Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Company We Keep

A thought ran through my mind a few months after coming here and someone vocalised said thought to me just the other day. The thought was this:

When you live abroad, many of the friendships you form are relationships of convenience.

Which is something I understand - this idea that relationships that may appear to be meaningful on the surface only exist to serve the immediate needs of one or both of the parties involved. I grew up in a family wherein many of the women engaged in long-term, emotionally destructive and physically abusive relationships just because they needed to experience and do several things like (just off the top of my head) living in a home with what they considered necessary material amenities or raising children in a nuclear family.

Now, take that need to cling to people for arbitrary reasons multiply that by the complexities that come with living in a foreign country with completely different social mores than you're accustomed to. Multiply that by the factor of living in a country wherein the official language is not your own and you have a hotbed of fleeting acquaintances with people coming and going in and out of the country or in and out of your immediate circle. I guess you could attribute that phenomenon to the fact that we tend to act differently while living abroad in an attempt to make our ex-pat lives more justifiable. If I were going to live exactly that way I normally do, then why not just stay in my own country where I'd have the comfort of being around people I have much more in common with? For example, where I wasn't before, I have become more open to the possibility of sustaining contact with strangers I meet in nightclubs and bars and while I've met some interesting people in this way, I'm still a little cynical about the depth of any ensuing relationships formed by way of such meetings.

The thing, I've come to realise is simply this: being sort of an introvert, I've always been cautious about getting close to people. This is still the case now, to an extent, but less so because I guess the fear of being all alone here pushed me to cast a wider net, sometimes resulting in the occasional scroll through my phone book wondering, "Huh?" or "Why did I ever exchange numbers with...?" or (even sadder) "Oh, right. She/He's not in Japan anymore."

That said, I must hastily add that not all of my friendships here have been so ephemeral and I still enjoy meeting new and interesting people regularly. I've just noticed that several of the (what I thought were) meaningful friendships I've formed here have startlingly shorter lifespans than what I'm used to and I find that fact a bit unsettling. That's one of the things I'm still getting used to here, having been here for over two years and all and I know I'm not alone in that respect. I asked a some friends to weight in on the topic and here's what some of them had to say:

Caroline :

I think my situation was a lot different than most people coming to Japan. I worked for a company that staffs university English programs, so, though I only worked with a couple of foreigners, 22 foreign teachers lived in the same apartment complex. It was quite a similar atmosphere to a college dormitory, except we were the teachers. So it was easy in that scenario to meet people and make some relationships--some of which I still have, though most of the people I worked with at that time moved to other countries. That was a 3 month contract, and, thereafter, I moved into [a hostel] for 2 months, where I met [several folks I'm currently friends with] a year after I had moved to Japan.
The truth is, I have maintained no friendships (with the exception of my Japanese returnee head teacher) from the year and a half I worked at [an English conversation school]. I do, however, keep in touch and often go out with my students from that school. Now that I've been here for 3 years, I can say that I have made no new friends at all (if you exclude my boyfriend) that don't have something to do with my current group of friends.


My feeling is that living overseas is a pretty unnatural situation that creates friendships that would not otherwise exist. Often that’s a good thing, and often it’s not. You end up talking to a much higher percentage of the people that speak your language, especially if you come here with no ability in the language of your new country, as I did. A lot of these are people who would not attract a second glance from you if you were home. Again, this is both good and bad. You have the luxury of being instantly judgmental when your options for friendships are limitless, and in a way that acts as sort of an inverse limitation, at least for me. But overseas, you tend to give people a longer interview process.
On the bad side, you may end up bound up with people that you soon wish you weren't. You may form relationships with people before learning that in truth, they’re dicks, or insane in some way. This is disappointing. Even more disappointing though, is that probably 90% of friendships that you form while overseas have a shelf life of about 1-2 years. Just when you start to rely on a friendship and get used to that person being around, they're gone. I now ask people how long they're going to be around soon after meeting them, and if their answer is shorter than my cell phone contract, adios potential muchacho.

I can say that I’m lucky enough to be good friends with a few Japanese people, people who call me and want to hang out with me sometimes. They’re sort of a mix of the three types of Japanese friends you can have: the ones that you already had when you came, the ones that you meet at random while you’re here, and people you meet at work/ former students. That’s no mean feat I’m told and it makes it a lot easier to live here. If you stick with the foreigner crowd, you’re going to get fed up and bail before long.

Yasmeen :
I must say that it seemed a lot easier to form friendships while abroad just because of the commonality of language. Whenever I saw a foreigner it was easier to just break into conversation about where they were from, what they were doing in Japan, how long they had been there or were planning to stay, etc, whereas in your home country, there's no real blanket excuse to step up to a random person and start yakking.

Also, because of the odd nature of being abroad and needing to feel a bond or closeness with someone reminding you in the least of your humble beginnings, I feel like I may have gotten attached and felt more of a bond a lot more quickly. There we all were, sharing a unique experience that not everyone can relate to, so when you reconnect with friends that have been through it with you, you just feel all the more close.

All in all, I feel like the friendships I had- even if they were just for a "season" are pretty unforgettable, therefore making them extra special in my friendship book.

That last bit from Yasmeen is enough to abate my cynicism somewhat. Lasting friendships or not, though, living abroad is a really good people-watching exercise:

While jogging, Colin snapped this shot of a guy who unicycles while juggling and wearing a cowboy hat.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Video Killed The Radio Star

"I grew up in White People Land..."

That was a statement made by my boyfriend a few nights ago when we were talking about music videos. We were in the middle of a two or three-hour exchange of music videos we loved as adolescents and that was his response to my showing him Nas' "Hate Me Now" video and asking: "You've never seen this?"

One might be inclined to say that the obvious thing here is the race thing. However, the longer we swapped videos was the more it became evident that, yes, it's the race thing but it's also a whole host of other things including the difference in taste thing and also the six-year age difference thing.

While he was watching heavy metal videos like this on TV...:

...I was just discovering MTV and VH1 thanks to my parents' new satellite dish and on the verge of starting an unhealthy obsession with Michael Jackson.

As much as we would like to discard popular media as incidental, the media we consume tell a story (albeit not the whole story) about us and the way we experience the world. My boyfriend is obviously a real child of the '80s and you know this when you first start talking about movies with him. Understanding the period in which he first became an active consumer makes it easier to understand him, his politics and the way he sees the world outside of America.

My mother grew up listening to music via radio and the loudspeakers of various sound systems in Jamaica. There weren't any showy, egocentric (as she often puts it) music videos. Of course, she spends much of her time bewildered by the musical tastes of my generation.

I now understand my mother's bewilderment when I hear/watch stuff like this on TV:

The hilarious thing is that, as annoying as I find Japanese pop, there are women here my mother's age who list J-pop as their favourite genre of music.

While I was thinking about the topic, I asked some friends what their favourite music videos were. Here are the responses I got:

From Erin (Canada)

From Garreth (Jamaica)

From Channon (U.S.A.)

From Davis (U.S.A.)

From L'Oreal (U.S.A.)

From Nivi (Kenya)

And from me...?

Earlier on in this post I may have given a hint. Here's one of my all-time favourites:

What's yours?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Odds and Eggs

One thing I've been wondering since moving to Japan: Why is it that my refrigerator's egg holder has room for fourteen eggs when cartons of eggs hold up to ten?

Silly question, I know. I just thought I'd ask.

I haven't updated this blog in a while, so here's a hodgepodge of updates:

1. I went to China early last month. It was a great trip. Lots of great, inexpensive food was consumed and many great, interesting sights were seen. Of course, I went to the Great Wall:

And Tiananmen Square:

And many other places. What still left an impression on me though, was the fact that Chinese people would stop and take pictures of me. Really, I'd be standing at an intersection waiting to cross the street and some strange person would just come up, point a camera in my face, click and walk away. This happened several times every day we were there. My boyfriend thought it was funny. I found the whole experience weird and disconcerting. Annoying too. Why can't I just enjoy my vacation like a normal person instead of making some one's Beijing photo album more interesting by being the odd foreigner? That's one thing about living in Asia that I'm really getting sick of: being the odd foreigner.

2. I went to the One Love Festival in Tokyo a few weeks ago and was once again amazed by the number of Jamaicans living here. Each time I go to the festival though, I ponder the role of our embassy in Tokyo. The one and only time I ever went there, I have to admit, I felt so disappointed. The only (Japanese) staff member at the desk was bewildered at the fact that I was interested in knowing where the embassy is, or where I can find Jamaican-owned/related businesses in Japan.

I didn't come here as a JET or through any ALT programme that was recruiting in Jamaica. I came here working for a company that was recruiting in the U.S., and that company had a dearth of Caribbean nationals working for them in the Tokyo area. Needless to say, despite having met many interesting people from all around the world, and having formed many interesting and meaningful friendships, during my first year here I still felt very much alone. I guess I just wish that our embassy would look like it functioned as more than a branch of the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Anyway, the festival was fun. I met some great people, ate some good food (yes, I'm always eating these days) and jammed to some good music.

3. I haven't been writing as much as I'd like. I've seen so much horrible poetry being posted everywhere on the Internet from Blogger to Facebook and as horrified as I am by the terrible writing, I begrudge these writers their courage. I also see the mountain of praise that terrible writing attracts sometimes and I am scared to death that things I've written and received tons of accolades for in the past were actually glorious crap.

In order to remedy all of that, I decided to help a friend start a writing circle. We'll see how that goes. If there are any writers in the Tokyo area reading this, drop me a line if you're interested in joining.

Okay, back to listening to this week's This American Life.