Sunday, January 30, 2011

Does Corporate Japan Really Care about the Emotional Well-being of its Foreign New Grads?

For a foreigner to live in Japan for many many years as a productive, "regular" (in terms of what he does, a salary-man or Office Lady, for that matter) member of society requires the person to be REALLY emotionally attached to Japan as a society. Just liking "Japanese culture" (as many professes BEFORE they come to Japan, based on their knowledge of Japanese pop culture-based stereotypes) is really not enough for more than few months when that "newness" of being Japan wears off.

What is required is a deep bond of friendship with the local people that act as a honest and unobstructed channel of understanding the individual Japanese persons intimately. It is about breaking the "personal barriers" the Japanese put around them against foreigners (and other Japanese as well) to "be nice" toward the others yet prevent others from acquiring too much of a position in their personal lives. All in all, it is about making unconstrained emotional communication with everyone that the said foreigner meet within this country.

Easier said than done. For most of us foreigners without local friends and social communities, the limited social environment offered by our workplaces often become the only way of attempting to form emotional relations with local Japanese people. Yet, because, after all, it is a workplace where individual and small group work tend to keep the communication limited to few people and only regarding work, getting to know anyone as beyond a colleague is difficult even we aggressively seek to meet them outside the workplace.

Sure, that is not to say that friendships cannot be made within the company walls. I do keep very good relations with some Japanese new grads in outside social activities, but it can be said that most of the "social activities" with coworkers still involve drinking where work and sense of corporate hierarchy does not disappear (and perhaps even get stronger). Two recent personal examples can surely illustrate exactly how we the new grads are not getting any closer emotionally to the Japanese after all these months.

Last Friday, coming back from a drinking party with other new grads (mostly foreign and Class of 2011), three of us were talking (in English) in the train on the way back. Suddenly, a drunk Japanese guy standing behind us told us to shut up and started picking on us for not speaking Japanese. Himself probably a salary-man just like me during the day, he wanted to pick a fight with me at the next station. Thankfully, we got out of the train in time so that he cannot find track us in the thick crowd.

And in a more job-related one, I, after writing my weekly reports to the Boss regarding how I feel at work for the past few months, were suddenly told that I should write more number-based facts and expert opinions (specifically noted that these do not include MY opinions) as the main (and pretty much only, since the reports are so short) content. The fact that messages regarding my emotions are not welcomed is, reluctantly, clearly noted (not to mention that now I have to spend more work time summarizing facts and figures when I already push some work to the weekend).

But these two examples, while being clearly point out that (1) Japanese xenophobia (only outwardly expressed when drunk) prevent them from understanding foreigners emotionally and (2) emotions have no place in a workplace (even though work and life do not have clear separation in Japan), are still not disturbing considering that the influence of alcohol and clear workplace power structure prevent clear communication, but the current measures undertaken in Rakuten to make the foreign new grads "feel at home" is even worse.

The Rakuten "Foster Care" program ask for (in other words, force against their will) all Executive Officers to invite foreign new grads to their houses and certain Japan-only events so that they can "settle down in Japan." The obvious negative connotation with the program name aside, the program actually manage to actually set into time-lined procedures on when and what the Officers should do with the new grads throughout this year. Its just absolutely hocking that even something as human as getting to know others emotionally can be, in this company, turned into a forced work-like activities featuring multiple KPIs.

Now that we the new grads know the Japanese we are attempting to bond with seek to only know us just enough to satisfy their number-related KPIs, I cannot help but close this one with with some dark humor: All things said in the world can be categorized into two things: fact-based Numbers and thought-based Opinions. And depending on what is the input and the output, four kinds of beings emerge: those who input and output Numbers are robots; those who input Numbers and output Opinions are consultants; those who input Opinions and output Numbers are i-bankers; and those who input and output Opinions are humans.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Amy Chua and the "Value" of Emotions in International Relations

In philosophy, there is a school of thought known as Absolutism, tracing back to the days of Hegel in its pursuit of absolute ideal standards in all fields of human society. From social structures and economics to governments and moral values, Absolutists held that there is that one elusive yet perfect model for humans of all backgrounds and beliefs to achieve absolute success. Some will discover the model earlier than others, but as knowledge is spread, the entire world and entire human civilization, will eventually converge the exact same application of the exact same model with perhaps a little regional variations.

Not surprisingly, the enthusiastic cries of triumph at finding that ideal one-fits-all model has been heard throughout the existence of Absolutist thought. And some, most notably "Western-style democracy" and "free-market capitalism" has been highly justified with increased happiness of common people brought by personal freedoms and materialistic prosperity. Using such reasoning, their "discoverers" have wasted no time trying to spread those ideals across the globe.

But just as long as the Absolutists have been frantically searching for and "finding" their perfect ideal models, there has been a simultaneous increase in sentiments of serious doubts on whether those good systems can be fully exported intact to countries with entirely different socio-cultural backgrounds and expect to remain as effective, successful, and ideal as they are in the locales of origin. And such doubts of "cultural incompatibility" have become the common retort against encroachment of Absolutist "universalistic ideals."

A controversial opinion piece published on Jan 8th, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal may help to rationalize the very doubts about the universal applicability of such so-called ideal systems.

Prof. Amy Chua of Yale Law School, herself born and raised in the US to Chinese-Filipino immigrant parents, used her dry wit to point out the harsh extremities of "Chinese" parenting style and the unfortunate "benefits" to the children raised under such parenting. Calling herself a "Tiger Mother," she publicly denounced "American" parenting to be too soft and used her own personal parenting stories to evidence the "superiority" of the Chinese in raising stereotypically successful kids.

Thousands of angry responses from offended "Americans," in the form of articles, blog posts, and death threats to Chua's mailbox, were largely expected. But what is unexpected, and indeed overlooked by the majority of the responders, is that Chua used deliberately controversial dark humor, a product entirely of her American background, to point out both the inhumane irrelevance of the Chinese parenting values against the universal trend toward individual freedom as well as the fragile sensitivity of the American psyche toward any assault on their long-held Absolutist value systems.

Although largely limited to one particular field, the predicted reactions to Chua's article does say much about the emotional "human factor" within international relations. To be specific, the reactions were a blunt exposure of people's tendency to resort first to emotional, rather than analytical, view of their surroundings. People are first and foremost threatened by and not willing to logically consider the merits of any foreign ideas that straightforwardly presented as completely contradictory to their own.

Thus, it can be said that the main issue with the spread of ideals, even if they proved themselves to be source of freedom and wealth, is not simply, or even primarily, that they cannot similarly be a source of such good things in other places. It is much more about the gap in understanding and confiding in the spreading ideals that allow for misunderstanding and ensuing reflexes of resistance that in turn give rise to those irrational "doubts of incompatibility."

Such doubts, when placed in the framework of national governments rather than individuals, will no doubt lead to so-called "conflicts of national interests." As national leaders of all sides are increasingly obliged to heed the illogically passionate responses of nationalists at home, they are forced to communicate their anger, or worse, use their diplomatic, economic, or military weapons to alleviate their sensitivities to pointed oppositions from abroad. The resulting mutual suspicion does not need explanation.

Therefore, ability to generate restraint against irrational emotional responses, rather than ability to promote communication using rational scientific theories, should be the main field of research in promoting better international relations. If more in officialdom, not to mention common people like myself, can learn to smooth out their opinionated messages to people of different backgrounds, then the spread of some Absolutist ideals, with their obvious practical merits, may be possible with fewer violent outcries and more joyous acceptance.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Respecting Religions as the First Step for Globalization

So, today, I checked the total PV of my blog, and it turns out Japan, for the first time, has surpassed the US as the largest source of viewers of my posts. In other words, the blog has entered the period where more people come to me for understanding what is outside of Japan (more mentally and philosophically than physically, of course) rather than what is inside Japan (socio-culturally and physically). And since I have so far largely played a travelling passive observer role voicing opinions on real situations, perhaps, as many have suggested, becoming more proactive in my suggestions for improvements may serve the blog very well.

Of course, as a new grad with rather superficial contact with Japanese people (occasionally drinking would not suffice as truly understanding Japanese culture...), the thing I can probably talk about the most is regarding how Japan can become less self-righteous ("this is Japan, do the Japanese way"), even secretively, when dealing with foreigners. My first suggestion regarding the matter is for the Japanese (and other Asians) to study different religions.

First, I need to be clear that I myself is not religious at all and is not planning to be religious any time soon (in fact, I do see the underlying socio-political purpose of each major religion as a major detracting factor compromising supposed moral authority). Yet, precisely because I am this way that I can relate to most Japanese, who see little value in religion besides commercial purposes (Christmas shopping, Church Wedding, Buddhist funerals). The importance of religious identity is simply not understood at all in this society.

The fact that Shinto, Japan's national "religion," is so connected with Japanese ethnic identity (much like Hinduism, and to a lesser extent, Judaism) does not help the Japanese comprehend what universal religions like Christianity and Islam (and their different sects) means for a person's existence. To simply put, the concept that religion can allow for a true creation and maintenance of supranational cultural identity, forming Christian and Islamic communities, is not a phenomenon that can be emulated by the likes of Shinto.

Such a lack of understanding cause the Japanese (and, again, many other Asians), to maximize the cultural impact of a nationality (say, the Britons) at the expense of a religious background (say, the Anglicans). They tend to think that while nationality is held as a constant for most people, religion, on the other hand, can be switched rather easily according to practical needs. Japanese liking for Christian-style wedding and Buddhist-style funeral represents this thought rather well.

Taking religion in such a light way toward religious people (and people like me who understand the seriousness of the religious people) is bound to cause serious social conflicts. Two examples I faced myself can illustrate this point. (1) Not that long ago in Japan, I was once asked whether I would marry anyone who is religious (as I am an atheist). In response to my answer that "as long as the other side does not mind," the reply I received was, "what do you care, you do not have a religion anyways, just convert!"

Right, converting for romance maybe the biggest no-no that I can think of when it comes to devotees. Changing entire moral code and swearing allegiance to another deity require much more convincingly rationale than for marriage, especially when an eternity of afterlife (compared to at most few decades of marriage) is at stake. But at least romance is a "purer" reason for converting than for money...which leads to my second example. It is regarding how new Chinese and Korean immigrants suddenly become Christians when they go to the States.

My parents thought about it as well (even dragging me to a few Church services). But talking to people there, we found out that no one really understood the moral value and responsibilities of being Christian (despite all the sermons they devotedly attend every week). They were practically all there (at least at first) for connections within the community so they can live better lives in the new country. So, in a sense, the local ethnic church is no different from an ethnic support or "community center"...

Sure, that is not to say that all Asians are incapable of devoting to religions (the crazy Korean missionaries in the Middle East would kill me for this sort of comment), but for most of them, religion itself comes much lower in priority compares to all the other perks and benefits being religious brings. To think like this is, honestly put, a huge insult to people who remained faithful to one religion and passed down the orthodox values for generations. Japanese and other Asians need to clearly understand this point.

Fearless Proposal to the Boss: Courage more than KY

In Japanese culture, the social protocol calls for utmost attention to the right "atmosphere." Certain actions can only be considered appropriate when the "atmosphere" of the time and place allowed for them to be carried out. In Japanese lingo, it is "reading the air" (空気を読む)and for every person deemed to be lacking in such skill, the term "KY" ("cannot read the air, "Kuki Yomenai," 空気読めない) is ruthlessly (albeit sometimes jokingly) applied. The presence of these KY people is definitely a source of massive awkwardness and discomforting bluntness in any social gathering, whether work-related or otherwise.

Well, being careful to avoid KY-ness is obviously of high importance in certain work conditions. In the presence of one's superiors, or worse, external guests, doing anything KY, i.e. making overly argumentative comments against the others, aggressively doing something that should be reserved to the superiors, and so forth, as a new graduate, is bound to be highly humiliating and irritating for the superiors. (In China, such thing is called "not giving face" 面子...a concept too narrowly defined in Japan to be applied here)

And, thus, an innocent concept followed by people in all situations to avoid social taboos have somehow, like everything and every situation in Japan, become a physical manifestation of "class differences" within the work environment. By citing KY, the superiors hint that the subordinates should think twice (and many many more times) before they open their mouth and do something (really, anything) without consent in front of people with authority and power. KY, far from its original purpose to avoid social gaffs, have become the convenient excuse for preserving conservative social hierarchy and suppress dissenting opinions before they become public.

And all this in a country and company that tries to become more global (here we go again...). The premise for anyone to tolerate any sort of hierarchical structure is that those on the top of the hierarchy do have much knowledge and experience that those on the bottom can quickly learn from to improving their own chances of moving up the hierarchy. But, in a rapidly changing conceptual space where being global is suddenly valued over many other skills, the hierarchy breaks down: those on the top represent the conservative inward-looking nativists seeking to preserve the existing order against excess "foreign influences."

Dissent is the open communication to announce the approaching irrelevance of these hierarchical "elders." At its initial minority status, dissent may only be noticed, and then quickly ignored, as a few violent outbursts of anti-social behavior. But at some point, the momentum gathers enough so that more and more original defenders of the existing order become doubtful of its viability in the current form. Calls for reform, even small and insignificant ones, appear, causing alarming backlashes from the still steadfast loyalists of the existing order.

A recent incident at Rakuten may have finally brought this struggle into the open. A new grad directly emailed the CEO asking for a format change in an all-company meeting, proposing that the CEO take questions directly from the employees at the meeting. I mean, how KY could it be to ask for a forum of "common peoples'" voices in a company that actively runs a personality cult of its founder-owner-president-CEO (we have done everything to qualify for that, perhaps with the exception of hanging his picture in every room).

But the idea passed. And it passed after it was soundly berated by the head of HR dept, after being filtered by the CEO Office, and being shuffled among the thousands of emails the big Boss receives everyday. That by itself is an achievement. It does not matter whether or not the Q & A Session is effective (as many openly doubts); the simple move of sending a gutsy novel idea directly to the Boss (skipping the consenting of all the middle managers and executives) shows that, despite all that is said about strict hierarchy, the CEO's door (and mind) is still open if you are willing to overlook such perceived strictness.

If KY means the opinions of the individuals cannot be heard by those with power to implement them, then KY can only be a recipe for suppressing peaceful reforms and fomenting violent revolutions. To propose new ideas, thus, should not simply be just because the ideas are good, but because KY can be weakened and ultimately be replaced with a universal "flat" egalitarian mindset. And finally, its all about raining on the parade of the yes-men like the head of HR and the silent, passive employees, who are convinced of the existing order's infallibility and their ability to simply depend on its unchanging seniority system for future success.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Japanese Attitude toward Foreign Workers in Japan

This day has been quite unproductive. I have been sleeping until 10am (got up at 5:30am as usual but went back to bed because it is simply too cold...), reading the news, and tracing my thoughts on bar-hopping and clubbing in a blog post...all this when I instead could have done finished many more job-related tasks that I am now pushing back to tomorrow and the days after. It is true that I practically spent half of the three-day weekend on work, frantically typing away to create documents and send emails, but it seems that the "invisible hand" that push me down to the desk is still not loosening a single bit.

I do tell people that I am feeling this way, and all I am getting is "do not let your workaholic self take away your freedom." While I have made it clear that I am not going to lose myself just because I am now living in a country where social nonconformity is only understood as "craziness," I am starting to think that the Japanese managers, from the top-down, are systematically (and quite effectively) shaming the foreigners into following the strict corporate culture of this country.

For me to keep criticizing the Japanese in such a fashion, however, is not interesting anymore. Whenever the foreigners live in Japan for extended period of time, they should come to realize that the Japanese are not open-minded about accepting foreign ways of doing things. Yet, perhaps it is also important to see this from the Japanese point of view. Aren't we, all the foreigners (with exception of Koreans and maybe the Chinese who get the same kind of crap back home) being completely arrogant and inconsiderate when we expect the Japanese to change their corporate culture to suit us?

In fact, many of us foreigners (including myself) have been so critical of the Japanese that we have simply noted, more or less, that the Japanese corporate culture is the WRONG way of doing global business and that they absolutely DO need to change it if they ever have the chance of succeeding abroad. Yes, it is true that the "global-ness" of the new grads are not respected and it is also true that Japanese service companies have not really succeeded outside Japan, but can those be fully blamed on the Japanese's refusal to change?

Let's try to perceive the same situation from the Japanese side. To them, we the foreigners (especially the English native speakers) are simply arrogant for not trying to adopt to the local conditions in Japan (reminds of what I felt myself when I took a group of Americans to China for a volunteer trip back in college), and that there should be a mutual agreement for change before proceeding (i.e. both sides should change toward the other until hitting some meeting point in the middle)

And at least in the workplace, the Japanese seems to be quietly prodding along with such a plan. Gone are the days when I am often reminded that I should not stay beyond 6:30pm at the workplace and that I should not work on the weekends because it represents low efficiency. Instead, they are now replaced with praises of my showing up at 6:30am and that I am having "full and busy" days. At the same time, it is not uncommon these days for me to be told that I should speak and write Japanese as often as possible.

The Japanese are absolutely scared that the foreigners are using "the need for Japan's globalization" and more basically, speaking English, as a segway for the foreigners to push their home cultures in Japan. In fact, the absolute "I don't give a damn" nonchalance with which most employees, especially those on the bottom in the sales departments, are approaching the subject of studying English (one guy told me over lunch, "yeah, it would be nice if I can speak English, but you know, all my clients are Japanese, so who cares?"), is the ultimate display of hatred toward the foreigners.

In a country where outward emotional displays only exist when people are drunk, a polite word of caution or expression of opinion as such can mean so much. Well, it is a good thing I am becoming more and more able to read into those things (or is it? becoming Japanese in mentality is possibly the last thing I want to do), so I can tell when a polite "you might want to" means I cannot say "no" to that even it means throwing away my weekend. See, Japan? I really do care about how you think!

Bar-Hopping and Clubbing All-Night-Long, Japanese Style

Western-style partying often involves drinking and partying it up with complete strangers, allowing people to enlarge their friendship circles in rather random ways. The Japanese, on the other hand, generally tend to be rather private on these matters, preferring to drink and go crazy in the comfort of their own separate spaces. So, those who do party Western-style in Japan has to be very, eh, different and not conforming with the social norms...must be an interesting crowd just by that. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to find out for myself this weekend.

This Saturday, as I was lounging around at home, slowly finishing up some company tasks, a friend from San Diego suddenly called and said he is in Tokyo and wants to hang out. Sure, why not, especially since God knows when I will be in San Diego again. So we met up and headed for Shibuya. As we were discussing what to do over a dinner, the guy started talking about his clubbing experience in Roppongi. And here I was, been longing to go clubbing in Japan for quite awhile. The precondition has been set: this will be partying all-nighter, with both of us ready to dole out every penny we got in the wallet for the experience.

But before the clubs open up, a bit of time has to be killed. So, walking around Shibuya searching for every Western-style (and cheap) bar somehow became the consensus for a "good idea." In a neighborhood dominated by countless Japanese-style izakayas (居酒屋), there were surprisingly quite a few Western-themed places. What could be taken as British pubs and Spanish bar-cafes emerged out of nowhere in the winding back streets, drawing the pedestrians with their stereotypical decorations of foreign flags and brand names.

The insides weren't bad either. Wooden tables, soccer matches on TV, and the bar stands. The physical images seem to be imitated well. But something was still amiss. The rowdiness of the drunken white people (quite often loudly instigating bar fights) so commonly seen back in the States and Australia are replaced by polite Japanese couples sampling the various bar foods on offer. And the "friendliness" of the bar staff is defined as screaming on top of their lungs 「いらっしゃいませ!」(Welcome!) and 「ありがとうございました!」(Thanks!) to every person entering or leaving the bar's front door.

So much for giving the bar a Western atmosphere. In fact, its probably more apt to describe these places as "Western-style izakaya" rather than "Japanese-style bars." There seem to be much more emphasis on the eating than the drinking (e.g. we saw a group of high-school-looking girls drinking milkshakes in one of the "bars" we went to), and the Japanese people there tend to come to these bars out of curiosity ("let's try to be foreign today!") in their everyday routine of going to another izakaya to do the drinking.

And the price certainly justify the attitude. There were so many bars we skipped because the cheapest drink on sale was 500 Yen (whereas most izakayas do all-you-can-drink for around 1500 Yen/hour). Too much time was spending walking to look for cheap bars and not enough time actually drinking...the alcohol-induced buzz was still not there when the clock hit 10pm. No matter, clubbing time, and we headed over to the biggest one we can find, hoping we can actually get in...

Why? Neither of us had passports and both of us were in T-shirts and regular walking shoes. Yet, somehow, with our coats zipped up high and a couple of foreign ID cards, we managed to get in (and only paying 1000 Yen each with two free drinks!). "Its cuz we are foreign," we kept telling ourselves, reminding ourselves that we aren't some Japanese pretenders doing this out of curiosity (like those in the "foreign-looking" bars we were in before...oh there goes that "we" against "them" mentality again).

"A dance club is foreign" seems to be well-understood and the presence of foreigners to confirm that seems to be highly welcomed. Every sign in the club is bilingual in Japanese/English and often only in English (and when we left the club many many hours later, we got discount tickets for the place....clearly marked "Foreigners and Women Only")...foreigners must be more popular here? We better somehow prove it. So, I, the non-foreign-looking foreigner, decided that I am going to pretend that I don't speak a single word of Japanese for the rest of the night.

I began to regret the move really fast. The fact is that most (all) Japanese guys there weren't really into talking to random girls they find on the dance floor. The girls were certainly happy to say hi to the foreign guy who approach them in English (cuz they are the only strangers approaching them), but conversations go absolutely nowhere, thanks to loud background noise + low English levels. I probably had a better shot playing the wingman/translator for my foreign-looking friend.

And frankly, I would think that most Japanese girls there had no expectation that the solicitations of the foreigners can be so aggressive. In a place with no personal space and random guys touching you from all over, most girls must be quite scared even with the availability of girls only dancing and sitting spaces. (It's the morning commute on public transport, only crazier...so much my admiration of Japanese trains). Even I, who were very polite with how I approached the girls, was elbowed a few times in the stomach....

Well, not a problem alcohol cannot resolve. The two of us must have spent 10000 Yen just on alcohol in that damned pace (like I said, we were prepared to spend big, but the emptiness of the wallet the morning after was still shocking nonetheless). But the girls here are smart. They chain-smoke, but do not chain-drink. Keeping a clear mind for constant observation, they just make us guys look like total idiots "dancing" on the floor...But then, all of the sudden, the buzz from the alcohol goes away and cannot be recovered with more drinks.

So sleepy, so tipsy, yet at the same time so cleared in the mind. The joy of dancing was suddenly replaced with a thought of "why am I still here"...yet every girl that stumbled with us onto that first train of the morning at 5am looked incredibly pretty and familiar from the dance floor. stumbled back to my bedroom and onto my bed, passed out, and woke up in the afternoon bewildered, "what just happened?!"...yet, a partying portion remained...would I do that again? "Hell yeah."

Monday, January 3, 2011

On the Concept and Feasibility of Continued Excitement

People get bored of doing the same thing over and over, being in the same situation, and seeing the same people. For one to stop doing something after starting it may take only a day (like I am with computer games), or maybe a few years (hopefully, as I am thinking nowdays). But even for something of as much personal value as a significant other or high-paying employment, and no matter how difficult and how elated it was for one to get in the beginning, the day will come when it is no longer desirable, and worse, a bit disgusting.

Of course, unless one finds a continued reason for keeping up the excitement for it. Often it involves a whole new aspect of the matter or object in question that was completely overlooked before. A hidden stage in a game (forcing programmers to be more and more sophisticated these days), a sudden new responsibility at work, and a newly discovered common hobby with the partner are all considerable for preventing that natural human curiosity from buying new games, looking for new jobs, and hunting for new girls/boys.

For me, finding that new aspect is much more difficult than others. In terms of the roads walked and experience gained, I am one for quantity over quality, frequency over depth, and size over sophistication. (This is really starting to show in this blog...a lot of length but rough in content...full of grammar and spelling mistakes, for instance). And because I steadfastly hold on to such a view that I cannot help but feel that boredom is really starting to show in my daily life (certainly not hiding it in the blog either).

Do not know if I ever mentioned this before, but since high school, I have not been in the same place to do the same thing for more than 4 months at a time. Even considering 4 years at Yale, I was always away from Yale for at least a few weeks after every semester of 3 and a half months or so. Life (and especially travels) for me is so inseparable with constant change for the last 5 years that I just cannot bear to live without a certain prospect of it at anytime.

And, that magical "4 months" period is quickly approaching for me here in Japan (by the 1st of February, to be precise). Yes, I do understand that a job is different from school that I really do have to stay in one place and do (relatively) the same thing for an extended period of time (2 years minimum, the common logic goes) for it to be valuable in anyways. So I am looking for ways to let my heart calm down and settle in for a prolonged battle here in Tokyo.

So, what do people do to make themselves less agitated about doing something new? The concept behind every effective method seems to be one word, "stakeholder." No, not the propagandistic kind that pop up in every company's philosophy and mission about ensuring employees' loyalty and diligence, but about the mental state one attaches to the societal order of which s/he is currently is a part. High pay does not make one excited about a job (otherwise, NGOs would not exist) and being labelled "special," even in the most positive way imaginable, can quickly become tiring.

That mental comfort, or as I fearfully say, contentment with the status quo, can emerge from two forces, the materialistic and the emotional. The materialistic is easy to explain. The more physical stuff you have in one place, the less you become willing to move away. Tossing out all the expensive bulky good stuff (TV, furniture, etc) is just so sad and a hassle. But, the materialistic is not nearly as powerful as the emotional from a long term perspective.

By emotional, I mean family and friendships (whith I do not really believe in...instead, I am big on fleeting concepts of "acquaintanceships") which many people will trade for (sometimes forcefully) freedom and independence, but mostly I am just talking about romance. There is nothing like an intimate significant other when one wants to be tied down to a certain place. And come to think of it, isn't half the friendships (of both genders) based on conversations about relationships?

And as much as I hate to admit it, I, like any other human, do like to think about it. Certainly willing to spend lengths talking about it in great detail and even (somewhat) think about the issue critically and non-emotionally as I do for other topics...so, given the interests, why not go out and try to expand the channels for making some magic happen? Well, life is one big playground, so we will just have to wait and see whats on offer....

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Midnight Walk: from Asakusa to Kamata in 5 Hours

Sometimes, the greatest adventures (or stupidities, depending on how you think about it) occurs under the most unexpected circumstances during the most unusual timings. And yesterday was definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime out-of-the-blue experiences that I will probably never have the chance to do again (nor would want to do again). The story starts with my visiting my relatives up in Saitama Prefecture for some dinner and conversations. I depart around midnight, expecting that, since it is the New Years holidays, the trains will run much later into the early morning than usual.

In a way I was right, I managed to catch the empty last train from Saitama to Asakusa in northeastern side of Tokyo at about 5 minutes past midnight, drifting in and out of sleep as the train slowly pulled itself toward Asakusa terminal. The arrival time was half an hour past midnight, and the little historical neighborhood was deserted. The subways (the only public transportation in and out of the place) was (to my moderate "shock") completely shut down and no one, except a few foreigners praying at the towering Senso Shrine, was present on the cold, pitch dark streets.

I had two options, to take a taxi that will probably cleanse every penny I got in my wallet at the moment, or...walk. Being the cheapest traveler (and person, for that matter) I know, I automatically chose the option that is...less costly. I probably had no idea what I was getting into until I visited a nearby hotel and asked the guy at the front about directions. And there I approached with perhaps the most ridiculous question I have asked in all my travels, "which way is, eh, south?"

The guy asked me where I was going. "Shinagawa direction," I said, without telling him that Kamata, being another half an hour by train south from Shinagawa, was my final destination. A look of unbelieving yet friendly smile spread over his face (I am probably not the only crazy guy to walk in at midnight and say something like that), and he simply tells me to head east until I hit Ueno Station and then just follow the train track all the way south.

Departure time: 12:40am. The first leg from Asakausa to Ueno was not at all difficult. Wakened by the freezing winter breeze, I concentrated on walking and looking around to make sure nothing strange is approaching under the dim street lights. Speed walking was the only way for me to keep myself warm enough against the 5 degree Celsius weather. The fast pace allowed me to clear the 3km to Ueno in less than 15 minutes. The usually crowded and noisy station seemed so deserted, the silence broken only occasionally by the patrolling policeman, the movements of the homeless in their makeshift shelter, and....me.

The more I walked, the more my optimism started to surge. Akihabara was cleared in another 15 minutes, and Kanda and Otemachi stations in less than 20 minutes. The always lit skyscrapers of central Tokyo were in full view and my body is seeing no sign of tiring. The "lets walk a bit until I can catch the first train in the morning back home" attitude was quickly replaced with "pssh, this is easy, I bet I can get home before the trains start back up again."

Yet, doubts began to grow as I entered that forest of skyscrapers. The elevated train tracks departed the main avenue, and walking underneath it was definitely not the most pleasant phase in the trip. The coverage offered by the tracks have made the little neighborhood a haven for the homeless. Hundreds of them crowded together, forcing me to breath down a continued olfactory barrage of pee + body oder as a walked around them, careful not to wake them up and cause any sort of situation.

The faceless skyscrapers around Tokyo stations gave way to cold appearances of Italian- (i.e. "luxurious") looking buildings of high-end restaurants and bars in Ginza and Hamamatsucho. The time was quickly approaching 2am, and counting the number of stations left until Kamata was only making cold sweat flow down my body in total anxiety. Walking down the little side streets parallel to the train tracks, I felt the distance of the stations becoming further apart and even Shinagawa becoming further away.

3:30am, Shinagawa Station. The major checkout point on the trip has finally been achieved. But staring down the dozens of parallel train tracks leading into and out of the station only made my presence feel even smaller. The signs on the 1st Keihin Highway was hurrying me to the south. "Omori 3km," it says, referring to the last station on the JR line before reaching Kamata. "Not too bad, just a couple more miles," I thought, reflecting all the other long walks I have had in various places before.

4:10am, Aomono-yokocho Station. My usual commuting station felt so familiar yet so different. It was not a place to stop and carefully examine; my feet were getting numb and I know I am reaching the end of my endurance. Well, at least I know the train takes 20 minutes from this station to Kamata. Seriously, how bad can it get, home no longer seemed that farther away....I am already in "my neighborhood" and a little more effort is all it will take.

Man, was I wrong. The last hour and half of the trip proved to be toughest mentally. The numbness of my feet was all the sudden replaced with face-twitching pain every time take a step, my eyes can barely open in the cold wind, and worst of all, few stations down the walk in Samezu, the first train of the morning blew past me as I continued to walk the highway parallel to the tracks. Suddenly, I just wanted to give up, take a train, and go home for long-desired sleep.

But at the end, it was all about pride. A trip would not have a good finish if a "wimped out of continuing" was the ultimate conclusion. And if I walked for four hours already, what difference would another hour really make? And it is simply because I want to sit here and tell you (as well do for many years to come) that I walked (COMPLETELY and NONSTOP) from Asakusa to Kamata that I really did have no choice but to continue the very last leg to its very end at my apartment's front door.

5:40am, my apartment in Kamata. A pair of (still) nonfunctional legs ad feet, 21.8km, and about 5 hours 10 minutes later, the destination was reached. Even though at that time, the only thing on my mind was sleep, the walk did shape up my toughness once more (even more the Shanghai 8-hour and Seoul 6-hour walks I did before). It is about thinking on your feet in the worst of circumstances, about focus to complete something grand and seemingly unreachable, and most importantly, about never setting your own limitations and never abandoning something because of slight inconveniences. Well, lets hope that I can really translate this sort of attitude into work and anything else I take up in the future.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

First Post of 2011: New Year's Resolutions and a Career Beyond Rakuten?

As a new year opens up a new page for this blog (its 7th month in existence), it is time for me to continue reflecting on the potential direction my life will take for the next twelve months and look ahead to what may (and may not) happen in the next 365 days. The continued doubts about the correctness of where I am going with life aside, the calm (or put it in a better way, boring) few days of this 5-day break has really given me the time to rethink the possibilities and limitations facing me right now, without excess ideals or pessimism.

To be honest, one year really is a long time. Given my love of traveling, come to think of it, I have not had a year since junior year of high school (5 years ago) that I actually stayed in one country for an entire year. The mental and structural freedom I get from these travels, especially foreign ones, often act as the energy and fuel for me to continue productive work with decent level of motivation. And with utter fear I have to say that fr 2011, I might have to plan my life based on the assumption that such an "energy and fuel" may not come at any time.

But do not doubt that I have not tried my best to reverse that grim possibility...already (one day into the year). In fact, I have been spending a sizable portion of the 5-day break on looking at the possibilities of my switching to another country by means of a job or grad school. Yes, I do understand that leaving a job just after three months is much more detrimental than it will ever be of any help, but considering that my opportunities out there, especially when pertaining to grad school, require a long lead time (up to a year) for their completions, starting a little search now may not be a bad idea.

And searched I have. I am primarily moving in two directions at the moment. First, a general lookup for grad schools that in which I might become more interested and qualified over time. Right now, the leading candidates are Oxford and Cambridge in England, largely because I would like to go to a leading university, UK (where I have never been), and where the principle language of instruction is English (thus exclude schools in Japan, HK, etc...not that I really wanted to go to those even though they are cheaper in terms of tuition).

With regard to what I will study, the direction has largely shifted from MBA or economics-related fields to a more political and international relations-related one. To be honest, if my three months at Rakuten has taught anything, it is that manipulating data for analysis may require strong skills and a clear mind, but in terms of seeing and understanding different parts of the world, it is definitely not the most suitable employment out there. Data analysis (as well as entire concept of business research) is just too same everywhere to help a person become multicultural.

So that international relations focus on my potential future studies is highly related to my second option, a direct switching of employment from Rakuten. To satisfy my craving for understanding the world, I need to get to as many places as possible, including many not safe and stable enough for business. The most convenient way to do so would be to become part of a governmental or intergovernmental organization with extensive global operations and maintenance of physical branch offices.

Candidates include the familiar ones like the UN, the Dept of State Foreign Services, the CIA, among others. Many such choices are now available to me because of my switching to US citizenship before I left for China for summer. But at the same time, I do realize that these organization do require security clearance of a very high level, something I will have hard time obtaining since all my family members still retain Chinese citizenship. Like all things, I do not know what can happen if I do not actually apply.

OK, finally, based on all that, here is my simple New Year's Resolution. That is, to do everything I was told to do with complete diligence, dedication, motivation, and efficiency. The time to move on from Rakuten is not yet ready (at least in 2011), but the prospect of my always looking for something greater and higher than a life of salary-manhood at Rakuten is that very factor which will push me to keep up my spirit amidst lack of freedom and personal travels.