged down by small things. (*3) I want to be HAPPY and spread happiness to others. I want to INSPIRE and help create new dreams. (*4)

I hope to find taiko and play often. I want to find venues to go dancing. (*5) I want to travel to see the other Fellows whom I’ve come to love this past month. (*6) I hope that by now you are responsible re: $$!! Have you been sending Evelyn your receipts? Blogging for Shansi? Are you still into 沖縄?

I fear that I’ll become lonely and feel isolated. I fear that I won’t get through to students or be taken seriously. I fear feeling that after a year I will have lost my sense of purpose, achievement. But always remember that every day you are accomplishing so much by being there. Your Junior Fellow’s naivete will show you exactly how much you’ve learned and grown. (*7) It will be so nice to be able to watch someone else grow and solidify the tie between Oberlin and Oubirin!

Don’t forget how much your family has done for you. Don’t forget how Mom and Dad always supported you in everything you did, going above and beyond in everything possible. They love you so much, so be good and Skype often, make them proud. Skype with Christian too and this time listen to what he has to say. Don’t get caught up in your own  selfish world like last time (though of course, keep living it up!). Don’t forget Tita Agnes, T. Boy, Ate Alex, Ate Cris, and Ate Joy and how they all helped raise you and made you the woman you’ve become. They have taught you to respect yourself, make smart decisions, and stand up for what you think is right. (*8) Don’t forget about Oberlin, your home away from home, which has taught you to embody equality and justice. Right now, I am an idealistic college student. Despite what happens, always stay idealistic – never give up hope! (*9) Go out and live an amazing, fulfilling life ’til the end of your days.

Also, don’t forget about Ken and how much he meant to you at this time. He really loves you now (Jan ’13) and you are lucky to have loved him.

Stay vigilant. Keep up with the news and try reading when you can. Keep in touch with friends and family. Earn your respect. Go above and beyond. Do more than you thought you ever could.

I’m so excited to see who you’ll become. がんばれ!

Love,

Cassie

Present day reactions:

1. The feelings of friendless-ness and isolation were painfully real during my first few months. Almost every day I would think to myself, “With this kind of job, and in this location, how exactly can I go about making more friends?”  Toward the middle of November I finally started meeting and hanging out with more people, therefore breaking out of my mostly-English-speaking bubble.

2. I can’t say that I was very consistent in my first few months of teaching. As I was still experimenting with various activities, methods, approaches, games, I was very “tekitou” (適当), often changing things to be more suitable to each class’s personality, and sometimes just barely pulling things together in time for class.

3. Anabel and Lissette can tell you that I am definitely still a worrier. In most cases.

4. I was most worried (ah, worrying again) about if I would have any impact at all on some of my students.. but some letters I received on my last day of Class 80 reassured me that somehow they “had a lot of fun”, “really liked [my] class”, “made a lot of friends”, and “learned a lot”. Some expressed that my stories about America and my latest visit to Australia made them want to go abroad. Perhaps my first essay topic, which asked them to describe a dream vacation in a foreign country* (that they had to research (Google) about) helped with that too.

5. Taiko was one of my first priorities since coming here, and I am now going every week to a class at the “Oedo Sukeroku Daiko Dojo” in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. I am definitely not doing enough dancing, but hope to start going to swing dancing events once in a while after my long spring break!

6. I’ll be getting to meet up with a ton of the other Shansi Fellows (both junior fellows from my year, and senior fellows)  in Indonesia (Feb 9~) and China (end of March)! I’m so excited!

7. This was basically taken from the Shansi Orientation handbook. Hehe, “naivete”.

8. Being away from family is one of the hardest parts about living and working in Japan. I have often thought about staying in Japan after Shansi, but this issue is one of the few things that gives me pause.

9. In this case, I was thinking about all the English teachers I have seen in Japan who are completely defeated by their students apathy and become completely apathetic themselves. I don’t know if it has worked this semester, but I want to be an English teacher these students remember, one who made them see the benefits of knowing two languages, or exposed them to parts of the world they hadn’t stopped to think about before.

From now on I’m just gonna keep working hard to get better at teaching. これからずっと頑張りたいと思っていおります。

But first, (once I’m finished with all my grading), I’m going to enjoy my super long vacation! 🙂

Task 3: the Future

More wise words from my students…

 

I want a lot of my baby child. I like kids very much. In particular I want boys. And I want to name him Mizuki! Maybe I will love him so much. Because he is my only child.

What kind of people will I marry? Nobody will understand it. Therefore life is interesting. Nobody knows the life what rises. I think to make an effort now to do it in the happy future. I believe that the bright future waits.

 

To be continued.

Writing Task 2: Comparing American and Japanese Movies

The prompt was to write a four-to-five paragraph essay comparing American and Japanese movies. Here are some highlights from my students’ essays….

  • Comparing Anpanman and Hancock (two quite different superheroes)

I think that another difference is about the  main character. The face of Anpanman is made of bean-jam buns. However, Hancock is a human being. I think that a bean-jam bun is more delicious than a human face. I want to eat a face of Anpanman sometime.

  • Comparing Doraemon and Terminator (two very different robots from the future)

    Doraemon and Terminator are very famous and interesting movies. Doraemon is Japanese animation. Almost all Japanese children watch it at Friday night. This animation’s main character is Nobita. He is lazy boy. Terminator is world famous  movie. The movie’s main character is terminators. They are robots. These movies have nothing in common with each other at a glance, but in reality, they have something in common.
    Doraemon and Terminator’s characters are both robot. This is the first commonality. They are robots for helping people. Nobita is helped by Doraemon. John Conner is Terminator’s character. He helped by Terminator. But almost terminators are bad characters.
    The second is they are both from the future. Doraemon comes from 2112, and Terminator comes from 2029. They came through a time slip. Why do they came past? Because they must help people. […]

  • Comparing Heroes and Spec (superhero dramas)

    Since I was seventeen years old, I have liked Heroes very much. Heroes is supernatural power’s people TV drama. IT is an American TV drama. IT was very popular TV drama in America. I have also liked spec since I was eighteen years old. Spec is supernatural power’s people too. Spec is a Japanese TV drama. IT is very popular TV drama in Japan. Both of them are popular supernatural power’s people TV dramas. I think that spec is more interesting than Heroes. Sometimes, Spec is laughed me. Spec has laughable scene. And, Heroes is more many characters than Spec. Heroes is more exciting than Spec.

  • Comparing Gundam and Transformers (two movies about giant fighting robots)

    American males don’t get wildly excited when they see TRANSFORMERS. But Japanese males get wildly excited when they see GUNDAM.

  • Comparing Action in Japanese and American movies:

The American movies are very powerful compared with the Japanese movies. The American movies use a lot of Computer Graphics, and the American movies use fires and a lot of bomb. The American movies perform the intense action. For example a person sometimes run on may cars, and a person sometimes fly in the sky on his own.
There are many comedy movies and many cartoon movies in the Japanese movies. The Japanese movies are small scale compared with the American movies. But there are many good points in the Japanese movies. For example The Japanese movies sometimes use a sword. By contrast, the American movies sometimes use guns. It represents the traditional Japan. Gun is not ordinary for the Japanese people. Therefore it is easy for me to understand a sword than a gun.

  • Toy Story vs. Crayon Shinchan

   

  • Alice in Wonderland vs. Spirited Away

 

  • The Ring vs. Ringu
  • One Missed Call vs. Chakushinari

They worked hard this semester. Very proud- and very amused. 😀

Stereotypical perfomances and lack of critical thinking

Last week Katy Perry had a “Japanese”-inspired performance at the American Music Awards. (I won’t post a link to it here, but you can look it up for yourself on Youtube.) When a bunch of angry articles started appearing in my newsfeeds, I had to see it for myself.

While the over-the-top performance was admittedly visually stunning, it was completely stereotypical, offensive, and just wrong in soo many ways, from her sexy, cleavage-bearing skintight Halloween costume (a mutation from the kimono and Chinese cheongsam), to the strange, repeated un-Japanese bowing with hands together, to the non-Asian dancers shuffling around on stage, to the fake taiko-playing. It was the epitome of twisting of cultural “appreciation” into cultural “appropriation”. However, as an English teacher in Japan I of course had to ask some of my students. I showed the video to one of my four classes and to a group of students at English Conversation (lunchtime) Circle.

Surprisingly, yet maybe not so surprisingly, responses were a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it was because they were caught up in the flashiness of the performance rather than looking at certain details. One girl (who actually spent much of her life in New Zealand) even said that maybe it was a good thing that Katy Perry was raising interest in Japanese culture. My problem with this answer of course is that while many viewers might take the time and effort to learn about the real Japan, many more viewers will not, or even worse, think, “Wow, she really pulled that geisha thing off!”

Many Japanese college students and young people unthinkingly love flashy performers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. One aspect that has bothered me about Japanese education is that it seems as if though students are hardly ever demanded to think critically, whether in English or their own language. (Essays and research papers aren’t often part of the curriculum, which is the complete opposite of my experience from middle school until I graduated from Oberlin. Our second essay task for my writing class was a comparison essay (Japanese and American movies), and even that seemed to produce a bit of confusion.) In any case, because so few students were willing to speak their opinions about the performance, I used it as a segue to an open discussion about cultural stereotypes.

Here are some American stereotypes my students came up with:

  • hotdogs, hamburgers, BBQ
  • scary
  • guns (everyone has them, walks around with them, or at least knows how to shoot them… “If you don’t have one you’ll be killed!” 7 students)
  • tattoos
  • fat/big (9 students)
  • hugs & kisses

Versus their stereotypes of their own country:

  • sushi
  • anime
  • kimono, geta (sandals)
  • old wooden, tatami-mat houses
  • always bowing
  • always on time
  • shaking hands (but not hugging)

I was amazed that I had to do it, but I had to explain to my students exactly why stereotypes and perpetuation of stereotypes can be so hurtful, why Katy Perry’s performance was so offensive to so many people, Asian-Americans like me in particular, and why they should take offense themselves be wary of these types of portrayals. Hopefully after my lesson they’ll think a little bit harder next time they watch any type of performance.