Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Facing uncertainties in life

I only have a few days left here before I head back to Europe. I'm filled with very mixed feelings. The nature parts of Japan provide me with a great sense of peace. Tokyo downtown (Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc.) brings me rushes of excitement and literal headaches at the same time. I quite like my colleagues here. They are more outgoing and sociable than my colleagues back in Europe. However, people here are quite stressed out, whereas coworkers in Europe are a lot more laid back. Since I get easily influenced by other people's stress levels, it is much healthier for me to work in Europe than in Japan. At a social level though, here in Japan people rush to help me out if I am in need of something, and it is very easy to find people to hang out in the evenings and weekends as most of the guys at the office are single. In my European office, most people have partners and children so I am on my own after work hours.

It's not like I get to choose to stay here anyways, but I felt like I made some friendship that I would like to keep, but I have no idea if I'll ever meet these people again. I don't know when's the next time I'll get sent here and how many of the coworkers will still be working here by next year. There is so much instability (not all bad ones) that I'm struggling really hard to stay centered and grounded. All the yoga philosophies and calming techniques that I've been studying over the past 2 years have come in handy to help prevent anxiety attacks right now. The asanas really are secondary to breathing and focusing techniques at the moment. There is so much uncertainty in life, even when times are good. I have a few really good friends who keep reminding me over the phone, Facebook and email to stay grateful and surrender to the impermanence of life. Learn to let go of the control freak tendency and try not to panic when I don't have total control of how my life will turn out... I've done what I can to get me onto a good path. The rest will unravel on its own... try not to be too anxious about it. Definitely easier said than done though.

I have a lot of friends who have stable jobs, are married, have a house and kids. I envy how settled they are (don't need to figure out what's the next country they'll need to move to get the next job contract), but at the same time, I know that I'll be unsatisfied with the jobs and the life that they're living now. I guess I'm greedy and want both stability and constant excitement in life.. I don't think life works quite that way.

I need to learn to be braver about life and about the unknowns ahead of me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Before I came to Japan, I told my friend from high school who lives and works in Tokyo that I would be here for a month. He mentioned that we should hang out, but I hadn't heard back from him. A couple days ago he messaged me and asked me if I want to go to pick vegetable on his friend's farm in the mountains this last weekend. Of course I couldn't say no to that: I couldn't wait to get out of the concrete city and into the countryside for some fresh air and nice scenery.

Japanese maple

Gorgeous view of the mountain and open-space, something not found in Tokyo downtown
I had no idea my friend currently works at one of those massive American corporate companies and this was actually an unofficial company trip for his colleagues from Tokyo and from offices abroad. I was the tag-along sloppy academic. The Japanese girls were so put together and dressed so nicely that I felt self-conscious the entire weekend. I've been living out of the same suitcase for the 2 entire months I just feel all the clothes I own seem smelly, worn-out and wrinkly. I mean I do my laundry every week, but my clothes just constantly absorb all the odor on busses, in trains, and in restaurants (smoking is allowed indoors in Japan. Also, because I was told that I was going to a farm, I just put on my old jeans and t-shirt and headed off to meet up with my friend. I didn't realize girls in Japan are dressed nicely at all times, even when going to farms. Everybody brought one of those carry-on stylish suitcases with nice change of clothes, and fancy full-sized carrying bags (made in France) of skin care + make up products. There I was with my old camping backpack and minimalistic toiletry gear (tooth brush, tooth paste + something to wash face with, and maybe a lip balm). I felt like such an inadequate female.

I must have appeared to be very stand-offish the entire weekend because I was super conscious the whole time of how badly I smelled and looked. I felt ugly and dirty next to them; I just left my long hair loose as is (lots of fly-aways), while their hair were all neat and pretty, with bobby pins and fancy hair clips. I admired their fine autumn leather boots while my trail runners that I've been wearing every day for months reeked like I haven't taken them off for hundreds of hours. It doesn't help that they all seem to carry very nice smelling hand creams (from L'Occitane) that they re-apply constantly on their hands throughout the day while I had nothing. I tried really hard to enjoy the scenery, but the anxiety of inadequacy was with me the whole trip.

When I checked the photos just now I actually looked okay (but probably still stinky - no way to double check that objectively). My skin was healthy enough that I didn't look unbearably horrible next to girls with full mascara + carefully powdered faces. However, inside my head I felt like a mentally disturbed woman for the past few days, shameful of  myself and worried I've shamed my Chinese ethnicity as well.

I guess this is what happens when I get sent to a country without knowing before hand what the local culture is like. Doesn't help that scientists (students and profs), both male and female, tend to be a lot sloppier than the average population, regardless of nationality. I definitely have a lot of mental and spiritual work to do. Being in Japan definitely exposes (too?) many shadow aspects of my mental state.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Falling back into old bad habits

I've figured out why I am so displeased with myself. The Japan experience resembles my old life when I was a research assistant in Taiwan just after I finished my BSc. I was really ambitious at the time and I thought going to the government's top research institute would get me somewhere. I was sitting long hours in front of the computer every day, stressing myself out unnecessarily, eating unhealthily, not exercising, snacking on yummy sweet snacks that were too readily available at all the convenient stores at every corner in the city.

Now I'm at Japan's government research institute, whose buildings look extremely similar to Taiwan's research institute buildings. With the availability of yummy unhealthy junk food around every corner, I'm again choosing to snack on candies and chocolates instead of granola bars and carrots like I've been doing in Canada. Ever since I started yoga, I've been cutting way down on meat consumption and ramping up veggie consumption; but here in Japan the food selection is heavily meat-based. In Vancouver, despite me being the lazy girl who lived on sushi, pizza, and take out food (still lots of low meat high veggie options), my yoga buddies would hold parties which served quinoa salads, hummus, super nutritious salads and other veggie delights (ie. good influence on me), here my colleagues are heavy ramen (high in calories) and deep fried pork chop eaters (ie. eating the mainstream diet of Japan and many of today's modern societies). As the push-over girl, I conformed to the mainstream life style here and have thrown the carefully built-up habit of regular exercises and healthy diet out the window. So that's why I'm upset with myself.

The OECD Better Life Index scores Japan's health at 5 and work-life balance at 3, while Canada's Health scores a whopping 9 for health and a work-life balance score of 6.5. Sweden gets a health score of 8.5 and a work-life balance score of 8.2 (see why I chose to get a job there?) . Taiwan is not an OECD country but probably scores similar to Japan in these two areas. When I returned to Canada to pursue grad school, I vowed to not place myself in the same position again (I really didn't take good care of myself at the time), and here I am back to a super similar situation where I had been nearly 10 years ago. Life can be quite unexpected sometimes.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so obsessed about maintaining a pristine diet and exercise schedule, but this time around I should really try to eat better and take better care of myself. I need to try to take better control of my life rather than let my job position decide 100% of my life style. I also need to kill my college kid eating habit, which is quite difficult because bad food are just so conveniently available EVERYWHERE, but it's necessary for my health to snap out of it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Alternate reality

For 6 years, I spent most of my days glued to the computer screen, only pausing at lunch to eat and chat with my colleagues. For 1 month in Nordic country I got called to coffee breaks twice a day in addition to lunch time to socialize with colleagues. The rest of the time I stayed silent and did my work in front of the computer. Now in Japan I'm in a bigger office with a lot more researchers and the place is way more lively than I'm used to: people chat with each other all day long. Suddenly I realized I am totally anti-social. I bump into colleagues on the bus and I don't know how to talk to them; I stay at work for long hours but nobody knows what I'm working on, not even myself. I feel the need to learn everything that's available, but the scope of the project is simply too broad. Must pick and choose only the relevant things to learn. I feel overwhelmed most of the time, even though nobody is pushing me to do anything. There's just too much going on, not to mention as soon as I step out of the institute buildings, nobody can speak English any more.

I feel like I live in this strange dimension everybody's super busy, so I feel the need to act busy too, but I'm a totally useless being here. I'm getting paid by a European institute; however the money is  guarded by a bank with way too many security checks to allow me to access it from Asia (I didn't manage to finish all the security steps including receiving my bank card before I got sent to Asia). So I'm currently living on borrowed money, in a totally foreign land, interacting mostly with foreign people who are not from the Asian continent (most of the Japanese don't really interact with the foreigners at work).

How did I go from an unemployed bum who spent her days rolling yoga mats, cleaning bathrooms and wiping floors at a serene yoga studio in exchange free yoga classes, to a dazed foreigner in a hyperactive research facility, where everybody takes on too many projects and the work mantra seems to be "get it all done; make it all work, no matter what it takes"?

Sorry if this post does not make sense. But I'm in a place where things don't exactly make sense. There are some smart phones out there that has a gazillion functions, but it's hard to the few basic features that most people would need are not all that user-friendly. Then there are the iPhone/iPad products which do not contain every single cool features that Android phones/tablets have, but are instead designed in a way such that the basic features that everybody needs are super user friendly. I kind of feel like I got dropped off at the company that creates smart phones with way too many features (and keeps pressuring its employees to cram in more features for the phone) and I'm supposed to "learn as much from these guys as possible".

It's definitely a better opportunity than being a jobless bum. As awesome as the yoga studio volunteer position seemed, the most it would have led to would be a receptionist position where I would get paid slightly better than minimum wage. Right now I've been suffering from a cold for more than 2 weeks; I don't eat that well (Japanese food is surprisingly salty); and I have no time or space for yoga. Why I'm compromising my health for this position I'm not sure. I guess I'm counting on the fact that I'm still young enough that my body can handle it. I don't hate my current situation; it just feels really abnormal. I don't understand how people can live their entire lives like this (guess it explains the drunks sprawled out on the floor of a train station at 10pm on a week night). The alternative would have been to take up a much crappier job back home, where work would suck, but life outside of work would be much more normal. Everything would be in English; the work hours would be more regular; food would be more familiar; I could keep my established weekly yoga routine + weekend snowboarding..... Gee that sounds pretty nice right now.

Except that yearning for a better job would always be there. It's funny I'm not even that ambitious about my career any more. I will just take this as an interesting life experience, and hope I don't get a massive reverse culture shock when I return to Europe in a few weeks.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts that come up when living in a foreign country

Being so far removed from family, I am feeling the effects of how much I got stepped all over by almost all members of my extended family all these years. Since I'm the youngest in the family, ever since I could remember, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, sister + brother in-law have been offering me endless advice + suggestions on just about everything, from how to tie my shoe laces to how to dress myself to how much education I should get to when to get married. As a child I just assumed everybody knew better and took it all in. As I got older and got educated in the west I was totally surprised parents allowed their young children to choose their own outfits. Before the age of 10 I had zero say in what I could wear for any occasions to go out of the house. I absolutely despised my mother's taste in clothes. I guess sometimes the dresses would look fine on a more feminine looking girl but not on a tomboy like me with the ugliest hair cut in the world.

I grew up to become a total pushover. Whatever I decide about my own life can be super easily changed by a suggestion that my mother or my relatives. If my mother says I needed a haircut I'd suddenly become all insecure about how I look (turns out my mother's the insecure one, always telling me to dress nicer when I'm about to meet with this rich aunt, or when Chinese New Year is around the corner). It's amazing that for many years I believed that people offer me advice because they are looking out for me, not because it satisfies their own ego to offer their "words of wisdom" to the youngest one in the family.

Not saying I'm amazingly organized on my own. It's just that if I'm late, I experience the consequences for being late. When I was at home, my mother would take extreme measures so I am not late for some casual dinner with relatives. She'd tell me the wrong start time (6pm dinner when it actually was a 7pm dinner), tell me to be home by 5pm and then chain call me if I didn't make it home. If I did get home by 5pm she'd make me wait and do nothing for an hour, just so I wouldn't be late. She thought she was trying to build a habit of punctuality in me, but instead she just created resentment each time she did this (and this has happened countless times).

A couple of months before I moved to Europe, my mother tried to tell me how to pack in minute details. She also set a totally arbitrary packing schedule for me, which would only work if I woke up every single day and packed for 8 hours and didn't see any friends during the whole time. That totally did not happen, and our relationship just kept getting worse the last couple of months we spent together.  Right now I have no desire of meeting up with family any time in the near future. The thought of getting together with family brings up stressful feelings of everybody racing to tell me what's wrong with me, how I should behave and what I should do with my life.

I know that my family means well and they give advice to try to be useful. The thing is, first of all, I am not centered enough to objectively only take in advice I need and politely ignore the less useful suggestions. Secondly, I have to step back and objectively look at their lives. To be honest, none of them have lived a life that I envy, nor have they made personal choices that I wish to emulate. I used to think that because I should listen to their advice and learn from their mistakes, but in reality, I should only look to learn from role models, because they have also made plenty of mistakes, but whatever they did right got them to where they are right now.  I should never learn from people whose lives I don't want to emulate because either they never follow their own advice, or they've tried their own advice and failed, but somehow expect that piece of advice would work on me instead.

What got me started on this piece is that I've been meeting a lot of interesting people lately. Some have led successful lives and some have been more "experimental" with their lives. While I would definitely not recommend anybody to follow their paths, I'm happy for them that they weren't strongly discouraged to try different things (or maybe they were but they didn't oblige). I think as long as people practice "ahimsa" - do no harm to others and to oneself, one should be free to live the life one chooses (this is only possible for those who were lucky enough to be born into a liberal society).

I met a couple friends in their early/mid-20s who are currently grad students. They tell me that most of their friends are married with children. Depending on the size/location of the towns they're from, one tells me most of her friends didn't even go to college. Another tells me that her friend's parents strongly discouraged their kids to go to college and advised them that the most practical thing to do is to get married and have children as soon as possible after high school. This is the complete opposite of Asian cultures. I wonder where I would be if I were in their positions (would I still have been a pushover and complied?), and I wonder how these grad students I met managed to push through peer pressure and continue their educations.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Culture shock

Being immersed in a foreign culture always shocks all my systems: both the body (I've been battling with a nasty cold and jetlag for the past couple of days) and the mind (cognition overload when customs and languages are so different I don't exactly know how to act in so many situations).

So I am in Japan hanging out with a bunch of very interesting expats from various countries all over the world. I usually have no trouble handling this type of situations when I was in Canada, in Europe, and even in Taiwan. But here in Japan I must say it's kind of overwhelming. Japan's got such an interesting/strange simultaneous existence of extreme modernness and ultra-conservative demands on the society that it takes a certain type of personality for a foreigner to want to stay here for long term. I thought I was a master at handling complex and diverse cultural differences but I have to admit that I am in overload mode right now. No wonder Japanese invented zen gardens and zen meditation. I could use a huge dose of daily meditation from day 1 until the end of my stay.

I'm totally not saying I'm having a bad experience here; the experience is just so "foreign" to me that I'm having trouble putting my thoughts into coherent writing (although I generally have trouble with that anyways). People here are really nice. I can read kanji (Chinese characters) so even though I don't know Japanese at all I am not completely lost. Perhaps it's just been a really long week and I can only handle so many novel stimuli at once. One thing is for sure: a large western yoga studio/meditation center in the middle of Tokyo would probably make huge bucks because of the high level of stress people experience here. People here don't complain about their life style though; as a Japanese one must maintain an upbeat manner, politeness and friendliness at all times.

Let's see if I get over the initial cultural shock and can settle more into the Japanese working life style next week. Happy for this unexpected opportunity of learning experience but at the same time also glad it's only for a short term period.