One of the most wonderful things about living and traveling abroad is that your notions will often change. Notions about the world, your home country (wherever that may be), and notions about yourself will forever change and you will hold them in a slightly different lens than before.
For me a very simple revelation: America is not the center of the world and if ever it was then that is rapidly changing. Before this writing I would have told you (and many of my countrymen would probably tell you the same) that we know America is not the center of the world and that many other countries are important to the make-up of its future, I however have discovered that so many notions I have held of the world have been incorrect or that much of the world collectively operates on a system so alien to anything in the United States that even if we do not outwardly hold that we “are better than anyone else” that attitude subconsciously permeates under the surface and manifests itself in arbitrary ways. Some ways are very simplistic such as the fact that most countries use the celsius barometer to determine the forecast whilst America uses Fahrenheit, for the most part the rest of the world uses the Metric system for measurement whilst America utilizes the U.S. customary system. In an early 2016 poll only a mere 44% of Americans where found to be Passport holders potentially indicating a low or bullish interest in traveling. The blame can no longer solely lye on travel expenses and Airfare (trust me this is coming from the guy who purchased an $85 Ticket from Hong Kong to LAX!) if you hunt for deals you will find them! One reasoning those respondents gave for not traveling outside of the U.S. is that many felt as though they already had everything within reach within our nations borders. The United States is a nation that is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and in areas that house large populations the opportunity to explore a new culture for a day is easily accessed. In cities such as Seattle I can dine on Cantonese style Dim Sum in Chinatown, slurp some authentic Japanese Ramen in Bellevue, and then have some great Quanta Fir Fir at 2 a.m. at one of the many Ethiopian joints that dot the Mt. Baker Neighborhood of the city.
However in Seattle if your not a local you’d have to come to grips with frequent precipitation and/or overcast as well as the prospect of active volcanoes. Essentially no one place is perfect and certainly not the United States, but I have seen elements of foreign lifestyles that make me wonder “Hey why can’t we have something like that back home!”. From the efficiency of Japan to the simplicity of Taiwan, theres much to be loved (and be skeptical about) abroad.
Life simplified in Taiwan
How expensive ought life truly be? If I can enjoy a breakfast of roast duck, Chinese sausage, steamed rice and vegetables for $1.83 USD, and a modern spacious 2 bedroom marble floored sky rise apartment can be rented for $300 USD than how did this miss us in the United States.
Of course there are mitigating factors such as government policies, subsidies from larger foreign governments, geographical differences, GDP averages and surpluses, local income and etcetera. But I find myself wondering is it truly impossible for us as a human race to figure out a way that life can be lived and enjoyed through hard work and recreation for almost everyone on the planet?
Tokyo is the pinnacle of an efficient city, a city where the necessities of life are often super convenient to counterbalance a demanding culture of discipline, and rigidity that can sometimes prove inconvenient.
Tokyo is “Combinient”
As an Italian Expat friend of mine often says: Combini is our life isn’t it? Her assessment is spot on, Lawson, Family Mart and 7-11 (not to be confused with the inferior U.S. Standard of 7-11) offer everything from Fresh Bento [Lunch Boxes] and produce, to the ability to pay bills and pick up and pay for items ordered online at Rakuten, Amazon and other online retailers. Honestly I do not know how I made it before in life without a Combini by my side, she’s open 24/7 is guaranteed to be filled with fresh and delicious foods such as fluffy egg salad sandwiches and hot Oden soup, toiletries, and occupies almost every three blocks in Tokyo. Japan being a country that is super safe you think nothing of walking to combini at 2 a.m. to peruse the aisles of for something you forgot.
Tokyo: New York’s Passive aggressive counterpart
One of the more surprising revelations I got after living in Tokyo for a while is: Tokyo can often be a BIG, MEAN, ANGRY city same as New York (but in an often passive aggressive and very gentle way). I mentioned this to one of my buddies from a mens Bible study that I regularly attend in the Omotesando neighborhood of Tokyo and him being a native agreed and elaborated that “Yes many Tokyo-ites are angry: Angry at 14hr work days, angry at the train and how overcrowded it is, angry that they have little other options but to take the train etc.”. This discovery for me was a far cry from the bubbly fun Super Nintendo image some of us outsiders may have naively held of Tokyo, an endless wonderland where anime rules supreme it is not!
Historically Tokyo is a city that was once occupied by almost 90% of the Samurai class, the class of nobles whom once ruled and warred within the country pre-dating the Meiji era. Of course circa 2016 Samurai are long gone but its been theorized that at least some of the culture trickled down into social areas such as etiquette, and sense of duty. On the one hand it keeps society running efficiently, customer service in Tokyo is utterly pristine – the best in the world I honestly say – American customer service? Hah! Your joking right? Theres no comparison.
At the same time I feel for Tokyo-ites, because some of them seem unhappy or at the very least constantly stressed. Amidst the cartoony jingles you hear when you exit the train (each train line has its own unique jingle) I detect a sort of societal cop out: It’s almost as if people are trying to pretend that everything is ok, when in fact it is most certainly not. But no one wants to talk about it, not one wants to impose. A cornerstone of Tokyo culture and to a lesser degree Japanese culture is maintaining “Wa” or harmony in the shared social environment. The cultural point of not wanting to Impose on others has merit, but lets be honest we’re human, at some point we all need to vent/unwind. In a city where working 100 overtime hours a month is not unheard of I think that there is much unwinding to be done.
Tokyo the beautiful
As I arrived a bit behind schedule for Hanami (Cherry Blossom blooming season in Japan) I didn’t get to witness that miraculous occurrence, I am however absolutely salivating for next Spring to arrive! It turns out that Cherry Blossoms are hardly the only significant bloom that occurs here. Early summer painted the city of Tokyo in gorgeous Pastel colored Hydrangeas and the end of September saw a curious bloom of micro sized perfume scented shrubs known as Kinmokusei.
On an early fall day I walked out of my apartment and was immediately greeted with the scent of perfume, I shrugged and thought nothing of it until I realized that the same perfume scent had followed me along the block making me think: Wow Japan smellS very good right now! Every neighborhood was absolutely bathed in this wonderful smell! It was lovely!
Japan not so weird, or is it?
Japan is sometimes thought of abroad as “Weird”, “Weird Japan” is a concept which I feel is partially perpetuated by a select group of Japanese enterprise for the sole purpose of appealing to foreign markets for profit. It can lead to the misconception that Japan is all Wacky game shows, Salarymen, Anime everywhere and altogether strange customs. But for the most part I have found Japanese life to be quite standard faire especially in my neighborhood near Inokashira Park just normal folks trying to achieve a normal work/life balance and enjoy family and friends which in a city such as Tokyo can be quite a tall order.
Still….heh…every now and then I’ll see Goku taking the train (and here I thought he could fly or at least use
And their are some pretty interesting television dramas such as this one:
Ahh well, maybe it is a little wacky!
JR Sen’s [Sins]
JR stands for Japan Railway and JR Sen translates to JR line, (Sen meaning line as in a train line) but here I am making a play on the word Sen to actually mean Sin. “Kore wa JR Sen desu” At the entrance of any given JR station you will hear this announcement over and over again.
After a great night dining in Shibuya walking back to the train station I was intercepted by a petite woman who muttered something to me, unable to ascertain what it was that she said I asked her again: “Excuse me, what did you say?”
Her: (I’ll spare you the details, but she propositioned me)
Me: (feeling immediately embarrassed for myself and her) “Oh no thank you”
She then doubled down (at this point I think she was also feeling embarrassed and trying to regain some face)
Her: “Don’t worry it won’t be from me, there are women inside to choose from…”
Me: “No, Thank you anyway, goodbye.”
I prayed for her that night, there are a few ministries I have in mind for the future (to either enact or contribute to) and one of them will be to assist people whom feel like they have few options but to participate in such enterprises as this.
In any case this is to say that yes Tokyo has a dark side, and that was my one brush in with it.
Why don’t we have this in America?
To live in or visit Japan without trying Kyoho grapes should be considered a crime against your taste buds! Unlike any fruit I have ever tasted Kyoho grapes have an unusually high level of natural sugar and are much larger than normal grapes, similar to concord grapes, to bite into one is akin to biting into a box of grape juice! These grapes are superior to any grapes you have EVER had and the Japanese know this hence the often exorbitant price tag! Yes these grapes above are ¥2,500 or about $23.00 USD
Powerful Moments in Hong Kong
The Brotha Nod
One of my favorite moments in Hong Kong took place walking around in Mong Kok. Being a Black American of the African diaspora whether it be Newport Beach California, Asia, or wherever else, whenever I see my fellows in places where we’re marginally outnumbered I always make it a personal practice to nod in acknowledgement as kind of a way to say “Sup bruh, I see you” I gave this acknowledgment to a fellow I saw in Mong Kok and his response was in kind but he even took it a step further and put his hands together in blessing and slightly nodded his head in a bow. Man that gave me the chills, as surely as I love all kinds of the human race that was special moment between myself and a fellow black man! Note: Sometimes the brother nod is extended to foreigners in general, I have also shared such exchanges with many Europeans especially in Japan where the Non-Japanese population numbers around 3%.
Unless watching an English movie or program from the U.K. I honestly doubt it dawns on many Americans that we actually have an accent outside of our country. (Another one of those center of the world notions I’d say). Growing up it certainly wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought, the majority of media I grew up with was comprised of the American English Dialect. After spending a few weeks in Hong Kong shooting some footage for the blog and our forthcoming Docu-series it had been a while since I had heard an American accent. Sure you’ll hear English but often it will come from an Englishman, or an Australian or a person of Chinese decent whose teacher was either one. Well one day at Victoria Harbor low and behold I get an earshot of Southern drawl, I perk up and turn to see a quartet of one man and three middle aged women with sandy colored and brunette hair, absolutely elated at the chance to speak with fellow Americans I greeted them and found out that they were a Airline Captain and crew from North Carolina on a day stopover taking in some of the same sights that I was documenting. They were jubilant if not downright rowdy! We had a brief chat they wished me well in my endeavors and I bid them a safe trip home. Some weeks from that would see me pack my bags and head for Tokyo where I have subconsciously developed a habit to listen carefully when a foreigner is nearby to determine whether or not they are American. An English friend I’ve made here in Tokyo now teases me occasionally about what she describes as a: “Yankee Accent”. Hah!
Hong Kong a study in Lighting
Residential buildings are bathed in vibrant pastels and neon light, massage and apothecary parlors are glowing with promise of rejuvenation and luxe, faux names such as “Noble House” and “Phoenix Mansion” are given to hotels and hostels, nocturnal Hong Kong is a beautiful array of color and life.
To live in Hong Kong is to never truly be alone, you will always have a constant reminder that you are residing in a city full of abundant life, struggle, potential fortune and epic beauty…
Certainly it took her a few days, but to see the city of Hong Kong smile at me the way she did that night…..have mercy. It was my ultimate ‘welcome to the world’ moment. “Brandon you are so small in the grand scheme of things”.
And as a Christian man living in times where it is maybe not as popular to be Christian, it warmed my heart to see God’s work being done in Hong Kong: