First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

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!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!

Barriers to Embracing Feminism in Modern Society

Feminism is a very simple notion: that men and women are equal, and that our structure of society and the way that they are treated should reflect this. The majority of people would agree that this is a good idea, particularly in Western society, however despite this feminism has become despairingly difficult for the new generation to really identify with and embrace – particularly among men. In fact, the word often evokes negative associations which generates criticism and judgement towards both the ideology and the people who openly support it.

Why Is This?

Feminism is not a new thing. The desire for women to be treated as equals among men has been about for a very, very long time, brought into light most notably by the suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although equality has come on in leaps and bounds since then in a lot of places, the cold hard truth is that men and women are still not treated equally in any part of the world, and in some places female empowerment is even decreasing. (You can see the facts and figures in the Global Gender Gap Report.)

Everyone knows that changing the very foundations of patriarchal society is a very lengthy process, but for most feminists the progress is agonisingly slow. Besides this, feminism is continually contested by people all over the globe who patronise the ideology and dismiss the oppression of women in society, which makes people very angry (and quite rightly so). However, this unhappy mood has coloured feminism, and the result of this is often the association of feminism with anger and bitterness as opposed to liberation and peace.

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A Personal Approach

Feminism has become very personal. For men and women, feminism means freedom. It means being able to be one’s true identity with no restrictions from society. Feminism is the power of choice, and a lot of people use it as a medium to support their voice and their personal choices – which is not a bad thing.

However, when feminism mixes in with someone’s personal life, it can be tricky to distinguish the two from an outsider’s perspective. For example when someone uses it to explain their motives to do certain things, or their feelings towards certain things, their actions can be misconstrued as an act of feminism itself, rather than an act of theirs which is perhaps inspired by self-empowerment as well as other personal qualities.

The root of a lot of hatred towards feminism (and the concept of ‘anti-feminism’) is the assumption that these personal views are what feminism stands for, rather than what the person who is feminist stands for.

When one person shouts: “I hate all men, and by the way I am a feminist,”  people may read it and think that other feminists also hate men. And so that feminism stands for men-hating. This association between personal qualities in individuals and the qualities of feminism blurs the definition of the word, and can make it seem like an illogical or self-righteous escapade with no real merit. It is important to remember that an opinion voiced by one person is not necessarily shared by the community.

The Shock Tactic

Feminism often works on the confrontational approach: whereby when sexism is come across, it is challenged and shouted down. This can be very effective, especially if the person is gifted with good reasoning power, but in daily life it can be more intrusive than operative. For example, when talking to someone who is openly a feminist, other people in the group may feel (wrongly or not) uneasy or cautious in-case they say something out of turn with the other person’s feminist ideals.

This is built upon the assumptions that feminism is:

  • a complex idea with many pitfalls, and
  • that all feminists are inherently ‘picky’ and quick to judge.

This of course is not true. However, it is true that sexism is a complex, many-layered thing. This is why there are so many sexist incidences that occur in everyday life, and so what may seem commonplace to us will annoy a more observational person – such as not looking a woman in the eye during a business meeting or expecting a man to buy his date a drink.

For someone who identifies as being feminist themselves, being told they are acting in a way that is sexist can be very distressing. Being on guard in conversation does not make feminism an inviting community to be part of, and makes people associate the threat of external judgement as a cornerstone of the ideology.

An Unwelcoming Community

Because feminism is surrounded by controversy, people who are feminist are often questioned about it. The fact is, if you expose yourself as identifying as a feminist, you feel like you will be put under undue scrutiny by other people. And because so many articles and manifestos are written about feminism, the rules and expectations of what a feminist is can seem endless and incompressible.

This leads to you questioning whether you fit into the feminist community at all. What if you aren’t ready to defend your opinions to drunken strangers? What if you still want to shave your armpits? What if you still want to be a housewife, or be a masculine man? What if you love looking at boobs? Surely according to the rules of feminism that means you can never one of them!

Someone I met who obviously supports gender equality said she opposed to being called a feminist because she didn’t feel that she fit into the “feminist image”.  She was not prepared to discuss her views with people, and didn’t want to be associated with the brunt of bad press that feminists are given. Sadly this is a very real barrier to people embracing the identity of feminism.

Barriers to Male Feminists

Feminism is particularly perilous for men. Even though the blame for sexism, misogyny and patriarchy is rooted in society as a whole, men are sometimes individually treated as being guilty of sexism even if they themselves have not acted in this way. For example, the ridiculous notion that ‘all men are part of rape culture’ (a topic which deserves its own article).

In general, men are subject to more scrutiny than women in terms of potential sexist comments or behaviour. This can be very intimidating for a man, particularly for someone who identifies himself as being feminist. Even if this is avoided, men are further ostracized from feminism by things such as ‘women only’ feminist events and the generalisation of men as being sexist pigs who are unfeeling towards the suffering and oppression of women – a stereotype which is sexist and therefore very un-feminist.

Things to remember:

  • Feminism is a simple idea that men and women are equal (not the same) and should be treated equally, which the opportunity and right to make their own life choices.
  • There are no rules to being feminist, other than that you agree with the above.
  • You don’t have to tell people that you are a feminist if you don’t want to.
  • Self-identified feminists may not act in a feminist manner all of the time. This is because sexism is inherent in our society, and is therefore sometimes part our personality without realising it.
  • It can be more difficult for men to ‘come out’ as feminists due to the controversy surrounding the topic.
  • Both men and women are subject to stereotypes and generalisations which negatively affect both parties.

 

A Small Solution

No one person or group of people is to blame for the unwelcoming nature of feminism in today’s culture – it is just the product of a long-contested history of feminism which has struggled to survive throughout its lifetime.  The voices of feminism are strong and passionate, and should continue to be so.

What we can do individually is to take a more positive approach to equality in our daily lives. Embrace our identity. Be supportive and kind to each other at all times, and give each other room for error. (That means no judging on either side of the debate!) Above all, remember that men and women are equal, and act accordingly. (Don’t hug girls and dither at the guy in the group. Give him a squeeze!)

It is time to cheerfully and wholeheartedly accept gender equality as a fact, and work on making it a more welcoming world for all of us.

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Peace to the world and all that.

 

Susceptibility to Single Stories

I recently watched the TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she discussed how vulnerable we are to believing in single stories. A single story is one view of something which is repeated until it is accepted as fact. She described how in the past she has bought into single stories, and was in turn stereotyped due to other people’s belief in them about her native country Nigeria.

Adichie vocalised for me what has been at the back of my mind since returning from overseas. It is the worry that I not only believe in single stories in my day to day life, but more significantly that I have inadvertently created one.

From February to May 2016 I went to live with a family in a rural village in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. Since then, my friends and family have asked me about my experience: mainly what I ate, what the people were like, whether it is a very poor country, and how the locals reacted to me as a foreigner. I could potentially be their sole source of knowledge about the country, putting me in a sensitive position. What I say to people about it could be taken as fact – as a true and whole representation of the country rather than just my limited opinion.
The fact is that everyone is in danger of being an author of a single story – not only about the people and places further afield, but also about their home.

For example, when I was living in Cambodia my Cambodian friend Mony and I would often exchange information about each other’s culture. Mony originally knew very little about Britain, just like I knew little about her country. What she heard about it from me and the other UK volunteers may be the only information she would receive about it for a long while. From what we talked about, she probably got the impression that British people eat burgers every day, are mostly vegetarian and wear baggy, patterned trousers all the time.

When I was talking to Mony, I realised how much I summarised the UK in order to give her a broad idea of the place. Besides this, she had an idealised image of Europe and I didn’t want to admit that my country was not as nice as she imagined it to be. I gave her a story of a developed, secure nation which is a good place for a woman to live and have as many boyfriends as she likes. Despite having lived there all my life, I was not able to give Mony anything other than a single story about Britain.

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Shrines at a Buddhist pagoda: there are at least two sides to every story

Single stories are dangerous because they reduce a group of people down to one thing. Whether they appear kindly, such as: ‘people in Cambodia are really friendly,’ or harmless like: ‘British people love drinking tea,’ they feed into reductive stereotypes and do not acknowledge the broad variety of people who live in every community.

Someone who goes to a country having heard just one perspective about the place may have a certain perception in mind, and treat people differently because of it. For example, in Cambodia I was amazed when I met a monk who lives alone on a hill top, bathes every-day in a stagnant pool, and yet who owned a smart phone and whose passport was filled to the brim with stamps from all over Asia and beyond.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Single stories are also destructive since they dehumanise the people who are within the stereotype. It is much easier to ignore the suffering of a kindly, ambiguous mass of people than an individual like Mony, who is funny, playful, hardworking and in her fourth year at Battambang University. Adichie describes this eloquently in reference to America’s single story of Africa:

“In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her [Adichie’s American roommate] in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

How to Avoid Spreading a Single Story

1) Remind yourself, when hearing about another person, country or community from somebody else, that what the person is saying is just their own perspective of it, and does not account for the whole picture. Look beyond what is being said. It is impossible for one person to create a true representation of an entire community and every person within it. There are always multiple perspectives that are equally valid.
2) Be aware that, when you talk about a place or population, that you do not make sweeping statements such as ‘the people are very poor’. Instead describe specific people you have met, giving them humanity.
For example, when I talked about Cambodian people I tried to describe my host family specifically – who, by the way, I found to be kind, biased, hospitable, cheeky and shy, who ran out of water several times in the dry season but also hosted amazing parties and paid for their children to go to private school.
3) If you are confident enough, challenge misconceptions and stereotypes when you come across them. This doesn’t mean ripping the person who is talking to shreds, since anyone can support stereotypes without realising what they are doing. Kindly nudging them in the right direction, or mentioning that you encountered something that doesn’t fit into that stereotype would work more effectively.

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A group of monks taking a selfie

This article is also a disclaimer on my part. In my blog posts I have written a lot about Cambodia and my experiences of it – but I would like to express that my experiences are wholly subjective. I only lived there for three months in one relatively small community. My main intention when writing these articles is to share what I, as a Westerner going into South East Asia for the first time, have discovered so that you can get a glimpse of Cambodia from my perspective.

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

 

Thank you for reading.

Quotes from The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at 4:48, 9:25, and 18:16.

What Absolute Poverty Looks Like

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.

Environment

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.

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Nath’s brother’s house and storage room

Support

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.

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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.

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Good luck to Nath and her family and we are hoping that they will be on the road to success soon!

Check out my blog about health in Cambodia and another NGO which works in Banan District, Cambodia.

My Personal Case Study: Reflecting on Working for Voluntary Service Overseas

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.

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Teaching English at Phnom Kroper Primary School

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.

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Chantel and Avex working during our last Community Action Day about health

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 Know You’ve Left Cambodia When…

• You had to check that tap water in a restaurant is free and drinkable after being used to bottled water.

• The idea of wearing flattering clothes is still rather baffling and makes you feel slightly naked.

• You feel cold all the time.

• You look around for a bin before remembering that you can put toilet roll down the loo.

• You have suffered the repercussions of returning to a rich Western diet. (Not pleasant.)

• You have become accustomed to physical contact with friends, creating discomfort amongst your loved ones in the UK.

• Being alone in the house for more than two hours is unbearable.

• You have already started planning your next travel adventures.

• You have consumed your body weight in toast over the past two days.

• You have a kilogram of dried mango in your fridge.

• You have had a few sentimental moments over your photos whilst transferring them to your computer.

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You have finally finished your travel journal

• The bland food and vegans you lived with in Banan District have inspired you to eat loads more vegetables (albeit alongside the Easter eggs your grandparents have been saving for you).

• Social media has suddenly become very boring.

• Everyday you thank the stars that you are not waking up to the sound of dreary Cambodian music.

• Your day feels a little unfinished without the evening cycle back to your host home along the main road.

• Brushing your teeth inside feels slightly claustrophobic.

• You have thanked several people in Khmer, which they have politely not commented on.

• You have been reunited with lipstick and regularly wear it around the house, just because you can.

• You have embraced your former Yorkshire accent.

• You now appreciate how much money you have, and how recklessly you spend it.

• You have re-joined the dog-eat-dog world of job applications.

• You have developed cynicism towards your volunteer organisation, but a deep love for Cambodia.

• You have come to appreciate the small things in your day-to-day life, such as sleeping under a duvet, the luscious green countryside, and your family.

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Goodbye for now, Banan!

See my previous list blogs about what its like adapting to Cambodian life in: Things You Come to Appreciate Living in CambodiaYou Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia For a Month When… and You Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia for Two Months When….