Sunday, May 29, 2011

Seeing "Foreign Influences" as I am Given My Final Goodbyes

Friday night: A 2-hour farewell drinking party followed by all-night clubbing; Saturday night: an early afternoon symposium on international education followed by another 4-hour farewell drinking party, followed by another almost all-night clubbing; Sunday night: another farewell drinking party will be happening a few hours from now...my last weekend here in Tokyo has surely been an emotional exhilarating (and physically damaging) one...(I am at home so rarely that I can barely muster a couple of hours outside of intense sobering-up sleeping sessions to write my weekly post)

Too much fun, just too much fun, that I would not be able to have if I had my mind concentrated on work...and too glad, just too glad that after 8 months of randomly meeting people both inside and outside the company, there are so many people who are willing to spend sleepless nights with me to celebrate my future and enjoy my "companionship" one last time. Of course, the regular drunken comments take over at some point, but still, I enjoy watching all that Japanese drunken humor one last time before I head back onto the "world stage."

But speaking of the Japanese drinking culture that I have been so ready to criticize in the past, it is now interesting to note that the unique Japanese awkwardness, often related to talks about work and coworkers, associated with them have been slowly disappearing. Surely, it is my personal opinion that could be highly biased by my newly found desire to reminisce about the good times in the past 8 months, but with increasingly foreign presence in Japan and especially in Rakuten, I see a waning of the "pure Japanese culture" from my farewell party experiences.

That first reason is really obvious and involves trying completely new things. The idea of going to dance clubs is obviously not fitting with traditional Japanese culture that places high emphasis on displaying "polite public selves" even when inebriated. Yet, in the past couple of days, I have managed to get quite a few people, still semi-sober and conscious of "social rules," with little or no experience clubbing to join our hectic all-nighters. The mere idea of having these conservative Japanese people, definitely outside the regular clubbing crowd, to try something new and different as Western-style dance club is remarkable in itself.

The second one involves a much more subtle, yet sudden reconsideration of their own future as someone living their whole lives in Japan. Perhaps it does have a bit of my own personal influence, but I am finding more and more Japanese people around me suddenly pondering seriously whether going outside of Japan for extended period of time, or even just trying to work in a non-Japanese environment in Japan, has certain merits and necessities. They are reconsidering what it really means to be Japanese in an increasingly globalized world, and whether they have been ignoring the outside world for too long.

A very novel and interesting game I played during a nomikai illustrate it well. The game requires the participant to have a normal conversation in Japanese without using any Western loanwords. Each Western loanword used is fined by 100 JPY in the nomikai bill. While it is highly ironic that the Western loanwords are mostly replaced by loanwords of Chinese origin, the interest and the difficulty with which everyone played the game shows that the role of "what is foreign" in Japan is going through a fundamental rediscovery and more thorough recognition by the public.

It is just as the speakers at the symposium on international education remarked, Japan is alarmingly slowly coming to grips with just how gloomy of a future the country will have if it refuses to accept foreign ideas and implement them within the existing domestic socio-cultural environment. Some speakers criticized just tendency of Japanese education to destroy the characters of individuals for "public good," while others, to the quite shock of the audience, declared the only way for Japan remain relevant in the future depends on a transformation to an immigrant society like the US.

Yes, a nomikai is a nomikai and the Japanese, no matter what they do in free time, will mostly go back to being regular salary-men and Office Ladies when the weekend is finished...but waves made by foreigners and the Japanese with foreign experiences are slowly chipping away at the social status quo. Change is coming for sure, and all the foreigners in clubs and companies in various bottom-rung places in Japan, are helping out to bring about the change. If I can do what I can to be part of all this, I perhaps have just found another, and pretty "moral," reason to quit and leave...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Traveling Entrepreneur: Understanding the Role of Chinese People in Modern Human Civilization

"The Yokohama Chinatown is the biggest Chinatown in Japan and by far the safest Chinatown in any part of the world..." The nonchalant, robotic announcement coming over the tourist bus in Yokohama blasted to an equally nonchalant and robotic domestic crowd lazily looking outside the window as the bus passed by one Chinese restaurant after the other. The announcement cannot help but bring a little smirk over my face. Yep, certainly nothing racist there, just uttering the truth, as anyone who has been to Chinatowns across the world knows so well.

And going to Chinatowns I have. From the overtly tourist ones like San Francisco and Sydney to more hidden and functional ones like the ones in Seoul and Calgary, I have seen perhaps every major Chinese population center outside the Sinosphere. At first glance, every Chinatown seems the same. The restaurants, the shops selling imported Chinese goods, and street vendors ruthlessly gawking at every passerby, the spirit of commercialism is never missing at any street corner.

Yokohama is no different. Sure, being "safe," it perhaps does not have a local branch of the Triads in operations, but behind the beautifully maintained facades, the bitter stories of illegal immigration, starting businesses from scratch, and succeeding in foreign countries with foreign cultures and tongues is no different here in Yokohama as they are in any other Chinatown anywhere in the world. The ability of every Chinese individual to survive and prosper despite continued adversity can be felt in every gawk by every young Chinese worker.

It is this power of "survivability" that is the greatest source of Chinese pride for me and many other overseas Chinese. Sure, certain actions of the Chinese government has lead to overseas Chinese being perceived rather negatively in recent years, but as no country is no longer willing to put up stiff opposition to Chinese presence, the power and confidence of the Chinese diaspora has only grown throughout the world.

Armed with increased capital and large number of goods produced by their increasingly wealthy home country, the Chinese has again stepped up economic assault on the rest of the world, and new Chinatowns in random places such as Lagos and Mumbai has emerged to eclipse the traditional influence of older ones such as Yokohama and Boston. The collective economic power displayed by the Chinese has forced the local community to take them seriously, and accept the constant presence despite hidden complaints.

Furthermore, increasingly, the influence of the overseas Chinese in the foreign lands are no longer limited to the economic fields. By actively taking up foreign citizenships, yet refusing to completely assimilate into the local culture, the Chinese diaspora is creating unique "Sino-foreign" fusion cultures across the world. The differing menus of localized Chinese foods serves as the best examples of how the Chinese is shaping up local cultures in thorough ways.

People around the world say the Chinese is a "traveling race." Much like other races with worldwide business presences (Jews, Nigerians, Indians, just to name a few), they have established their own hybrid communities, both isolated and interacting with their host countries' dominant cultures, to base further demographic and geographic expansions. With nearly endless supplies of people and capital from back home in China, the entrepreneurial charge on a global scale, while centuries old, is only at a beginning.

Yokohama Chinatown, along with the global community of 40 million (and rapidly increasing) overseas Chinese, has once again reminded every Chinese what role they need and will play in the changing human civilization. By never being satisfied with the mediocre reality and heading into the unconquered unknown, the Chinese will show the world what it really means to be a "global race," both from an economic and cultural standpoint. If the Japanese, and anyone, consider this quiet revolution simply as "safe," then, well, they perhaps need to wake up to a much harsher reality...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Social Ethics Revisited: Freeloading as a Virtue of Egalitarianism?

In a previous piece, I argued that while the public can serve the purpose of monitoring any unethical behavior, the lack of concrete structure of the volunteering public means that its monitoring power is not nearly as effective in maintaining high level of ethics as well-developed government agencies. How complete the government monitoring system is often the difference marker between a developed country with stable socio-economic conditions and a developing country with a "wild wild west" feel.

Of course, being subjected to a constant social fluidity based on affinity to illegal activities can seriously hurt a country's long-term development, but in the short-term, is such fluidity completely negative? I would argue that the answer is not entirely a flat "no" in the developing world. In fact, often the illegal distribution of certain ideas, goods, and services is the only way to make them cheap enough and widespread enough to be trickled down to many outlying, isolated communities.

In other words, by violating social ethics in the short term, we can more rapidly bring into modern civilization many people who are not exposed to it even a few months and years ago. The most common example these days is the illegal distribution of digital contents over the Internet. By pirating free music, movies, and even TV programming, many websites and individuals are making the contents affordable and acquirable for even the poorest members of society.

Of course, such actions will slowly squeeze the profit margins of the content producers, but if only the cultural values are looked at, the producers are indeed able to spread their media to a much wider audience that they can otherwise do with limited sales of their legal DVDs and CDs. By turning a blind eyes to violation of social ethics in this case, they are making a strong contribution to globalization and increasing influence of modern popular culture.

In essence, the modern definition of "social ethics" as we know it in everyday lingo should not and cannot be simply seen from a legal and social standpoint. While it is certainly true that its continued and widespread violation lead to increased inability to protect certain economic rights, but its violation has the very effect of spreading the modern way of thinking, which, ironically, include the very ideas of "social ethics" and "protection of economic rights."

Thus, the need for violating "social ethics" in the short term in developing countries is largely based on the need to establish the idea of "social ethics" in the same developing countries. By allowing it to be violated now, we are slowly generating an environment in which it is more understood by the local populace, and in the future, more likely to be recognized as something that needs to be protected. As such ideas gradually take hold, the monitoring systems, both by the private public and the government, will be demanded and then generated.

And eventually, greater egalitarianism, at least from a perspective of culture and philosophy, will take hold. The ideal would be like a scenario I saw on TV the other day: a professional teenage singer with a beautiful voice growing up in a beautiful rural school with a student population of 18. Surely, building such a well-stocked school for music in such an isolated part of the country requires outstanding "national wealth," but at least the idea of a rural girl debuting as a popular music artist should not be that far-fetched in any country.

It is fundamentally all thanks of violation of social ethics, and more specifically, illegally free passage of ideas and cultures in different geographic areas. By tying ideas with law and money, we can only restricted its blossoming in different parts of the world. Instead, by overlooking certain legal constraints, it is possible to create much more mental equality among people growing and living in completely different environments, indirectly contributing to greater social mobility.

When Comparing "National Wealth," Look at the Bottom, Not the Top

Reading major newspapers around the world, optimism for the developments in the so-called "developing countries" have become increasingly common in the past few years. The stories of newly wealthy middle and upper class families in places like China, India, and Southeast Asia excites businessmen and commoners alike. The sheer numbers of people who are now living a modern "Western lifestyles" and the rise of major cities as international metropolises continue to entice people from the developed world to set foot upon these previously impoverished lands.

Even besides the obvious "White Man's Burden" way of thinking with "Westernization=modernization," the stories still strikes any careful reader with the sheer biases in the description. Of course, it is good to present the "developing countries" as "not that different" places where people from the developed world can visit, but by entirely ignoring the continued plight of the massive numbers of poor lower classes, the media, and the people who subscribe to them, are doing no favors for a more balanced development in the said countries.

The most obvious imbalance being ignored here is the one between urban and rural areas. Any foreign visitor can say that cities like Beijing and Mumbai are already approaching the levels of New York and Tokyo. Surely, with rapid development from scratch, these cities can easily invest in the best and newest buildings and infrastructure, allowing them to quickly surpass their more slowly changing developed world counterparts in hardware.

However, just getting out even a little bit from the cities would allow the visitors to see a completely different phenomenon. While the suburbs of New York and Tokyo are just similar residential extensions of the main cities, with similar infrastructure and residents, the same cannot be said in the developing world. The so-called suburbanites in places like Beijing are little more than ordinary small-plot farmers who just happened to live near a major city.

Such rural residents, despite being near the cities, receive little benefits from the cities, and indeed, carry on a life totally different from the bustling metropolis nearby. Especially in places where communication and transportation is still lacking, the rural residents cannot even indirectly improve their own livelihood by absorbing new ideas and new wealth trickled down from the increasingly cosmopolitan and financially stable urban residents.

Certainly, it is not to say that nobody in the developed world realize the enormous wealth gap in the developing countries. There have been many documentaries and news articles highlighting the two different sides of any fast developing lower-income country Yet, the reality is that, most people from both the developing and the developed world, tend to ignore the very existence of the continuously impoverished, often for the simple reason that they are living an entire different life that makes communication and support so much harder and costlier.

Indeed, for the business and cultural community, there is little incentive to actually communicate with the rural poor. With little exposure to Western ideas and culture as well as the "modern" way of life, there is little demand for the products and services the outsiders can offer. And even if certain demand exists, the local level of income is just too low for any sort of profitable sales. It simply makes all economic and cultural sense for focus to be exclusively given to the urban areas. Given the massive and increasing number of urban residents, it is not particularly difficult to make that exclusive focus happen.

With the powerful businesses and media focused on the urban, the rural residents become even less empowered. They have few channels to communicate with the outside world already, and the condescending "we feel sorry for you" attitude toward them shown by foreigners and urban countrymen alike only make them more humiliated and socially isolated from the rapid development in the cities. Until all the phenomena associated with such obvious gap between urban and rural areas can be evened out, a rapidly developing country is always a rapidly developing country, but not heading down the right road to finally be recognized as a truly developed place.

Losing English Abilities: Just Another Reason to Get Out?

These days, I have really been feeling like writing these blog posts have become more and more mentally stressful...and time-taking. Just sitting down and pumping out words on a blank screen used to be such a simple task, but now it feels like I have to repeatedly question myself whether each word I am using is indeed correct and suitable for the situation. And not just blog posts, each email in English and whats more, each sentence in English I write or say under any situation has become more of a mental exercise and a battle with self-doubt.

Yes, I am losing English. While my Japanese speaking and writing abilities have been growing by the day as I call up more and more merchants on the phone, the ability to relaxingly do the same in English has been going down in an increasingly obvious way. Putting together any sort of fluent, long-ish sentence, not to mention a logical argument, have, surprisingly, become easier in Japanese, and I am fearfully finding myself trying to translate Japanese words into English when I am trying to express a certain thought in English.

But people are not supposed to forget their native languages (as people always say). The language that is learned the best during one's formative years (somewhere around 12-18 years old) is supposed to be the most fluent language for life. But as myself, and other people of English-speaking background, begin to lose grip with their English abilities, we are, in a way, truly beginning to come to terms with just how powerful living in a foreign society can shape at least a person's linguistic identity.

All the more scary when I consider my next adventure after Japan will involve strong ability to use English. Whether it be teaching students English composition and grammar as a supposed "English expert" in Korea, and, worse, writing long long professional research papers as a grad student in London, I know that it will be extremely difficult under my current English level. Perhaps it marks another reason for my urgent need to get out of Japan and back into an English-using environment.

Never mind writing posts with flair, or writing English in general, as I pace around my room looking for the content of the next paragraph in this particular post, my mind feels like a dark space lit by a single, tiny lamp, with a weak stream of light lighting up a completely blank space around it. It feels that the "random thoughts" that used to so randomly fill up my mind has, even after my frantic mental searches, gone away completely, leaving my mind devoid of all content.

Maybe, the main issue here is not about English at all, it is about my ability to use my own head to think for my own. As I simply do what I am told at work everyday, repeat their same procedure with little success, my motivation for thinking and analyzing my own situation has been, well, unused, to say the best. It does not even take a well-crafted English sentence for me to realize this point. Because my mind is not spinning, there cannot be any deeply analytical sentence, in any language and in any form.

The lack of mental effort is just reflected in my inability to write. Even though the root problem is that I am not thinking in a well-structured way, I am actually say that my English is not good enough to express my own well-structured opinions. As someone who has written countless (bit exaggerated there) opinionated articles that have been praised for good structure and logic, I am just too embarrassed and scared to admit that I am no longer able to have those sorts of strong opinions in my mind.

So, what I am going to do about this? Think more and write more, of course. Instead to watering down my opinions to make them more easily expressible, I must find ways to logically present my strongest, least compromising thoughts. It is difficult and will continue to be, but by speeding up the process (jotting down any thought that come up in my mind), while not decreasing the overall amount of time I devote to writing (therefore increase the total quantity of writing), hopefully I can regain much of the "lost English" and lost analytical ability before I head for Korea next month.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Defining "Social Ethics": the "Unwritten Law" of Popular Unity

Taking a day of work today, I went through a colonoscopy at the local hospital. The once-every-few-years periodic exercise will be conducted throughout my life to check on whether I have been passed down the "colon polyp gene" from my mother. Needless to say, I have done it several times in the past, all of them happened to be in the States. Although the anesthetic is made much weaker to suit the Asian physique, my first and potentially only time in Japan has been without any problems.

In both countries, with their well-developed medical systems, what shines even more than the state-of-the-art medical systems is the sense of professional responsibility displayed by all staff at the hospitals. All legal documents are signed upfront to explain the associated risks, and fee structures with clear denotations of every cost are provided to the patients. Users of medical services in both US and Japan can expect the exact same treatment at the exact same cost shown on the documentations.

Of course, it could simply argued that the said hospitals go through all this trouble because they are afraid of legal troubles. Without repeated inspections by the relevant monitoring authorities, it would not hurt the medical facilities to rack up the medical costs a bit while save some cash by "simplifying" certain procedures. Especially in non-life-threatening procedures like colonoscopy, the anesthetized patients would never be able to tell what the doctor did differently.

So, we are glad developed countries have well-enforced laws to keep professional services safe and convenient. However, if we look to certain developing countries with deeply flawed legal systems, sometimes we can only depend on "professional ethics" to get the same professional treatments that we see in American and Japanese hospitals. Considering that every person has to be selfish at least in some situations, we must fearfully assume that certain personal incentives, i.e. "greed," has to fill in for the vacuum left by highly incomplete legal monitors.

Then, we can see that in developing countries that the concept of "social ethics," or what is good as defined by the public, tends to play a much more important role in everyday life. In absence of legal restrictions, it is up to the public to criticize malpractices, especially in essential matters such as medical care, food safety, environmental preservation. The developing country public especially become more sensitive to "greed," often making sure that already dangerous high levels of corruption in places like hospitals do not get too outrageous.

But, obviously, the public, no matter how vigilant, can only see so much. Without the overarching government apparatus in place to systematically monitor every segment of the society, the public can only bring to the surface a few publicly infamous cases of greed and corruption. And sadly, by the time the cases are brought to the knowledge of the public, the victims probably have suffered too much already...not to mention that millions of other petty cases of wrongdoing have slipped under the radar of public scrutiny.

The result? People in developing countries will continue to profiteer off malpractices, all in hidden secrecy unknown to the public. Once they save up enough, the corrupt emigrate to developed countries with their ill-gotten cash, freeing themselves from the public and the law of their home countries. Ironically, they spend their massive wealth in developed countries where they would have never had the opportunity to amass it in the same way.

A developed country is developed because the strong rule of law makes sure every cent earned by every person is earned righteously, without any attempt at over-charge or under-work in the process. Just as the simple colonoscopy procedure showed, by providing proper documents and denoting proper costs, the hospital is actually bridging "social ethics" with legal responsibility, making professionalism, rather than greed, the routine for essential services.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cyber-spamming and That Damned Human Curiosity

Just another day on the Internet and just another day of reading ridiculous spam messages in my mailbox, Facebook wall, and anywhere else that I can come to collect personalized communications. "OMG, see who is stalking you on Facebook!" seems to be the latest fad to go around. Those who cannot resist the temptation of finding out click on the link and without them knowing, the same message is transmitted to their friends, who will likely to repeat the cycle.

Obviously, the temptation does not get you the answer you want. No names of "stalkers" are released and the link-clicking curiosity only leads to belated apologies to a bunch of mildly amused (and later on, irritated) friends. Even so, what is for sure is that, next time when there is another link with equally tempting message inscribed, the chances are, people will click on it again, and again, and again. Netizens just keep believing that at least of those sensationalizing messages they receive everyday has to be genuine, even after being proven incorrect dozens of times in a row.

Such is the way of human curiosity. The unrestrained yearning for new "knowledge," no matter how trivial, drives the individual toward something completely unknown and unexplored. The benefit of mental (and occasionally, physical) stimulation of "trying something new" and the desire of getting that benefit NOW prevent the individuals from carefully considering the potential costs associated. People generally assume that the cost is low, taking up the attitude that "lets try it now, and deal with the problems later."

At least here on Facebook, the assumption is pretty correct. The cost, in the case of the link on the wall, is minimized to just a matter of a few light apologies. No one will really care if a friend of theirs accidentally forward a spam message. The low cost associated, thus, gives people all the more incentive to keep clicking, hoping that their curiosity will pay off eventually with some sort of "jackpot" behind one of those ubiquitous spam links.

The winner of the incessant clicking here, ultimately, has to be the spam generator. By allowing automatic message forwarding to take place from friends to friends of friends and beyond, one spam can be quickly disseminated to millions of users in matters of hours. And precisely because "friends" are involved, the probability of messages being passed on is much higher than having the same message sent by email, where long-established fear of PC viruses prevent people from opening emails from friends if the subject of the mail is in anyway abnormal or suspicious.

Of course, it is not true that only spam generators can benefit from netizens' curiosity. Legitimate businesses, with a bit of outrageousness in their marketing campaigns, can easily attract the eyeballs of the public. The fairly recent "Whooper Sacrifice" Facebook App by Burger King was a perfect example. The premise of issuing one "free Whooper" coupon for every ten Facebook friend deleted quickly became major topic of conversation across the SNS world and the Blogsphere.

At once ridiculous and cynically poking fun at the unrealistic nature of "friendships" in cyberspace, Burger King still ironically managed to achieve a major success in PR done only on the cyberspace. Once again, thanks to the curiosity of the netizens, combined with their desires to share their curiosities with their cyber-friends, a major corporation managed to market itself with literally zero financial cost (I seriously doubt anyone out there actually deleted ten friends for a burger). The brilliance of the marketing personnel at the company is worthy of respect...

For human curiosity to act up, the message really just have to be "out there." It does not have to sound realistic or connected to the everyday. As long as it has the tiniest remotest chance of being real, some people will unhesitatingly fall for it. Stupid, maybe, but entertained, definitely yes. It is likely that people will keep clicking not because they really want something at the end, but simply because they enjoy the very action of falling for something and then apologizing to their friends. Heck, it might just be a good way to start a conversation with some "friends" they barely talk to...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Modesty, Sexiness, and Decoding the Female Way of Dress

In many ways, Japan, and Asia in general, is a socially liberal country just in the same way as it is socially conservative. While the sense of strict social hierarchy and expectations of youth obeying elders are completely in line with traditional Confucian beliefs, there are other physically obvious phenomena that would make any loyal adherent of Confucianism raising a doubtful eyebrow. Today, I would like to focus on the commonly accepted female dress code.

Confucius argues that family is the most basic formation unit of society. And to keep the core family stable is the first thing needed to keep the entire society stable. Chinese classics are filled with stories portraying prostitutes and those who carry on extra-marital affairs as evil. And even in "post-Confucian" Asia, more than anywhere else on Earth, has strong hatred toward prostitution, divorce, and illegitimate romantic affairs, if as social attitudes and legal codes have gradually relaxed.

The modern way of dress among young females in this corner of the world has clearly become "anti-Confucian." By dressing, eh, "provocatively," as people usually say, the females are attempting (many times successfully) to attract males' attentions and indirectly introduce certain emotional instability to their own families. A bit exaggerated perhaps, but after seeing under-aged idols flaunting sex to sell music albums, the power of male lust should no longer be doubted as a serious socio-economic force...

But most of these young girls, whether on the streets of Tokyo, Seoul, or (a bit less so) Shanghai, are surprisingly shy in a (Confucian-like) modest way. They rarely speak to strangers, and even when they do, there is absolutely nothing they say that is sexually suggestive in the same way as they dress. And as I have mentioned in a previous opinion piece written for the JoongAng Daily in Korea, it seems like no matter how "Western" the Asian youth dresses, they still seem to not have lost their Confucian roots in behavior.

Furthermore, especially in Japan and Korea, girls tend to be fiercely private individuals. Every stat from age and weight to sometimes hometowns and real names are closely guarded for personal protection. And of course, many of them try their best to hide their true personalities to strangers and acquaintances alike. Yet, somehow most body parts are OK for public display. You would think if they want to be really secretive about their true nature, dressing conservatively would be a must....

This reminds me of little personal story from my recent trip to Nagano. After having an enormously hard time getting down from an extremely steep set of stairs in Matsumoto Castle, I was about to take a picture of the stairs for future bragging. The old gentleman directing traffic nearby immediately told me not to, "because there are ladies coming down." The guy's action is definitely valid and logical, as it is Japan, where all sorts of sexual perversion exists semi-publicly.

But on the second thought, what really is illogical for him to raise this point here is that, who in the right mind is actually going to wear some sort of miniskirt to a castle, knowing 100% beforehand that there will be steep stairs to climb and descend? In essence, it perhaps could be said that if any female did show up in a skirt, she is doing it intentionally to show off to the public something nobody should be showing off in public by anyway, anywhere, or in any context.

To expose or uphold "privacy"? To be "sexy" or uphold "modesty"? To be "Western" or uphold "Confucianism"? A simple issue of female dress is another complex reflection of Asian society's changing balance of identity and direction. It is human for wanting to be seen as pretty, and it is collectivist society to conform to the dress code of those who are seen as the "prettiest." Physical imitations are easy, just a bit of observation and cash will do. But mental preparation to get line with the physical looks? Well, that would be a totally different issue...

When You are Sick, Act Like You are Sick

I have been sick these days...really really sick. Things already started to look pretty bad at the beginning of the week when work as usual started on the 20th floor of Rakuten Tower. In the sales floor where nothing besides smooth sales talk is usually allowed during work time, I can hear coughing and sneezing across the floor. Yes, someone has brought in this summer's first cold virus from somewhere, and his or her determination to come to work no matter what has allowed all of us to share his pain and suffering.

When you are crowded into an office space with (literally) hundreds of people sitting right next to each other and no air circulation (besides barely operating AC system to save electricity), there is just no way you can escape a spreading biological terror. I was feeling fine at the beginning of the week, by as people right next to me began to succumb to the disease, I know it was only a matter of time before I fell apart.

And, fell apart I certainly did. Still cheerfully having lunch on Wednesday, only couple of hours later, I began coughing so much that both my chest and throat felt like they were on fire. Migraine headache, delivering face-twitching sharp pain every few minutes, followed. I was still making phone calls through all of this, but obviously, the main concern became not how to sell Ichiba, but how to make myself talk normally while my mind tried its best to suppress all sorts of physical aches.

With no improvement on Thursday, I barely got through the day by popping one Tylenol every four hours. Sudden temperature drop on Thursday night with strong rain and wind only made things worse. Shivering constantly as I walked from the company to the train station, I knew tomorrow, Friday the 13th, was not going to be a good day by any means...and for that, I was again correct: headache just would not stop from the moment I woke up (from the pain around 5am), and the pain was now beyond the capacity of my trusty Tylenol...

So for the entire Friday, I was practically in hibernation mode, getting up only to get a sip of water and go to the toilet, while literally sleeping through 22 hours to minimize the headache. Even now as I write this post, coughing, along with the cheat and throat pains, would not stop. But, thankfully, headache has gone away for the most part, allowing me to focus my mind on something other than how much pain I am feeling.

Now the reader asks, why am I writing about this? It is not like I (or anyone) never get sick before, and no one would be really interested in hearing how sick I was. But couple of points are worthy of notice. One is the fact that whoever that got sick first at the workplace refused to call in sick and stay home. And as others (including myself) got sick, they also refused to stay home until they got to the point where they are no longer physically capable of showing up to work.

Of course, this also has something to do with reading the "air" in the workplace. Being perceived to use "I am sick" as an unjustified excuse to not show up to work cannot possibly reflect well later on in personal evaluations. So people tend to physically "show" that they are really sick by coming to work sick BEFORE using it as valid evidence to call in sick later on...certainly not helpful for stopping a certain virus from going around the densely packed floor.

The second point is one about living by myself. Having been doing it for 5 years now, I have already been dependent on a combination of hot showers, excess sleep, painkillers, and easily digestible food to combat sickness. But when all of those do not lead of serious improvement (even in a short amount of time), it would not be surprising for the guy living by himself to think about the cost of keeping up the life-style...and at the same time, re-imagine the merits of keeping up certain family values or finding a life partner to look out for himself now and then.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

個性, Individuality...Thats All that Needs to be Said

Finally getting back to Tokyo after a three-day trip over in Kyoto for the Japanese Golden "Week," the first thing on my (and apparently, many others') minds were...eh, partying. One day of work on Friday was followed by another regular two-day weekend to close out the maddeningly long vacation period that is oh-so rare for the Japanese salary-men. And to help close out (mentally) the vacation, I had the opportunity to attend another nomikai of the 2011 Rakuten new grads.

I have to say that these guys just never fail to impress me with their unique characters, whether sober or drunk. While it is impressive enough that they can still manage to pull together more than 100 people for a drink after work, but it is simply astounding that these guys, even after a month of grueling training program and systematic brainwashing by the company ideologies, they still manage to maintain their personalities and characters.

個性 (individuality) was the word of the night. From my professions of quitting the company to protect who I am to (amazingly) those new grads who will eventually also leave for the same reason, the words flying across the gigantic noisy drunken venue was just so so different from anything I have experienced with my other coworkers at nomikai or 2010 guys on drunken vacations.

And it was by all means a true celebration of unity in individuality. A girl dancing by herself on the massive stage in the front was greeted with wild cheers from the entire crowd. People danced with her downstairs while shouts and applauses continued unabated. Yet to me, all that was not the alcohol acting up, nor was it a display of "immaturity" (as our older colleagues at the company will tell you).

The shouts and cheers were sheer and fully conscious admiration and celebration of people being who they are and not being afraid to show it to all others. It is about praising and encouraging the very act of "standing out from the crowd," something that is pretty much considered a taboo in Japanese corporate culture. Yes, of course it is true that people, no matter how busy at work, do have other lives often incongruous with their at-work selves, but (I truly hope) that these guys dancing and drinking away at Shinjuku last night are going to somehow draw equal signs between their at-work and off-work selves.

「人は財なり」...I have said it before and will say it again: if the very characteristics of being human are to be suppressed and destroyed by the system for being sources of "ungrateful" dissidence, then are those people who survive such ideological brainwashing even human enough to be considered people? In a society where innovative ideas, perhaps even more than simple work ethics (as defined by unquestioning obedience to authorities) is difference-makers among people, shouldn't 個性 be the greatest asset of any person?

11:30pm...as the clock ticks down toward the departure of the last train out of Shinjuku, dozens of people quietly exits the venue. And with the training for the new grads all but completely over, for some, I am afraid, it will mark the final end to their being part of this currently unbroken group of new grads. And I am afraid, in a few months, some will be "matured" by the company into the model salary-men for which corporate Japan is so well-known.

But it is my most sincere hope that some, at least some, within this group gathered will remember tonight, and the many nights of drinking and entertainment before this, as a sign that this group, and each one of its members, is unique and special. We all know corporate Japan is a monster at enforcing conformity, but as the corporate Japan is proven to be a pure loser on the global stage, someone will have to step up and reform it. Why not let those who are not already destroyed by the existing system to take up the task?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Knowing the World: One Human Connection at a Time

I have to be honest: I have always been a very shy person. Right, it certainly does not seem like it now, but because I spent so much of my life moving around the world (average of about one new place every two years), the impossibility of developing long-term stable friendships eventually become a sort of hidden inferiority complex. It has been a personal habit of mine to not really aggressively "sell" myself to others since I would move away soon and potentially never see the people I met again anyways.

With such an inferiority complex larking underneath, it is no surprise that over time, I develop a highly proud and often arrogant way of presenting myself to others. Professing to be truly "worldly" and not entangled (or even remotely interested) in those little up-and-down emotional relationships among individuals, I often take a self-isolating stance to meeting others. Not meeting others and connecting with them deeply is the best way to prevent unnecessary emotional damages from having to leave people whom I do really come to like and love.

Yes, I kept telling myself that I am not meeting certain people because I am too proud to bring myself down to a certain level, not because I am shy and afraid of rejection. Most of the time, it has worked pretty well. As I travel the world, my sense of detachment from each locality has won me some (at least superficial) admiration. And by just mixing in enough intimation as I interact superficially with a sense of being a third-person observer, equally superficial acquaintances are created and maintained.

But this whole model of meeting people can only be effective when I am meeting people based on the premise that I will move to some other place far far away. The way I behave certainly does not inspire people to deepen friendship, and I certainly expect to meet many "friends of friends" when the resulting "friendships" are so superficial. At some point, I just simply run out of people whom I can meet through other people, forcing me to move to another place just to increase the number of acquaintances.

And in an age of SNS, keep track of massive number of people met in different places in different time has been just so much easier. I cant just register people on Facebook, not talk to them for years at a time, and when I go to new place and need some connections again, meet up with people in those locations now, and start again there. Classic exchange of benefits, and perfect for dealing with people met in hostels.

And now, with perhaps less than a month left in Japan, it is time again for me to reconsider the merit of meeting people in such a "quantity-over-quality" fashion. And it was just perfect timing that I had the opportunity to meet a bunch of new people over the weekend, both inside and outside Rakuten through my colleagues at the company. And interesting enough that some of the conversations I had with the people I met was about how to meet with more people.

I held steadfast to my view that intimate friendships are not important if the number of people met are big enough. Yet, the sights I am seeing at these events I went to, whether it was a drunken all-night clubbing event with coworkers (reminds of my last time doing that), a company BBQ, or a little house party with random people, is people frantically exchanging cards, numbers, and other forms of business contacts.

Viewing people trying to use intimacy to increase their local connections (that they will no doubt use later on both for business and entertainment), I am more and more in doubt whether my own philosophy about meeting people is actually correct. After all, I cannot be expected to move my entire life once every few months or so (although I really do want to nowdays), eventually I will have to get over my shyness and resulting pride to become a normal member of a local society somewhere. Thus, meeting people intimately is definitely something I should work on...