Swearing has infiltrated into daily office conversation on all sides.
You have become a little too comfortable sharing personal info with your co-workers.
You have come to terms with the fact you are a bit of a hermit (and by “a bit” I mean “a lot”).
You have attended an appraisal, and discovered talking about yourself for an hour is an exhausting endurance test which should never be suffered by any living soul.
You have stopped entertaining the thought that attending more than one social activity on a weekday within a week is a possibility.
You voluntarily give yourself, and stick to, a strict bedtime.
You have allocated a generous portion of your monthly earnings to a “new work clothes” budget.
You have calculated just how much you earn (i.e. are objectively worth) a day.
You now own, of your own free will, a Boots Advantage Card.
You’ve realised that actually a lot of what your mum says is very sensible and wise.
You’ve read the first two chapters of every shelf-help book aiming to improve happiness, motivation and/or productivity that Google has recommended to you. And aside for not wearing make-up to work, you’ve not really followed any of the advice given.
Every time you meet your friends you say, “aww we should do this more often!” – but in reality, if you were to fit any more into your already packed schedule you would internally combust.
You have enjoyed the smug feeling of being able to buy your sisters drinks and not ask for it back in taxi money at the end of the night.
You feel like the ratio of how many coffees you make for people in the office, versus how many you accept, is the direct indication of your value as a human.
Spending the 24 days of your annual leave in the wisest way possible is a year-long headache.
The delay-start function on the washing machine has revolutionized your life.
You have realised that even if your friends and boyfriend eventually find out you’re really boring and leave you, you will always have food. And this brings you great comfort.
Despite being perfectly content in the job you have, you have decided to change your role drastically in order to be nearer to vegan cafes, loved ones and cats.
Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!
This year I created an illustration a day from the first of December until Christmas day – depicting 25 things of what Christmas means to me.
The idea came to me when I was illustrating another advent calendar with ‘traditional’ Christmas icons such as snowmen, gingerbread men, bells and angels. When I was making it I thought that despite being the symbols usually associated with the festive period, they don’t relate at all to my personal experience of Christmas. For example, it rarely snows in Yorkshire in December – so snowmen are out off the question! Scenes such as church choirs performing and bells ringing are also very far removed from my own memories of the season.
I made these illustrations to represent what my Christmas is like, and what is significant about it for me. This meant that the drawings often showed spending time with my family, eating a lot of food, and enjoying / enduring the traditions of the holiday.
My favorite illustrations were Winter Walks, Getting the Sniffles and Making Mulled Wine. I felt that the illustrations were quite strong, and these were all things that happen every December without fail – despite not being traditionally ‘Christmassy’.
Each illustration took about 2 hours to complete – plus or minus some time depending on the level of detail. Things such as drawing expressions or trying to create a likeness of a real person took significantly longer, whereas drawing scenes with just objects (such as Day 4 – Mince Pies with Brandy Butter) was a lot quicker.
I didn’t realise that it would take me this long to draw each picture before I started, which meant that I had to alter my daily schedule to fit them all in. Often I would wake up early before work to get a head start, and got into the rhythm of drawing through my lunch break with a sandwich in one hand and a pro-marker in the other. Before the weekends, I would create a few illustrations in one intense evening and set up my social media posts for Saturday and Sunday so that I could actually have a social life too!
Due to the time constraints, I went straight into each picture in pencil and then pen without planning the layout on a separate piece of paper beforehand (like I normally do for illustrations and comics). This meant that the pictures weren’t as good quality as I had wanted, and some were experiments that I pulled off with varying degrees of success.
At the start of the project, I chose a colour palette and stuck to it throughout the illustrations. I incorporated the traditional Christmas colours of red and green, but also added warm tones of pink, brown and orange. These colours not only gave off a nice cosy vibe to me, but were also ‘practical’ natural colours which I could use in most situations easily. For instance, the pink and brown I could use for skin, hair and eye colour in the cartoon characters, and the greens and oranges worked well for outdoor scenes.
The only time I broke this colour scheme (by incorperating two blue tones into the mix) was to illustrate Day 8 – My Blue Velvet Dress and Day 15 – The Trip to the Attic, to depict shadow in a more accessible way.
A few days into the advent, my friend, talented watercolour artist Rebecca Freeman, joined in the challenge and drew 25 illustrations of what Christmas means to her. Follow her Facebook art page here for more illustrations!
Overall, making an advent illustration a day was very fun – although I have to admit there were a few moments I felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew, or wanted to slack off for a night! By the end however I managed to create 25 illustrations, and post all – except one – on time on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook each day. Unfortunately, Day 5 was 18 minutes late due to it falling on date night – my bad.
Many thanks to everyone who has liked, commented and otherwise sent me good vibes throughout this process! Your support was a huge motivation to stick to it and finish the project.
Click here to see the full album of advent illustrations on my Facebook page.
If you haven’t already, feel free to follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for updates on my art in progress and more pieces. Also keep an eye on this blog for a variety of articles on art and other topics that interest me.
Want to see more of my artwork? See my previous blog post showing my sketchbook in Cambodia.
Big Brown Eyes is a comic and illustration collective made up of the three Lambert sisters – Emily, Freya and myself. Individually we have been interested in reading and drawing comics for sometime, but in 2015 we teamed up to create our collective, releasing our debut zine Beginnings at the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair that year. Since then, Big Brown Eyes have been touring the UK to distribute our books and get in touch with the comic community from the other side of the stall.
Emily is an award-winning illustrator and commissioning comic artist, who works primarily in pencil and dry ink which she combines with colour and texture digitally. She has self-published two books: Dreamscape and the very popular Four Days in Budapest.
I am a fine artist by trade, specialising in ink and oil painting and pen drawing. I published Cats and Wine last year, a book of funny comics about university life.
Freya is currently a veterinary science student, soon to become the first Doctor Lambert of the family. Her style is influenced by anime and manga, and having written practically a graphic novel at age 18, she has since published a series of funny How To mini-zines.
What is the Indie Comic Scene?
‘Indie comic’ refers to artwork which has been produced by a single artist or small collective, which is printed by the artist or a printing company, and then distributed by the artist or through small publishing houses. The material produced can take any form, from standard paneled comics to narrative or sequential illustration, books of artwork, postcard collections, poetry and collage zines etc. and can feature any subject – superheroes, aliens, cats with many eyes, feminist mantras, adult colouring books, visual dictionaries, species of plants, fan art or abstract art.
Once you start looking for the indie comic community, you will find it everywhere. There are loads of events which go on across the UK including Thought Bubble in Leeds (which Big Brown Eyes will be at next), the East London Comic Arts Fair (ELCAF) in London and Small Press Day which is a pop-up festival in comic shops across the country.
As an artist or visitor to the indie comic scene, you are instantly part of a community. Whether an established collective, first-time artist or comic enthusiast, there are always people around who share similar interests to you and who are happy to strike up a conversation. Fellow stall-holders I’ve found to be friendly, open and supportive. At the Leeds Zine Fair, we sat next to two lovely independent artists Saffa and Dimitri who had come on their own to brave the day without toilet breaks or coffee. We ended up exchanging wares and opportunities: comic artists understand that collaboration is key, and are happy to promote and support each other throughout the day and beyond.
Going to festivals such as the Leeds Zine Fair also puts you in touch with all sorts of opportunities which you would otherwise not hear about. For instance, whilst at the fair all of the Big Brown Eyes Collective contributed to a project by Footprint Workers Coop to make a zine in a day. This involved hurriedly drawing on scraps of paper behind our stall and giving it to their staff to print on a massive risograph printer before binding it together. With over 40 contributing artists, the five-colour zine was pretty fantastic and a really cool project to be part of.
Freya also created a card for a prisoner who has been wrongly accused of murder, whilst I made a mixed media piece to contribute to the Leeds Art Library exhibition themed on ‘Identity’.
Due to the indie comic subculture not being very large at the moment (although it is definitely a developing community) the network is close and we often bump into people who go to them regularly, such as Travelling Man who stock our indie comics among others in Leeds, York, Newcastle and Manchester. We have a running gag with the talented illustrator Kristyna Baczynski since Emily always seems to run into her at these fairs as though she is chasing her across the country.
The indie comic industry is not one to pursue for fame and riches. However it has a wealth of other opportunities, including a warm welcome to an inclusive and positive creative community (abundant with dip-dyed hair and badges) and the happy knowledge that our zines are in the hearts and bookshelves of a few other people dotted around the UK.
What’s ahead for Big Brown Eyes?
For a sneak-peak of what’s to come for us three:
• Emily is planning to continue her travel-journal series as well as create two autobiographical comics in the upcoming year.
• I am developing Cats and Wine 2 (yet untitled) which will feature the funny and somewhat harsh reality of gap-years.
• Freya is working on illustrations to make into prints, as well as a collection cute zines based on her veterinary experience.
• Big Brown Eyes as a whole is moving forward with its second zine, Myths and Monsters, which will feature a whole host of comics and illustrations from the Lambert trio. For our third zine we will be looking to feature emerging talent in the comic world alongside our own work – but more of that later!
Nath is an example of a woman living in absolute poverty in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. I met her after our team of VSO ICS volunteers conducted poverty surveys in the community where we lived, and she told us about her lifestyle. We thought that it was important to share her story so that other people could understand her situation.
This year there was a really bad storm in the area. Nath and her family had to shelter under some banana trees because they were scared that the house would fall on top of them. When the storm was over, their house was destroyed. Luckily, Nath’s brother was working away and has let them move into his house for now, which is comprised of one main room and several small storage rooms outside made from bamboo, palm leaves and thatch. However when he returns Nath and her family will have to move out and will have no-where to stay.
Nath and her husband have three children: a son (18 years) and two daughters (10 and 15 years). Having had bowel disease two years ago and breast cancer this year, Nath is too ill to work. Her husband has heart disease and is likewise too ill to do manual labour. Operations and health care are very expensive in Cambodia, even with a Poor ID card (which gives them a discount to health services) and Nath and her husband struggle to make ends meet. They have to forage in the nearby fields for food, and often go hungry. Nath’s daily challenge is asking to borrow money from her neighbours and family to in order to get by. The banks and microfinance companies won’t lend her money because of her situation, so she has to ask her family to borrow it for her under their name.
Nath’s oldest son works at the popular tourist sight Phnom Sampov as a tour guide every evening after his studies in Battambang, contributing the family’s only income. Since English is so poorly taught in rural schools (see more information about education in Cambodia here) he picks it up from tourists he meets and tries to improve his language skills that way. He wishes to stay in his home town and look after his younger sisters – a rare ambition for youth in Cambodia, who often aspire to study and work abroad. Since buying school equipment is expensive, he was unable to afford it during some years of study and fell behind his peers in his level of education. This is often a struggle with poor children and teenagers in Cambodia, particularly girls, whose education is seen as less important than that of boys.
Four years ago, the village chief told the family about Anatta World Health and Education Outreach, a non-government organisation which supports children in developing countries. Anatta used to give Nath’s family a donation of rice every two months but have recently started a new scheme. When I asked Nath how important she felt education is for her children, she told me that Anatta had given her the option of a monthly cash donation, or to support one child’s education (e.g. buying books, stationary and school uniforms). She said she chose for them to support her eldest daughter in her education, because it is more important than money. Nath hopes that one day her daughters will go to University, get a good job, and be able to support their family with a better chance for their own futures.
Plans for the Future
When Nath and her husband recover a little from their illnesses, they plan to improve their circumstances by going to work in Thailand. She will have to borrow money from her neighbours in order to pay for the travel. Nath cannot afford a passport or visa so she will have to travel and work illegally, by any means possible, with no guarantee that she will even find a job when she gets there or that she will be paid for any work that she does. There are far more risks working illegally, including being abused or not paid by employers, being imprisoned by the Thai government, and being victim of human trafficking. Her biggest fear is being found and sent to jail. She knows of people who have gone to Thailand to work – some have come back with money, some haven’t.
Nath can see no other option. The support given by NGOs such as Anatta may provide a vast amount of help – and hope – but unfortunately does not solve her problem. With no money to invest, no livelihood training available, and no means or knowledge of how to get a lawfully paid job, what other route can Nath take? This is the reality of people living in absolute poverty in Cambodia.
Check out my blog about health in Cambodia and another NGO which works in Banan District, Cambodia.
The personal case study is what we were asked to complete for VSO to share our own experiences of the project and the placement. We spent eleven weeks in Cambodia working for Voluntary Service Overseas (part of International Citizenship Service) in teams of roughly ten UK volunteers, ten Cambodian volunteers, and two team leaders (one UK, one Cambodian), and placed in a target area of the country. Our group lived in Phnom Sampov Commune, Banan District, Battambang Province on a project which overall sought to create a youth co-operative and give this group the skills they need to become agents of their own change. I transcribed my case study from a speech I presented to fellow VSO volunteers and staff in a story sharing session at the end of our placement.
My placement with Voluntary Service Overseas did not drastically alter my personality or values, but it has given me a different perspective on some things which I hope will help me in the future. Before my placement with VSO ICS, I was more closed minded and strong-headed with my opinions, but now I feel more open and accepting of people’s values and customs, which is very important for cross-cultural working. This perhaps stems from my increased self-awareness during this trip, which has led me to understand my own strengths and weaknesses and to appreciate that, in turn, other people are only human too.
I have come to value different qualities in people. Whereas before my placement, I valued fun-loving, charismatic personality traits in people, during my time working on the project I came to appreciate people with a hard-working nature, who take initiative and are always willing to accept extra duties in order to get the job done.
I have greater knowledge about Cambodia and global issues due to our Community Action Days (where we put on events in the local area) Active Citizenship Days (where we researched topics and presented this to the team) and through independent research.
Overall I think everyone who has participated in the ICS programme has developed in either their knowledge or their own personality and/or perspective, and I think that this is where ICS’s strength lies as opposed to community or national development. Living amongst the community, sleeping in the same houses as Cambodian families, and working in a team with different backgrounds and abilities is what catalysed this change rather than the project itself. Although I may not have contributed to the community in Phnom Sampov, I feel that I am in a better position to actively help community development in the future and I hope that the next cycle of volunteers in Phnom Sampov will make a difference using the information we have left them.
However, I would not have got anything out of this placement without my exceptional team and team leaders. We have supported each other through difficult periods and worked together to make our time valuable here, having developed a close relationship and genuine care towards each other. We have constructively handled problems, for example investigating our project aim, and found a solution to the issues that we had with it. This has led us to change the project goal after thorough research, which was the main success of our group and will hopefully be taken on board by the next cycle of volunteers.
My key memory to demonstrate our team spirit was our first Community Action Day, an awareness-raising event about road safety. Due to a difficult relationship with the High School Director, none of the expected student participants arrived. However our team pulled through and the Khmer Volunteers went around the community in person to round up people to join. In the end we had over 60 participants, and the event was very successful due to the initiative taken by our team members.
“VSO ICS has taught me that the key to success and happiness is through my own hard work and the strength of my team.”
• You are no longer offended if someone answers a phone call in the middle of a meeting, a speech or the night. Or when someone spits noisily out of a window.
• You finally understand who is related to whom in your host family.
• You automatically check your dinner for ants before eating.
• You have planned the date of your wedding and first child for the benefit of curious neighbours, despite intending to have neither.
• You have now set up a black-market trade in hand sanitizer, baby wipes and phone chargers with your fellow volunteers.
• You are no longer indignant when people laugh every time you say “hello”, “goodbye”, or any other word in Khmer for that matter.
• You have established a rudimentary conversation with your host family, which mainly consists of “how are you?” (nek socksabai dtay) “it’s hot!” (k’dow), “wind” (howee), “I’m hungry” (khnyom kleeun), “eat rice?” (nyam bai?) and “delicious” (chnyang).
• You are now famous around the community from that one time you danced at the pagoda.
• You greet the frog that lives in your bathroom upon entering.
• You have promised your host family that you will dance for them before leaving because they missed that one time you danced at the pagoda.
• The owners of your favourite cafe now prepare your iced coffee when you sit down before you have even asked for one.
• You have experienced the highs and lows of living on a volunteer allowance, but have still not learnt that food should come before second-hand books and bags made out of rice sacks.
• You have finally caught a gecko after two months of chasing them across walls.
• You no longer consider situations like clutching ten trees and a set of shelves whilst riding home in a tuk-tuk strange.
• It no longer unnerves you to see the neighbours’ dogs wander through your garden at night looking for food.
• You can now open a tin of condensed milk using a cleaver.
• You have learnt that anything can be strapped onto the back of a bike using the right amount of string.
• The fight for the power socket has become a daily struggle.
• The smell of your own sweat has now become comforting, like the presence of an old friend.
• You have grown to love Cambodia and are sad that in twelve days you will leave the country and the lovely people you’ve met here when you finish you placement with VSO.
The Cambodian New Year, this year falling on the 13th – 15th April, is a lively, exciting and holy celebration in the peak of the hot season. I was lucky enough to experience it first-hand and enjoy the national public holiday along with the locals in our host community.
New Year’s Eve
Like British New Year’s, most Cambodian families count the new year down – and there is an elaborate television programme assisting the process – however, in Cambodia the time is different every year, not always at 12am. Apparently there is an angel for each year, and at the end of the countdown the old angel is replaced by the new to watch over people during the following year.
People decorate an alter for the angel in front of their house (adverts on the television tell people the angel’s name and their preferred offering). This year, it had been announced that the new angel wanted a meal, so our alter was adorned with bottles of Fanta, tins of condensed milk and fruit. I found myself calling down the new angel, incense in hand, with my host family at 8pm. We then prayed by our alter for the angel to bless the people living in the house with happiness and good health, and, naturally, went inside to watch TV.
Although Khmer New Year is a light-hearted celebration, it is also primarily a religious one. The older generations of Cambodians will go to the pagoda to pray to the monks for blessings. They also offer the monks packages of food and soft drinks, which is collected around the back of the pagoda by some cheerful old ladies who prepare the monks’ dinner. The rice is taken away separately by the person giving the food, who divides it between bowls in front of the temple – one bowl per monk – with a small donation.
Since Khmer New Year is often one of the few opportunities in a year for people to see their extended family, when travelling around the community we would often bump into small celebrations outside people’s houses. This usually includes the younger generations blessing the older family members by pouring water over their heads, followed by giving each person a small gift, such as a scarf. The celebration then breaks down into a pandemonium as everyone chases each other to wipe talcum powder on their faces – a very fun ritual also meant to spread good luck. After this, everyone settles down for a meal, which usually contains rice noodles and copious amounts of fizzy drink.
The Night Come to Life
As soon as the sun sets, the pagoda transforms into a chaotic playground. I was amazed to learn of “pagoda parties”, where the village congregates around the Buddhist temples – visited that very morning for prayers – to have a grand old time. Stalls selling sausages, barbequed eggs, sugar cane drinks, soft drinks and fairy lights spring up from nowhere. A large circle is fenced off for dancing, which is slowly populated by Cambodian children and teenagers, whilst a sound system booms out hardcore American and Cambodian remixes. The pagoda itself is lit up and thriving with excited children having powder fights away from their parents’ prying eyes.
The night is usually when everybody lets their hair down. The young women wear short skirts or vest tops (usually inappropriate in rural communities) and the men drink beer. It is a very jolly celebration, and we soon learnt that seeing foreigners dance is a favourite pass-time for a lot of Khmer people (and who could blame them when move so erratically compared to the traditional Khmer dance)!
Overall the people we have met in Cambodia are delighted when we take part in their community activities and encourage us to get involved. As long as you are friendly and not boisterous or loud you will be included wholly in the celebrations – but be prepared to be laughed at a lot, especially when you dance.