Monday, November 28, 2011

Throw all preconceived notions out the door

Culture shock in Kyoto

The term "culture shock" is hardly a new one for me, but having only traveled to places like Europe and Australia, I didn't have a full understanding of what it could mean. Japan would prove to be a different experience.

One day the friend I was visiting, J, and I were in busy but refined Kyoto searching hopelessly for the Nishiki Market. Neither of us are admittedly all that great with directions... I absolutely need a map and a mental picture of it in my head if I hope to find what I'm looking for. In grid based layout like North America, this serves me quite well. While a large part of Japan follows the same pattern, not all streets are named. Why? Why is that? How on earth does mail get delivered if your home doesn't have a street name??

In any case, we're tirelessly searching for this market, and finally we reach the particular street we're looking for- but a market is no where to been seen. We then realize there are two Karasumas: a street and an avenue. Jessie eyes her ever trusted Iphone and tells me that we need Karasuma street and blank street (yet another Japanese word I have trouble remembering), not Karasuma avenue. To which I of course say that this cannot be, avenues and streets cross, streets run parallel to one another.

Not the case. J replies that in Japan, you must "throw all your preconceived notions away". Now there is a challenge!

Sure enough, I look at the google map, and it shows two streets crossing. Ridiculous.

We eventually found the Nishiki Market, thankfully!

Veggies at Nishiki

This statement proved useful to me on a number of occasions. There is a whole new set of customs here, from what is considered polite (don't eat or blow your nose in public, but sniff as much as you want), to their complicated garbage and recycling rules: (combustibles, non-combustibles, sections for different paper... the list goes on and on) 

Garbage and recycling routines at my friend A's house
to even their version of a balanced diet:

Food guide on white bread in Japan. A) there is hardly any whole wheat bread here B) bread makes the top of recommended servings, 6-7, while fruit is at the bottom!
I never realized that Canada's food guide could be view completely different in another country, that they could have another opinion to what a balanced diet would be!

And their food... I doubt I could ever live here and grow accustomed to the food. My friend J took me to a lovely restaurant in Kyoto called Giro Giro that served set 10 course meals.

One out of the ten courses: salmon and oysters I believe

First courses beautifully presented in the fall Kyoto colours

My favourite, dessert! Hard to know what each piece was...

I now have a new understanding of culture shock. Forget all pieces of wisdom, common courtesy and common sense acquired up until now as adult and start fresh. What is true in Canada cannot always be true in another country, even concepts taken for granted like avenue and street directions.

With this new piece of insight, there's a new part of myself I've learned on this trip. I'm not an "all or nothing" kind of girl, and throwing myself into their culture and fully embracing it all in one go is not my style. To stop myself from feeling overwhelmed, I need to take it slow and keep part of my own culture, food especially, while learning about new one. Try some new specialties, but eat some others that are familiar. Keeping my balance has never rang truer.   

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Asia Bound

One of my main goals in life is to open my mind, to see outside my bubble. I'd like to develop  greater understanding and empathy towards people and cultures who differ from me. So naturally, I have a great urge to travel. 

I am not, however, a natural traveler. I stress a great deal before (and admittedly during) a long trip. My anxiety soars when booking flights. I am hardly an adventurous soul (I have an irrational fear of fish, for example)... I dread planning, yet prefer to have the majority outlined and organized... Which doesn't bode well with a "go with the flow" travel attitude. For me, travel is a goal, something I feel the need to do to feel "right" in my own skin, despite a number of challenges my own character creates for me.

A good friend of my family, G, does not seem to have such issues. With worldwide mementos adorning her walls, outrageous get togethers surrounded by international friends, she comes by it with ease. She once gave me a valuable piece of advice: travel where you know someone.

As a language lover who has been learning Spanish (albeit on and off) for quite some time, I was quite determined to have my next trip in South America. But somehow, a number of friends ended up in Asia. And not just the parties of Thailand, but in "small"-town Japan and rural China. The more I spoke of my trip with friends, the more I discovered many others planned to visit South East Asia. Somehow it seemed set. Perhaps a little obscure, or different from my usual taste (I do not speak a word of Japanese, Mandarin, Thai...)  but here I am, in Asia. 

Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia. Somehow this is sounding more challenging than Europe...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How powerful this mind can be.

Now that I’ve been practicing for some time, I find yoga to be a brilliant teacher. For someone who is very typical of the western mindset (meaning my thoughts are constantly a mile a minute… It is constantly a challenge to quiet them) exercising mindfulness honestly enlightens me. Yesterday’s practice offered me one of those moments.

Scorpion pose is a very challenging but gratifying posture. At first glance, it seems worthy of Cirque du Soleil: a pretzel-like pose achieved by balancing on your hands. 

An example of my oh-so-talented friend B mastering Scorpion on a gorgeous day this past summer.

However, your perception can make all the difference. As my instructor illustrated, it is basically dolphin pose (balancing on your forearms) with a back bend.  She also reminded us to “look up” (a step I somehow always missed). A simple piece of advice I know, but somehow it clicked. The way you internalize a concept mentally can largely affect your ability to execute it. I can perform both aspects individually, but with that little added awakening, I decided I could do this. 

And with that snap decision, I did. I had been working this pose for quite some time, and suddenly I jumped the hurdle. It made me realize just to what extent our minds play a role in our ability, and how much our own confidence and drive and make or break an accomplishment. Having spoken to a recent iron man athlete, he admitted that after a time, completing such a feat is all in your mind. The training is intense, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to focusing your mind to do it.

It’s simple, but deeply reassuring, not to mention powerful, once I fully internalized it. For someone as motivated and ambitious as I can be (not always a good quality I find), this was huge. You control what you choose to accomplish. Cliché perhaps, but definitely inspiring.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"First World Problem"

A little while ago my friend E posted on facebook “Can’t get the temporary pirate tattoos from last night off... fml.”

To which our mutual friend responded “First World Problem.”

I found this little quote quite humorous, but it has also made me reflect on my everyday challenges, notably my current quest to find my path in life. As children, we are constantly told “you can do anything you want”, which is wonderful, but now that’s it’s truly an option… Well it’s a tad daunting, to say the least. I can live where I want, date and marry who I want, do I want, spend my time the way I want… But what on earth do I want?

What a problem.

There are of course the lucky few who have always known themselves, always known what they hoped to do.  A friend of mine, for example, needed to write what he wanted to be when he grew up in his fifth grade yearbook. Amidst the usual responses of astronaut, inventor, professional football player, he answered “engineer”. And now, at 25 years of age, he’s living the dream: an engineer. Oh, to have such clarity (not to mention remotely know that such a career exists at the age of ten). 

However, for the many others I’ve read about and talked to, paths are not always so clear; it’s in fact fairly common. So I’ve decided not to be so hard on myself. Many people go through this, but time (so they tell me) can be a great help.

At the same time, thinking of my friend’s little joke, she reminds me not to take such a “dilemma” so seriously. Appreciate all that I do have, and enjoy this time in my life.

About This Blog

Growing up, I always had a clear picture of where I was supposed to be. Dancing, diploma, degree… All was pretty much laid out for me including the standard “post-graduation Europe trip”. The next step never required all that much reflection.

But when I flew home from Paris and landed at my mother’s doorstep in dreary rain-sodden November in suburban Vancouver, penniless, jobless and goal-less, my next move wasn’t so cut and dry. 

I was forced to ponder the question so loved among children, but so hated among recent graduates:
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
(Really. I somehow landed an interview in a commercial real estate firm on the 10th floor of a shiny high rise downtown and the woman had the audacity to ask me that in a highly sarcastic tone. As much as I found the comment insulting, it did point to something: I clearly had no idea what my future goals looked like and would hardly be considered an asset in their company as a result).

Or better yet, “An arts degree eh? So what are you going to do with that?”
I’ve thankfully passed what seems to be the lowest of this stage, but the more I talk with friends, the more I realize that many people pass through this awkward phase of transition. 

This blog captures my journey to discover what’s right for me, what I need, what makes me happy, what enlightens me, and hopefully pass on a few things I wish I had known a little earlier now that I’m in my twenties, graduated, and starting my “real life”. Clarity and bliss. Clarity in developing mindfulness and open mindedness, and bliss in finding acceptance and knowing how to enjoy it.