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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gaijin Bubble - Being a good husband - Taking action

himonya sunset _2475

Sunset from our front door

The intense feeling of 'being a foreigner' is starting to fade. These past few weeks there have been several occasions when I've been out and about, and completely forgotten that I'm a member of the 2%(ish) minority population of non-Japanese residents in Japan.

Upon arrival back in Japan last September I often found myself thinking about how the Japanese person serving me at the supermarket might be perceiving me, or wondering whether I was being spoken to in deliberately gaijin-friendly Japanese at the bank. Having been away from the islands for over a year I found I'd regressed to those times when I didn't understand Japanese at all, when I perceived myself as a nail sticking out. I was very much in Japan, and I felt it keenly whenever I stepped outside the door.

It would seem though that after about 4 months I'm becoming acclimatised. The areas of Tokyo I frequent (mostly Gakugeidaigaku, Shibuya and Kudanshita) and those areas outside Tokyo I infrequent (Saitama to see my in-laws) are no longer overwhelmingly 'Japan', they're just 'home'.

I think part of the reason for this is I can now get by with very little effort in any of these places. Initially, going from A to B, buying such-and-such in such-and-such a shop required planning, thought, and conscious effort. Now I can walk and shop in these places without thinking. I usually use my time spent walking checking blogs, writing emails and studying Kanji. Unless I'm somewhere that will stimulate my senses (such as a park or an area of notable architecture/interesting people) I don't like to not be doing something else whilst walking.

I appreciate that this must seem a bit sad. Walking around eyes glued to the screen. But I don't see it like this. Not only do I get enourmous pleasure from following the antics of my friends, acquaintances and role models around the world, but I also give myself the freedom to use my time at home (when I would otherwise be checking blogs etc) to do things that are far more constructive. I'm the kind of person that can waste hours and hours watching mindless crap on YouTube - I know I have this weakness and so have created a web usage technique for myself that prevents my doing this - it's called using an RSS reader (NetNewsWire to be precise) on the iPhone. It discourages endless link-clicking, thus I limit myself to about 250 web-based stories a day (over half of which I only read the first line of).

Hmm, seem to have gone down a rathole there. The magnetism of the iPhone. It draws you in no matter how far away you started off. All Mumbles lead to the iPhone...

Anyway back to my gaijin bubble then, that thing that makes the difference between being in Japan surrounded by Japanese people and being on planet Earth surrounded by human people.

My gaijin bubble is thinning out. Gaps are appearing in its liquid walls. I'm finding myself interacting directly with the people around me without any awareness of there being any difference / barrier between us.

And it's awareness that's the key. When I recently spoke to someone about the fading of the film, I found that in that instant, just by voicing this 'fact', the film became even more translucent.

It's all my perception.

I know this. I've always known it, only a lot of the time I choose not to acknowledge it.



Recently I've been pretty down on myself regarding my Japanese ability. It was just before New Year that it hit me hardest. I'm not sure what brought it on, but it's likely to have been my experience at the office, as that's where I struggle the most with clear communication. Thus, New Year at the in-laws saw a pretty quiet Joseph, a passive participant. I surprised myself.

I decided to stop that this morning. I decided that I could speak Japanese, and that I was actually pretty good at it. It shouldn't have come as any surprise then when a couple of hours later I found myself watching Joseph explain to a colleague, in Japanese, the workings of the new database (new as of this morning when I completed phase one of the merger of my new Access database with an existing Access databases - the two miraculously agreed to talk with each other).

Hey, I'm not that bad at Japanese after all. I just thought I was pants. That's pretty cool. What else can I think into existence?

Ah yes, the problematic relationship with that colleague. How about a resolution? Hey presto! at 3.30pm it was solved, the problematic relationship made a 360 degree turn. It wouldn't have happened had I not decided that there was ultimately no problem between us.

I'm currently on my second listen of The New Psycho-cybernetics, which I'm finding very inspiring [what is psycho-cybernetics?]. I've Mumbled about it before, and I'll say again what I said then: there's nothing in this book that you haven't read in The Secret or any of Anthony Robbins' books. Nonetheless, I like the approach, and it motivates me to act. It's this book that has encouraged me to shift my perception of things like my gaijin bubble or 'lack of Japanese language skills'.




This past week has (not unsurprisingly) seen an abundance of blog posts containing reviews of 2008. I considered writing one myself, but decided that it'll be easier to get someone else to do that for me when I can afford to outsource the revamp of my website and the drafting of my autobiography :-) But still, I found other people's reviews pretty thought provoking. Some were in the form of meme's, encouraging the authors to not only list what they had achieved, but also to detail how they thought they'd changed over the previous 12 months (for example, see this one by my friend the talking orchid).


This got me thinking about how I've grown over the past 12 months. Of course, marriage has been the biggy for me, and I must say the last 4 months since the wedding have taught me a lot about myself that I didn't necessarily want to know. I'm fortunate to live in an age in which emotional intelligence is considered a great asset and not some feminine weakness, and thus I am encouraged to act on bringing my behaviour back in alignment with what I know is ultimately right, rather than what is merely considered 'ok' by society at large. *Twinkle* has no complaints, I've not been a bad husband, but I know I can be a better husband. There have been times when I have held my love back when I have (unreasonably) felt threatened or undermined by her behaviour. She deserves my love and support at all times, no exceptions.

I'm also glad I had a few 'serious' relationships before meeting her. I recall times when, if challenged, I would only be able to rest when my partner was feeling thoroughly wretched.

How horrendous is that?

However, whilst of course I am very sorry to have hurt my partners I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to learn in situations where the stakes weren't quite so high, thus *Twinkle* doesn't have to put up with all that kind of crap (it's not a path I recommend though. If possible just be perfect from birth).

Anyway, It's taken New Year to make me act on this one. It's only too easy to get into sloppy patterns of behaviour. Once in that rut one can forget what life was like when one was free, acting in accordance with high-energy spirit. The effort required to 'be nice' when one really doesn't want to be nice isn't actually an effort at all, as the benefits (which are soon felt) are so great they act like helium balloons, pulling you up. The only effort is in making that initial decision.

This reminds me of Wayne Dyer's work - he often speaks of high and low energy cycles. (There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem is one I often mention - I reccomend the audio from Audible)

Going back to changes seen during 2008, I'm also happy to have seen a considerable progress in my dealing with fear, although I don't see last year as having been the real milestone - that's this year when I begin to act with courage in the light of firmer foundations. My self-image still needs considerable work. I'm far too fearful down on myself if I really want to realise many of the dreams I have.

Ironically, by stating these things I'm only making the situation worse. It's time for an end to 'recognising' things. Whilst recognition is the first step, it alone will not bring about any change.

OK. so let's make 2009 the year of Action Without Fear.

You might think it silly to have to label a year like that. But I'm greatly encouraged by such statements. I love words. I love quotes. I even have an online collection of them at http://thanks.tumblr.com (although I've not added to it recently).

I only have one excuse left now.

I haven't got time.

That's a load of rubbish too though. Look at me, I've just spent two hours sitting at the kitchen table mumbling.

Many of my goals are related to online ventures. In the past week I've taken positive steps towards establishing 3 of them, doing things like purchasing domain names, contacting web hosts, and building a prototype site.

I've also taken action towards resurrecting the student of Japanese within me, by sorting out my various Anki databases.

Today, I made enquiries about taking time off work in order that I can dedicate a day or two a month to making these things happen, and that's a distinct possibility.

I'm going to keep a record of action taken, and review it on a weekly basis. I need to do this to keep myself moving forward.

Anyway, I'd best be off to bed, I'm doing another photo shoot at the nail salon in Shibuya tomorrow night, and need to figure out what I'll be doing for backdrops.

tatta.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Exchange rates, and Running with technology

What's going on in the currency markets? It's absolutely mental!

During my Year Abroad, £1 equalled 233yen.

Today (45 minutes ago), £1 equals 162yen.

I was just doing the sums - my salary here is is worth £7000 more than it would have been worth a year ago (if sent back home).

This is great news for me, as it now means that, whilst I only have an average salary, I can pay back my debts at a rate of £1000 a month, something which until now I never would have thought possible.

I'm now in the process of resuscitating my long-neglected GoLloyds account, whereby I can deposit cash in any appropriate ATM here in Japan and have it show up in my British bank a few days later (minus fees of course).




In other news, I was up at 7am today for the first of my thrice-weekly jogs. I'm find it interesting how this time round, with the goal of a mini-marathon to aim for, I'm far more motivated when it comes to getting out of bed and heading down the road to the park. It's not a chore, it's FUN!

But I know that there may be some mornings when it's not quite so sunny, or I'm not feeling so enthusiastic about heading out into the cold, and for that reason I'm looking for as many ways as possible to keep me going. Timing my laps was a start, but I knew I needed something more than that...

...enter RunKeeper for the iPhone.

Basically, this app uses satellite navigation to track you as jog your course. From the GPS co-ordinates it can then of course work out your distance and speed. It also makes a note of elevation too.

The results are initially displayed on the iPhone as a bar chart, each bar (where height = speed) being one minute of movement.

That's all very well and good, but it's still a bit disconnected from reality. Where it really comes into its own is where you finish your run and tap on Save. Two things happen: it saves your run to your iPhone's history for later reference, and it then sends that data to the RunKeeper website, which places your route and stats on Google Maps.



How sexy is that?!

(Unfortunately I neglected to restart it after a pause for shoelace-tying up so the data on this screenshot is incorrect (I went further and faster!))

These are the kinds of uses of hardware, software and networks that I find really exciting. They can have a real positive impact upon my lifestyle, playing on some of my weaknesses (love of tech) to overcome other weaknesses (lack of extended dedication?).

Now all I need is an app that will sync with my camera to location-tag all my photos, then I think my life will be complete!

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Joseph is online

(A blog I wrote a couple of days ago, and am posting now to celebrate our reconnection to the www this morning. Our new fibre modem has resulted in our actual (vs. advertised) download speed quadrupling to 24mbps, the fastest domestic connection I've had yet :-)




It's several years now since I decided to actively create an online presence. For a long time it was limited to my website, TameGoesWild, and this blog, The Daily Mumble. Not that many people knew about it, and I rarely talked about it. I seldom posted any personal stuff, fearful of criticism from the People Out There. I can remember trying to keep it a secret in my first year at uni, such was the embarrassment I felt when real-life friends referred to something I'd written.

The last 18 months has seen a huge shift in my attitude towards my online presence. As a part of the process of learning to trust my own judgement, and to not be hurt by the subjective opinions of others, I deliberately chose to write about things that mattered the most to me, such as the spiritual path I began to travel down last year. I remember at the time debating whether or not to mention the name Wayne Dyer, for fear of people accusing me of being brain washed by some American celebrity doctor - a fear I can't help but laugh at now, given just how much I have been helped by his [audio]books. I still regularly dip into his take on the Tao, and often find that the one verse (out of 81) that he is focusing on is the exact one I need to hear.

I think the next step for me was signing up with Facebook, something I had resisted for some time. I'd tried mySpace and generally found it to be a complete waste of time ...and I must admit that Facebook didn't do much for me at first either. Now however, it plays an important part in creating and maintaining my sense of place in the world. Regular updates on my friends' activities gives me context. Living here in Tokyo with access to very few real-life friends would be much harder without my virtual (usually passive) participation in the lives of others.

Recently I've been delighted by a spate of photo uploads by my friends from Camp Jened (New York) where I worked in 1997. Those were pre-email days for ordinary folks like us, but 11 years on Facebook has enabled us to recreate that community, to share our happy memories. This has promted me to re-evaluate the part that that experience played in making me who I am today, something I doubt I'd be able to do if working from my own foggy memories alone.

Then there's Twitter. I forget when I signed up, sometime earlier this year. At the time I didn't quite realise just what an impact this would have on me. For those who aren't familiar with it, it's basically a tool for micro-blogging, any one post ('tweet') having a limit of 140 characters (such as the posts top-right of the Mumble. There's a great demo video on YouTube called 'Twitter in Plain English'). Historically, the majority of users have been those into all things techy / internetty, but recent months have seen it move into the mainstream. It's a powerful dissemination tool - the Obama campaign team caught onto this pretty early on and have used it to great effect.

But of course, without an audience, Twitter serves little purpose as a broadcast platform. Personally, I only know a handful of people who use it, and thus initially wasn't all that inspired. But then I discovered Twitterific. This desktop app takes my Twitter posts and send them to Skype, where they become my status message, visible to all of my contacts.

...That's was all well and good, but still, Skype isn't exactly an everyday app for most users.

The breakthrough came with the Twitter app for Facebook. This takes your Twitter status and posts it to Facebook, thus making it visible to all your Facebook friends. So that's one message posted in Twitterific being sent to Twitter, Skype, Facebook, Friendfeed, and any web-page you have control over (such as TDM).

But what next? It's all a bit one-way.

Well it was, until the release of the new Facebook interface a few weeks back. What seemed like just another makeover has actually begun to fundamentally change my interaction with others. Unlike before, it is now incredibly easy to post comments on Facebook status messages. Thus, I can post reactions to friends' daily doings with one tap of the screen, and of course they can do the same with me - and do. Suddenly, one-way broadcasting has become two-way communication.

There's one final piece to the online presence jigsaw though - the iPhone (oh cripes here he goes again...). The new iPhone Facebook app is bloomin fantastic. It enables the user to have easy access to their network of friends wherever they are, to react to messages on-the-road almost in real time (depending on how often they're bored on the train) Couple that with the easy posting of messages and photos to Twitter (using mobile Twitterific) and the publishing of (line-break heavy) blogs via email (which are then automatically reposted on Facebook), and your online-presence becomes an extension of your real life interactions.




I'm sure this all sounds like a complete nightmare to some people. Not only the idea of publishing your every action online, but also the idea of your friends being bombarded by numerous 140-character messages describing tonight's pumpkin soup (I just remind myself that they can simply unsubscribe from your updates if they wish to)

I'm fascinated by just how much this has all come to mean to me. I guess in my current circumstances it's not surprising that I am seeking to maintain established (distant) friendships, to reach out to as many people as I can from my relative isolation. It's a bit of a lifeline really.

I'm also interested in how our shared online presence impacts upon our real-life relationships. So far, I've found it to have an immensely positive effect. On seeing friends, one can quickly move past initial catch ups, and get to the important stuff, or explore areas of life that might usually be hidden due to social norms. The Internet offers us the freedom to express ourselves in ways that might be frowned upon in real-life, thus we can discover shared interests that might otherwise never be discovered. I can think of several real-life relationships whose foundations are reinforced to a considerable extent by the things that I have learnt about them online.

An example of a relationship strengthened by an online presence could be that of the friendship I share with an ex-coursemate who is now working in a remote part of southern Japan. They often blog about their experiences, the challenges they encounter, the happy successes they enjoy. We were never particularly close at uni (although I always liked and respected them), but reading their blog fills me with admiration for what they are doing, and makes me feel enriched by the remote friendship I share with them. It encourages me to send good wishes their way, and to want to offer assistance to them should they ever need it.

Having said that, in the long term I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make. If I imagine myself meeting offline coursemates after a prolonged period of no contact, the feelings are similar to those connected with meeting my online friends. This leads me to think that perhaps ultimately, online communication can never have the same kind of impact upon relationships that even limited offline interactions can have. This I find quietly reassuring, as much as I love the online world, I know that ultimately it's what I do in real life that matters.

After all, no amount of Status Updates will get the washing up done before *Twinkle* arrives home.

Tattaa.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

'Free' broadband in Japan

One thing I've really enjoyed since arriving back in Japan is being able to watch online videos without having to make numerous cups of tea in order to pass the time they take to buffer. The throttled connections we had at university were probably amongst the slowest in the UK, slower even than my parents' broadband which runs off a remote rural exchange that continues to utilise highly trained rocket-propelled swallows to transfer packets of data.

A recent survey showed that Japan's internet was the fastest in the world, something I can believe having seen adverts for services offering 160mbps connections. Ours runs at about 18Mbps.

3G, as used by mobile devices, is also impressively fast. I regularly clock 1Mbps on my iPhone, which is about 30 times faster than the wireless in the university library back home... (tee hee)

With the contract for our current broadband connection finishing at the end of the month we've been looking around at what's on offer, and have been pretty surprised by how generous the ISPs are. So generous in fact that we've found a deal that essentially means that we almost make money - just by signing up for the connection.

With Nifty we get the first four months free of charge, then pay 6000 yen (£30) per month after that. However, we also get 20,000 yen (£100) in Sakura Store points (which we'll spend on the ink and stuff that we need to buy anyway, exciting huh?), thus by the time we move out next Spring we'll technically be 8000 yen (£40) better off for having signed up for it.

I guess I do feel a bit warmer towards Sakura now. Maybe that's what they're paying us for.

The only negative in all this is the downtime between contracts - up to two weeks without broadband. ...but as we've got an iPhone I don't really see this as much of a problem, and if we're desperate for a connection for our laptops we just need to stand outside Shibuya Station - the whole area seems to be covered by free Wifi.

It's funny how Japanese technology is so far ahead of the UK in some ways (broadband etc), yet so far behind in others (web technology, such as that connected with online banking. You know, if you lose your password for your post office savings account you have to print out a form and send it to the customer service centre in Yokohama...!)

Ho hum. Better go and tell the fridge what to order us for supper from the local supermarket.

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