Sunday, 24 January 2016

From East to West: a new chapter in the PNW

It’s now more than four months since I moved across the world for a second time and made another home in the Pacific Northwest, and I wanted to note down some observations before I get so used to life here that they seem commonplace.

Firstly, to all kind readers aren’t sure what the heck I’m doing over here: I moved to Eugene, Oregon to do a Master’s in Nonprofit Management at the University of Oregon, a program that isn’t really available in the UK but is becoming increasingly common over here. At the same time, I work 20 hours a week as a GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow) coordinating the International Cultural Service Program, in return for tuition, healthcare and a stipend. It’s a tuition scholarship for international students – they make presentations and teach classes to community groups about their culture; I manage their appointments and teach them how to do it. They’re a wonderful group of students from Tibet to Turkmenistan, with some incredible stories of how they came to be here. Their challenges as international students are humbling and put mine in perspective.

Apart from that, I’m currently interning at a Foundation that raises money for the local community college; chairing the Events committee and acting as Secretary for the UO’s chapter of Association of Fundraising Professionals; and practicing with the UO taiko group every week.

Last term was a full and extremely busy to the start of my two years here. This term I’ve resolved to make the most of my measly 9-credit load and take at least one day off from homework a week, read and exercise more, and keep exploring this beautiful part of the world. Eugene and the UO are just about as opposite from St Andrews as you can imagine, and I’m loving getting to enjoy that contrast.

St Andrews was a tiny stone fishing town replete with a ruined cathedral and the oldest golf course in the world, where the ‘gown’ student population of rich Americans and Scandinavians and ‘town’ population of Scottish locals were pretty much separate. Heeled boots and a statement necklace were standard wear for the library. Undergrads were heavily involved in extra-curriculars from the Vanity Fair and Vogue-covered annual fashion show to the rugby and hockey teams to the half dozen student publications detailing small-town exploits. For fun there was a black-tie event at least every month, or a couple of clubs the size of living rooms where wealthy, drunk golfers would occasionally feel generous and buy us a round, or you could always just pop into a stranger’s house party glimpsed from the street: you inevitably would know someone there. An unlocked bike could survive weeks, and each year was punctuated by traditions dating back 600 years.

Eugene has long been a hub of West Coast counter-culture, nestled in a valley between pine-covered mountains and surrounded by rivers and hot springs, the wide cracked streets lined with old trees and individuated wooden houses with porches.  The student population at first sight appears to be a mix of green-and-yellow clad Ducks fans (the football team here is huge); sorority girls and frat boys; Asian students hanging out in designer clothes and driving round in white Bentleys; hippie kids in tie dye and dreads, and the ubiquitous student in North face and hiking boots on a sweet bike. The locals are very engaged in town life and there is a lot of activism: people really care. Locked bikes go missing after an hour and there is also quite a large homeless population. And yet Eugene has its own distinct character. Downtown is peppered with yoga studios, sushi bars, cannabis shops, craft and second-hand bookstores, coffee spots and microbreweries.

I’m also finding university culture very different, although some of that is probably down to being in graduate school this time around, as well as taking a more professional than academic degree. Assignments tend to be smaller and more frequent and classes include a participation grade, whereas in Scotland you could basically turn up or not, and hand in one big essay at the end of term. Equity and inclusion is also emphasised far more, making the annual male-only Kate Kennedy parade of my undergrad years seem terribly outdated. The campus is huge and the facilities, especially the monolithic sports centre, reflect the $32,000/year fees for non-residents.

I love the Oregonian philosophy of life too. It’s a liberal, outdoorsy, unpretentious (despite the Portlandia depiction of insufferable hipsters) and relaxed state. People seem to understand how to have a good quality of life with time to be outside, have hobbies and talk to strangers. They’re friendly in a way that feels authentic (classic Oregonian buzzword).

That said, there are a few differences I’m still getting used to. It’s a cliché that Brits are polite and reserved, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Saying sorry, please and thank you all the time is normal for me, and I sometimes have to remind myself that the conversational differences don’t indicate rudeness but simply a different normal. Likewise with other subtle quirks: phrases like ‘I don’t care’ instead of ‘I don’t mind’ or calling someone ‘she’ instead of their name. People feel far more open about sharing their lives with work colleagues and acquaintances, and are way more blunt, but it does make for interesting conversations. I do miss dry British humour and sarcasm and am often taken literally when I’m being anything but serious.

One of the other two main things I’ve noticed, or more accurately just felt, is the work ethic. It seems like people here work longer hours and take fewer holidays, but also have their identity more intertwined with their jobs and career. Work isn't so much just something you do between 9-5 and is more integral to people’s character. The other is the sense of social security. Even speaking as a privileged grad student with great health insurance, it seems like it’s far easier to slip through the cracks here: have a run of bad luck and make a few mistakes and you could be down and out far more easily. I’ve come to appreciate the NHS more than ever as an incredible safety net that we take for granted too often. The relationship to the state here is also something I had to see first hand to really understand. Rather than an embedded expectation of or dependence on the state, here there is an element of deep-seated suspicion – one reason for the many nonprofits.

That’s not to say these differences are bad and one way is better than the other! I feel privileged to be living in a foreign country again, this time one where I can speak the same language and thus connect with people in a different way, and to have the time to try and understand a different way of life. I’m realising what a big step my American friends took in moving to St Andrews at 18, and understanding them in new ways, too. 

Apart from that, I miss bathroom cubicles that don't have 1-inch gaps all around the door, British white bread, butter and cream (food also tends to last twice as long here, I think due to what chemicals are in it), the BBC, eclectic fashion sense, public transport, and being left well alone by people in shops. But on the flip side, I love the cheap movie tickets, un-measured alcohol units in bars, absence of biting North winds, egalitarian ethos, and the open-heartedness of the people here.I don't know if one day these notes will feel like distant memory, or the start of what was to become everyday, and I'm ok with that for now. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

saying goodbye

I finished a bunch of my classes with singing Scottish songs and an och-aye Jimmy hat for one lucky student! 

Note the sweaty brow.. one thing I don't miss is enough humidity to make the floors and walls wet and the ceilings mouldy...

I hadn't cried at all up until one of my last days when I officially said goodbye in a speech to all the teachers. At the end they presented me with a huge bouquet I had assumed was for one of the long-standing staff members and I lost it (blotchy face not pictured). The kindness of my coworkers was overwhelming. I thought back to how little attention, let alone gratitude, we paid our own language assistants back in school and felt a little ashamed. No one does hospitality like the Japanese. 

Chris and I did our first ever puri to commemorate the end of the year. And we clearly needed to work on our quick-fire hiragana because somehow Christine and Sophie ended up as... Kui and Soso. Yeah. 

I also had a wonderful leaving dinner with the English Department and the principal and vice principal, where they gifted me with my very own yukata and made me try it on immediately! I felt so valued for the very small contribution I made to the school. 

However it wasn't all polite gift exchanging and farewells... it also included the biggest faux-pas of my whole year there, just when I thought I was safe. A few days later I was having a drink at Jo's place and, clinking glasses, said the classic British toast "Chin-chin!" My Japanese-speaking friend Duncan looked at me askance and asked "What did you say..?" "Chin-chin!" I said. "I was toasting my co-workers with it the other day." His face blanched. Turns out "chin chin" means something very different in Japan. Turns out I had toasted each teacher, by turns jovially, conspiratorially, with abandon and humility (to the principal), with the word "Penis". Now those confused glances made sense. I have yet to live it down. 

A few days later we spent a very hot evening at the Miyazaki matsuri parades 

After some burgers and cocktails we also ran into some girls with intriguing eye make up, as well as a cross dressing singalong host who tried to get very friendly with a few members of our group..

I took my first and last puri with the queen of kawaii Sinead 
 After school chillin in the park

Lunch dates with this one 

Jo, Hana and I visited one of Miyazaki's main attractions, Sekino Falls, in a bid to cool off 

Cuteness at the bakery

My last matsuri was on a hot and stormy day in the 'Jo. The resident gaijin and friends were invited to dress up a dance in the parade and how could we say no? 

You might have even mistaken us for the Memoirs of  a Geisha cast... but our derp faces would quickly disillusion you. 

I was in seventh heaven.

I have really atmospheric memories of the parade. It was raining hard, pouring at points, and we danced on down the streets with the old fashioned music echoing off the facades, our tabi and geta soaked through. At one point Jo and I ducked into a traditional lamp shop to look for a toilet and were allowed to use the hold-in-the-floor style one in the back of the shop, and for some reason the smell of all the wood and tatami in back, plus the wet pavement and the echoing music, all combined to create a very visceral memory. Afterwards we changed, ate festival food and watched more dancing, stopped off at multiple kombinis for energy drinks, and went bowling still soaked to the bone. 

On my last Sunday Hana drove Haruka and I to Aya Bridge as the mist rolled over the tops of the trees. The sense of everything coming to a close was very strong but we were also feeling spontaneous and silly and this moment was one of total freedom and happiness. 

On my last day at school these guys took me to Sushi Tora, the best place in town, for lunch, and I cleaned up my desk. I'll always remember them waving me off from the front steps of school as I cycled away for the last time. 

And so I bring this account of my year in Japan to a close, one year after returning home. It's been by no means comprehensive, and I will definitely be filling in the gaps with scribblings and albums in the future. Japan will always have a special place in my heart, and I hope I'l return more than once. I feel so grateful to have had that year simply to explore a place that fascinates me, not think about the future, live spontaneously and intuitively, and become a version of myself that feels most right. Most of all I'm grateful for the people I met. I learned so much from them about kindness, generosity and free thinking and living, and they made it the most hilarious, weird, enlightening, warm-hearted, bittersweet, best year of my life.