Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Postcards, Gin, and Japanese People Taking Photos With Me: A regular night in Nasushiobara

Despite the lack of space, there is something completely satisfying about writing a post card. My laptop is broken, so it does not accept my iPhone camera (and hasn't for some time), but I rummaged through a free box on the farm tonight and found some choice items that I could not pass on sending to my friends and family in the States and other places across the Globe. And as it's an unexciting Tuesday night, and I spent the day building a greenhouse, I decided to leave the farm to come to one of the few bars in Nasushiobara that has free Wifi to take part in the lost art of letter writing. I even found a way to figure in writing here. The bar, Gorilla Lounge, is not all that relaxing. It has a projector that plays one video, a Dutch saxophonist playing a concert circa 2009 (?) in Germany. The best thing I can think of to say about her is that her debut album was called "Saxuality", but I can't remember her name.

The postcards I'm writing tonight aren't entirely from the Free Box. They range from 19th century depictions of Japanese settings, scenes from Hong Kong I picked up while visiting, to cartoons showing early 20th century Japan, but oddly reminiscent of Bill Waterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"). The setting of Gorilla Lounge includes me plugging my headphones into my computer and listening to Jim O'Rourke's "Eureka" and "The Visitor", which are fantastic albums, and he also is a gaijin living in Japan. Also, gin.

The point of writing here, however, is I was reminded that I have not been lonely, truly lonely since I arrived here. I'm 30 (old? starting my road to adulthood?), so maybe that has something to do with my lack of homesickness, but so many other things must be a part of it as well, right? Besides the couple of days when Klara left (won't post about her on here, but she meant (means?) a lot to me)--and even then, labor has its way of pushing personal thoughts away--I haven't really even thought about loneliness. So, work helps. I am also blessed to have good, often challenging conversation with many of the other people who work and live at ARI. I wish I could say that spirituality has helped, but the church here is terrible, so my chances at communion with God are pushed, maybe focused, to my relationships with the earth and friends. This is not a bad thing, it's a really good thing for how strong those relationships are/can be, though I do miss that particular Anglican/Episcopal way of church and prayer.

Completely unrelated, while writing my first set of postcards, two strangers came up to me and asked whether they could take their photograph with me. This is the second time this has happened, and I hope I enrich the FaceBook pages of people in the Nasu region. At least this time no one asked to touch my hair or questioned why my eyes are blue.

Bien à vous,


Sunday, March 8, 2015

I wanted to start this post with a statement, something crass and terse, something like "At ARI, I'm lucky if I shit even once a day". This was the thought moving through my head as I went jogging this morning. It isn't an entirely true statement as it applies to my life on the farm, nor is it very descriptive of my daily activities. It's also certainly too bold, too coarse, and without any intelligence. Yet, there are moments of my life here where oafish and cryptic statements seem to be the only way to describe what's going on in my head, and to describe what I do every day.

I haven't written on this blog as I'm supposed to, considering my position as a missionary, a representative of the Episcopal Church, in Japan. A lot of that has to do with how I manage my time, but I'm also a bit of a coward when it comes to responsibility. Regarding the first part of my previous statement, how I manage my time, it is rather true I don't often find space in my life to hash out an essay describing what's going on in my head, relating it to St. Paul's message, and providing this information to my family, friends, and the world---I haven't written a group email about my life since December, either. Why I haven't squeezed this in is hard to describe, but I can say that I've been working on things that only this experience on the farm, and in Japan, could have given me. These things have taken time; they require a dedication I didn't know I had; they are new to me, or fit like a sweater I thought was lost but recently found behind a box in a closet.

After just under five months here, I still can't speak Japanese, but I can reply in English to simply worded statements my Japanese coworkers ask me. My ears now pick up words and phrases on the streets and in others' conversations that would have been completely unintelligible two months ago. I know how to clean, sharpen the blades, and fix the motor of a chain saw (!). I bake bread, including decent baguettes. I can perform simple feats of carpentry. Sometimes I spend four hours chopping wood. I jog every morning starting at 530 am in an (so far unsuccessful) attempt to quite smoking cigarettes. I work nine to ten hour days of hard, back-aching work on the farm. I read Kafka, debate which scenes of "Roman Holiday" (I watched it for the first time in February) or "Tokyo Story" are the most lovely, and I go to bed at 9 pm to do it all over again the next day. I can also say I've been traveling (Hong Kong, Tokyo, day trips around Tochigi on the weekends), but this is too much of a cop out. Yes, being away from my computer makes it hard to email and blog, but I still find time to write in my journal---an activity for which I can thank my time and the people at the Holy Cross Monastery.

The other part of my thesis here, my cowardice when it comes to responsibility, is of course more existential, but also something I've struggled with for some time. I have no problems making sure all of my duties on the farm are finished before I sneak off to smoke a cigarette, or if I'd like to go out on a certain night, to make it back in bed in time so I can get enough sleep for waking up for jogging and work. However, if you ask me to plan anything other than my own pleasure for my life in the future, I put it off and smile it away for another day. Life on the farm is slowly changing this, I hope, but as the great show "Community" says, I may be part of the generation where adulthood starts at 30 years old. There are small ripples of this change coming into my life: I'm working on graduate school applications; I'm looking for opportunities to keep me living an expat life; I'm not spending anywhere near the amount of money I did while living in the US. These changes are occurring at a faster rate than ever before, and the farm and my spiritual relationships with God, labor, and the Earth are a huge part of this.

I hope to write again soon. My voyage into adulthood isn't the only thing changing at ARI. The new class of participants will arrive soon, and spring is here, whether we still have to use the fireplace at night or not. Until then,

Bien à vous,


Friday, November 14, 2014

One Month of Life in Japan

Greetings from Japan!
I have officially been in the country now for 4 weeks, and an update on my general well being is overdue. 
I arrived in one piece on 17 October, after a long flight from Toronto. I was able to sleep on the plane, and AirCanada served pretty decent food, so I was in relatively good shape when I landed at Tokyo's Narita Airport. Customs was a breeze, and I had no problems finding my bags. While waiting for my bus, a group of Japanese reporters bum-rushed me to ask me about why I was in Japan and I happily gave them what details I could. It would have been nice to see what my visage would have looked like on television with (what I imagine) a Japanese dub, but I then spent the next 3 hours on a bus slowly making my way through Tokyo traffic towards my first stop in Utsunomiya, the capital city of Tochigi prefecture. From there, I took a commuter rail (I have yet to be on one of the bullet trains) to the closest town to my farm, Nasushiobara. I finally made it to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) around 10 pm where I found my room in the men's dormitory and quickly got to sleep.
I did not really struggle with jet lag luckily, and I was able to wake with the rooster's crowing and try to make sense of the place. Most of the people here are from South Asia and Africa, and all speak some English. Everyone was surprised to see me at the morning exercises (we do weak calisthenics every morning--they really are quite silly), but happy to have another pair of hands for working. On Saturdays, the farm work only goes from 7 to 8 AM, so I found myself with an entire day to explore after breakfast. ARI has chickens, ducks, goats, pigs, and 4 large kitchen gardens where the 2014 class (arrived in March 2014, leave in December) grow their vegetables. Surrounding the campus are larger fields which the entire community works on--rice paddies, soy beans, yams, corn, wheat--but the 27 "participants" from across the world grow the smaller things such as chilis, various lettuces, eggplant, leeks, etc. in these kitchen gardens, which we tend to twice daily. After the earthquake of 2011 and the nuclear disaster, the cows had to be disposed off because Chernobyl taught the world that cesium and other radioactive elements remain in milk. The land here, however, is radiation free and checked regularly. There are three regular meal services, all made with the organic vegetables grown here and meat slaughtered not far from campus as well.
I am still struggling with learning Japanese, but English is the main language spoken throughout campus, so I have been able to make some friends. Together, we have been out in town to a couple of bars and a ramen place. Most of the participants come from rural, poorer areas, so the people who invite me out are the Japanese and Westerners who are considered "volunteers" like myself. Nasushiobara is a small town, so I do get some stares, but most people are well aware of ARI and the many foreigners who live here. All in all, however, I have settled down pretty nicely.

Until next time,

Joey san

Monday, July 28, 2014

Baby Steps

I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. I went to services every Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, MO, moved through Rite 13 and my confirmation, attended services throughout college, and found a pew at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and now Trinity Church here in Boston. Until recently, I thought that this was enough. I said my prayers, added to the collection plate, took in the Eucharist, and then went home. Two recent events, however, have changed my views on my relationship with God and my part in the larger community of faith within my parish and the world. These events have made me aware of a spiritual hunger, the depths of which I am only now beginning to explore.
The first event was my realization that after four years of working in a pharmacology lab at Northeastern University, something was missing. I graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in biology, and had been working in various laboratories since I moved to Boston in the fall of 2007. When I started at Northeastern in early 2010, I was excited to be working with animals and interested in how the chemists in my department would be creating the drugs I would be testing. I was doing “real” scientific work, and had myriads of opportunities to put my name on papers and explore the field of pharmacology. I quickly learned however, that despite the good intentions of the people in my department, the bottom line was to make compounds that would eventually go for further testing at large pharmaceutical companies and then go to market. This was not just a pursuit of knowledge and helping people in need, but rather an endless rush to make the “best” drug. To make matters worse, so many of my colleagues saw nothing wrong with the ways these big companies did their business. There was neither outcry over the possible dangers of over-medicating individuals, nor how these companies marketed certain compounds and to whom. No one cared whether a certain corporation was paying its taxes, or how it was involved in lobbying against stricter warnings on medication. I was becoming disillusioned, and my enthusiasm for science was fading as well.
The second event occurred shortly after I left my job at Northeastern. My brother in-law suggested I apply for the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC), a mission group within the Episcopal Church. I was accepted, thankfully, and attended an orientation at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY this past June. It was there that my eyes were opened to what I was missing in my faith. Despite growing up in the church and attending services as an adult, I was leaving God in the narthex as I walked to take the subway home every Sunday. At the YASC orientation I met 15 individuals (not to mention the orientation leaders and the wonderful monks at the monastery) who helped remind me that God is everywhere and in everything. In short, they helped me recall an eagerness for spiritual life. I realized that a spiritual community was not just the people who sat in the pews next to me on Sundays, but also in the relationships I had with my friends and family, the soil, plants, and various creatures in my garden, and everything around me.
I have a lot of work ahead of me if I am to make it to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nasushiobara, Japan. The fundraising aspects of this journey have me a little overwhelmed, to say the least. I am incredibly grateful, however, for the help (whether they know it or not) everyone at the Holy Cross Monastery gave me. My eyes have opened to new possibilities and working to foster this stronger, deeper spiritual relationship is my first step.