Break your boxes, but remember them


We live in boxes.  no matter how deeply we examine the world around us, our perception is restricted. This restriction takes place at both a physical, biological level as well as on a constructed socio-cultural level. These boxes will always be there, but that does not mean they cannot be expanded or broken.

It is all too easy to see restrictions as prisons. Indeed, many of them can become prisons, but perceiving them exclusively as such is not valuable. Humanity has not created its numerous restrictions upon itself in order to slowly imprison itself. These boxes function like bricks. They build a navigable world for us that appears to have a degree of solidity. Without our boxes, nothing would make sense to us.

Yet despite the solidity – the ‘reality’ -our boxes create for us, we paradoxically are not living in anything ‘real’ at all, for our boxes are interpretations, solidified by socio–cultural consensus and the brain’s incredible pattern building capabilities.

My aim in this article is to persuade that our boxes need opening and our bubbles bursting, but not before understanding what purpose they served. We should pursue the knowledge restricted by our self-created bubbles, yet hold onto the structure of our former cages lest we fall into an unnavigable nihilistic existence.

Biological boxes

The first of the boxes we must recognise are the biological ones. A human’s senses are not perfect. Bats hear better than us. Cats see better than us. There is more of the world to experience than we are physically able to. This really is an astounding fact. No matter how hard we try, we are unable to experience everything there is to in the universe. We will never see every colour in an image, never smell every scent present in a flower. It is all to easy to assume we experience the world in its fulness, yet our experience is but a fraction of the world.

On a neurological level, the restrictions continue. The brain is tasked with a momentous role:  to control its body and react correctly to its surroundings. A big part of this job is determining what is important to even register.

Imagine for a moment if you placed the same value of importance on absolutely everything you experience. That dripping tap in the background is as clear as the sound of birds in the garden and both are suddenly as important as the conversation you are having with your partner. Things you used to completely ignore are now given the same weighting as the matters you really care about.

This would be too much to handle. You would go mad. Instead, the brain is highly selective. We perceive only a tiny fraction of the world around us. Though this is clearly for our own good – to stop us being overwhelmed with input – it also means our ‘reality’ is a mere shadow of what it could be.

The boxes of culture and society

A large proportion of our boxes are sociocultural phenomenon. These boxes build up from the very beginning of our lives and build up as we travel through it. We are all born in a specific place and most of us remain exposed only to the microcosm of that place for many years.

In that time, cultural boxes form. What language will I speak? What nationality will I have? Which god(s) will I follow? A brand-new human baby doesn’t get to answer these questions for itself – they don’t get to choose their first sociocultural boxes.

Instead our surroundings form our first restrictions for us. In my case, I write in English today because I was born in the UK. I was brought up by atheists, and so was not immediately exposed to religion. I had a Dutch name and was born to New Zealander parents, so built a very fluid national identity. These count amongst my first boxes.

Our options – break, or ignore?

Considering our boxes, both inherited and constructed, a question arises:  Is it right to ignore our boxes, or do something about them? Let’s consider first the easy option – Ignorance. The clear advantage is stability. Ignoring the borders of perception keeps us grounded and lets us believe we understand our surroundings. It is, at least on an individual level, safe.

Such a state of existence is arguably fine. That is, until something goes wrong or changes. If we believe in a solid world, we are not equipped for when it changes or collapses. Does this happen? All the time. Political developments, divides in religion, social conflict; these are all boxes under pressure. All it takes is a brief look into the history books to know that these boxes regularly fall to pieces.

Another option is to identify our boxes and take a long, hard look at them. There is an expansive history of doing so in philosophy. Buddhism teaches of the illusory nature of our existence and encourages the systematic breaking of illusions with the intention of discovering truth and freeing oneself from the prison of this existence.  Nietzsche attacked numerous social constructs, even bravely challenging the existence of morality, in order to pursue the true potential of the individual.

The path of breaking boxes is a path of discovery and life affirmation, but is no doubt also dangerous. For every broken box, the former stability of one’s personal illusion shakes a little more. Indeed, Nietzsche was eventually driven mad by his own philosophizing (plus opiates). Is it really worth pursuing a life of deeper understanding if it eventually leads to total nihilism and madness?

The answer is to reject our identified boxes, but continue to inhabit them. What does this mean in practice?

To challenge perception itself requires extreme scepticism. Amongst the strongest role models for this kind of thinking is Robert Anton Wilson, a man who can perhaps be described as a radical agnostic. In his book, ‘The Cosmic Trigger’, Anton Wilson attempts intentionally to change his perception of reality by exploring as many modes of understanding existence as possible. On the course of his journey he meets God, the devil, communicates telepathically with extra-terrestrials in the Sirius star system and chases the illuminati.  Despite experiencing very real encounters with such figures, he neither accepts nor rejects their existence.

By doing this, Anton Wilson inhabited realities he didn’t believe in. Instead, he committed to what he calls ‘reality tunnels’; the perception we solidify around us to match our sociocultural understanding. Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels are our boxes, and his experiments in their subjectivity show how morph-able they are.

The key point to realize here is this: If we do indeed match our perception to our understanding, then playing with perception will radically change our understanding of our existence. Breaking our boxes is the key to a new world.

Breaking sociocultural boxes

Society and culture are difficult to challenge because they fight back and are bigger than the individual. Culture is built from collective reality tunnels and the majority adhere to that reality tunnel. Otherwise the culture would cease to exist. As discussed above, it is clearly valuable to challenge the reality tunnels of culture, but to do so is more than likely to be considered by society as a transgression. Moreover, you are estranging yourself from the culture.

This is precisely why it is necessary to in some sense hold onto the boxes we endeavour to dismantle. Though there is much to learn by dissecting subjective reality, each incision can be estranging and ultimately life denying.

Let’s take an example from contemporary discourse: gender.

The sexes are divided biologically, but the different characteristics of gender are predominantly socially constructed. We are still considerably restricted by the social construct of gender and as such it is worth challenging. Gender is however a deeply solidified construct that society is vehemently defending. Society would be freer without the restraints of gender, but stepping out of the gender box still attracts the ire of society.

Can someone pursuing the dissolution of their gender constraints find a balance? Can their box be blurred whilst not being ostracised from society to some degree? Let’s apply the concept of ‘remembering’ the former box. This manifests itself as a form of extreme empathy. The challenger of gender constructs will eventually, even in the most liberal of places, be confronted by the elements of society defending the construct. The challenger could fight back, but to do so risks becoming the enemy of society, and society is stronger. We are however all familiar with the reality tunnels of established culture and empathising with them serves the challenger two-fold. They keep their community and their community is more likely to listen and eventually accept the challenger’s ideas.

Challenging biological boxes

We can, with some creativity, also explore further our biological limitations. There is of course a major difference between challenging socio-cultural boxes and biological boxes: the former deals with the realm of thought, the latter with perception of material phenomenon.

It may not be possible to dissolve physical material with thought, but our perception of the physical world is widely subjective. Each person’s senses are different and the degree to which each person engages with the world around them varies. Because of this, though biological boxes cannot be broken in the same way as their socio-cultural counterparts, striving to understand them in a new way is very possible.

Let’s take sight as an example. Human eyes are set at a particular field of view. A camera however is not. If a photographer wishes to take a photo with a similar perspective to what we see through human eyes, they are likely to use a 50mm lens. If the photographer changes the lens, the perspective of the camera’s shots will differ from that of the human eye.

By simply changing a camera lens, we can learn that a human’s direct perspective of the physical world is not the only possible perspective. The physical world can truly be seen in ways not usually open to us. Within those hidden perspectives, whole new worlds await.

Break your boxes

Without to some extent holding onto the reality tunnels we reject, we lose our greatest asset in the search to find value in breaking them in the first place: acceptance and contentment with your newly created world. Free thinking spirits are almost by definition strongly individualistic, but we remain social creatures. As much as society and culture can seem to imprison us, most of us need society. The individual who explores existence is better off for it, but leaving society would destroy most of us.

Because of this, the adventurer of human existence has one choice – to break their boxes, but to remember them.

 

 

 

The joy of goth? What the underworld of culture tells us about taboos.


This article, as well as covering a great interest of mine, is my submission to Deutsche Welle to progress further in my application to join the DW-Voluntariat. Wish me luck! The theme set by DW is “Meine Tabus, deine Tabus. Worüber wir nicht reden, aber reden sollten” (“My taboos, your taboos. Why we don’t talk about them, but probably should.”) . I have taken my own twist on the topic. My deepest thanks to Deutsche Welle for offering me a chance to persuade them of my abilities.

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Leipzig has a history of challenging social injustice, which has made it a surprisingly good candidate as the world centre of goth culture

In most places, in most times, stepping on the tram late at night shrouded in a long, black, hooded cape is likely to invoke nightmarish thoughts in the minds of your poor fellow commuters. Who could blame them? The average person doesn’t tend to smile and wave when the embodiment of fear intrudes on their weekend night out. This tram journey does not however fall into the categories of ‘most places’ or ‘most times’, and the hooded figure – me -takes a seat next to a friendly looking fetishist, just across from a particularly wise looking wizard and a jovial viking.

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Vikings welcome, something to raise your drinking horn to

Down the aisle, a woman is chatting with a very confused, out of place looking family dressed in ‘normal’ clothes. “Don’t worry”, she says in a comforting voice, “don’t be afraid. We’re actually all very nice”. The viking and the wizard giggle and pass on their most dashing smiles to the family.

Welcome to WGT, Wave Gotik Treffen, the world’s largest gothic festival. For one week a year, the city of Leipzig in Saxony turns black as the world’s dark alternative scene comes out of hiding and throws one giant, subversive party.

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Leipzig doesn’t need to try too hard to be gothic. It has its fair share of old churches and architecture, many of which become venues during WGT.

WGT has been held annually in Leipzig since 1991 and is now the world’s biggest event for celebrating dark culture. Each year artists and over 150 bands from around the world descend on Leipzig. The whole city is covered in cultural events for a week. Old factories in the western quarter become the home of cybergoth raves. gothic fashion fills the ‘Agra’ hall in the south of the city. A Viking village is setup in one park and a Victorian picnic in another. The residents of Leipzig temporarily become, amongst many other guises, steampunks, witches and Victorian goths. For a week, nothing is taboo.

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magical visitors to MPS, one of Germany’s other alternative festivals

What do we mean by taboo? A taboo is a collectively perceived yet unmentioned wrongdoing. They are the actions or words which reside just outside of societal acceptance, at a point where they are publicly disdained yet often privately indulged in or sympathized for.

As a social phenomenon, taboos are culturally dependent. What is taboo in Germany may not be taboo in Malaysia, and vice-versa. In the UK, you don’t ask others how much money they make, but in China it can be one of the first questions a new acquaintance asks. In most of Europe, you won’t upset anyone by sticking chopsticks up vertically in your rice bowl (instead you might impress your friends for using them in the first place) but doing so in Japan is a symbolic act reserved for funerals.

As socially and culturally created phenomena taboos are not objectively real threats. They are rather an accumulation of collective experience, essentially socially constructed fear. The low-level fear of taboo is a powerful force which shapes you from the moment you are born. As a child, every time your parents scold you or stop you doing something, you have reached the taboo line. At school the contradictory rule of teacher and rule of cool shape us further and divergence from those rules is taboo. When we start work we don dour suits and serious faces; wearing the yellow and pink polka dot tuxedo in the wardrobe would unfortunately be taboo.

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Far from the dress norms of the ‘real world’, There are no taboos in the WGT dress code.

The net of taboos of course does serve a valuable purpose. It helps form common ground on which to build a functioning society. Yet seeing how arbitrary the taboos are, there is as much value to be had in subverting them as there is in withholding them.

This is the forte of the dark alternative scene. The gothic underworld is not strange to the outside observer because it is inherently scary, but because it is a micro-society built on the unbuildable. Because of this, there is much to learn from the dark.

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It may be up to debate how much we can learn from the dark alternative scene, but there are a lot of wise looking folk about at WGT.

In the dark alternative scene (in Germany, the ‘Schwarze Szene’) numerous societal matters function very differently. Goth has always been about subversion and challenging norms. It grew out of the 70s punk scene as its younger, more sensitive sibling. Where punk was predominantly anti-establishment and political, goth contributed deeply emotional and human concerns to the message of punk. Gender politics and the treatment of age are two examples of where the wider world could learn from facing its taboos like a goth.

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Goth grew out of the punk scene, and still often looks very punk.

Subcultures are almost always considered to be youth movements. After their 20s people in theory grow out of their youth subcultures and get on with ‘real life’. The gothic subculture is however no youth culture. Though plenty of stereotypical mopey teenagers are amongst the ranks of the gothic underworld, the average visitor to WGT is well into their 40s. Some of the age-old wizards roaming the streets of Leipzig really are over 80. Age plays no role in determining your welcome in the gothic scene, though the more senior members may grow more majestic beards than the visitors still in prams.

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no one loses their grandeur with age at MPS in Leipzig.

The dark alternative scene takes a different approach to gender too. Goth has always had infamously blurred lines surrounding gender representation. The singer of The Cure, Robert Smith, wore makeup. Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees was as formidable as a warrior on stage. Subversion of gender roles is still a major part of the scene. The band Versailles is often mistakenly seen as an all-girl band, when they are in fact an all-boy band. Where much of mainstream gender politics debate is fought over two camps – that gender is binary, or that gender is a spectrum – the gothic answer is to take whatever form you choose. If gender is a performance, why not perform it with panache?

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Sometimes, stilts help you get the edge in a place where everyone stands out.

The dark alternative alternatives to age and gender norms pose valuable lessons to the world outside the scene. Neither age nor gender norms need restrict us as they do – a big part of these restrictions is illusory. The goth scene goes much further than challenging age and gender. As the illusory nature of our world is one of the big recurring themes of gothic culture, any social construct can be challenged – in short, nothing is taboo.

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Lady Morte, singer of Trobar de Morte.

Of course, a world with no taboos quickly shows why we developed them in the first place. A world with no social norms is incredibly difficult to navigate.  As the dark alternative scene is so varied and open, it has naturally developed extremes. Combichrist, a group that explores very extreme themes has been criticized for inspiring fans to act badly. According to the mastermind of the group, Andy laPlegua, Combichrist was always a way of exploring the darkest parts of humanity, and that on stage he was not himself, but instead the twisted personalities he has created for his art. He does not endorse his characters but does condemn fans that choose to act like his characters. For all there is to learn from exploring our taboos, LaPlegua’s experience suggests that one can go too far.

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The goth scene has better hats.

Luckily most of the members of the scene are not so extreme as the more radical fans of Combichrist. The dark alternative world is predominantly a positive place, arguably because it braves to challenge the taboos of society. It is an age-old piece of wisdom that states there is light in the darkness. No one knows that better than a goth.

Below is a short self introduction, as requested by Deutsche Welle

 

The unheard plight of Xinjiang (original published in The Gryphon, 2014)


Seeing as Xinjiang’s re-education camps have brought the region and its controversies finally into wide public view, I have decided to post my old article published in The Gryphon in 2014 to my blog. It is out of date, but my reasoning for putting it here is to highlight that what is happening now is not something new, but an escalation. I understand many of the claims in the article may seem unjustifiable, but much of what I wrote stemmed from either personal experience or from the direct experience of people I met in Xinjiang.  My question, for which I have no answer yet, is why did it take so many years and the possible imprisonment of 1 million innocent people to make the news?

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The unheard plight of Xinjiang

The question of Tibetan independence from Mainland China is relatively well known to the west, and there has been a large amount of campaigning from within and abroad the region to declare it its own country. The culture and way of life of native Tibetans has been slowly chipped away at –arguably with the intention of being wiped out completely – and amongst other equally as important contributors such as limitations of Religious and political freedom, this has led naturally to heavy unrest.

What makes its way into the public eye much less often, are the similar problems that are taking place in the North-western Xinjiang autonomous region right now. Clashes between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority of China’s largest region have been common for a number of years in recent times, caused by strikingly similar reasons to Tibet and resulting in strikingly similar problems.

The official line on relations between the ethnic groups of Xinjiang is that each lives in perfect harmony, all striving together for a better China. Considering some of the blatant discrimination towards Uighurs, this claim is more than questionable. In some towns, Uighurs are attacked simply for being Uighur. As a Muslim minority, the rules imposed by the city of Karamay to ban Muslim dress were most likely aimed at Uighurs.  In other towns, only the top Uighur students are allowed to study alongside Han students.

This discrimination, alongside the gradual disappearance of the native culture, has resulted in extreme unrest and violence. In 2009, Riots broke out in the regions capital, Urumqi. Official numbers claim 200 deaths and nearly 2000 injured in the violence. Just this year, 3 train stations across China were bombed, allegedly by a Uighur terrorist group. Even this week, a bomb killed 50 (recently marked up from 2 from the authority’s sources) in Luntai county.

Whether this violence is justified is a difficult question. Although peaceful protest should be the answer to solving the misunderstandings, this isn’t much of an option in China. Illham Tohti, a leading Uighur scholar from Beijing’s Minzu University has been sentenced this week to life imprisonment for voicing the plight of the Uighurs. He has been labelled a separatist by the authorities and accused of being involved with underground activist groups. If a respected, leading scholar in Beijing has no voice, then the people of Xinjiang have even less chance.

Many Uighur people want independence from China and wish for the region to be declared ‘East Turkistan’.  In the current world political climate, this nationalism could easily be misinterpreted. The Uighurs have no country of their own, so if their culture is wiped out in Xinjiang, it will be gone completely. The government dismisses the violence as ‘Muslim extremism’, when the desperate unrest is entirely a helpless, hopeless attempted defence of the Uighur way of life.

. The authority’s response to current violence has been to increase the military presence in Xinjiang (Urumqi is now dotted with soldiers and tanks, many of which point permanently towards Uighur public buildings). Anti-terror propaganda is being placed around cities and over Chinese social media. A year -long crackdown on ‘terrorism’ is now in effect across Xinjiang.

The problems in Xinjiang do appear to unfortunately be escalating currently, with many more major incidents being reported this year. Now that some of the alleged terrorism has spread to other provinces, an already uncertain ordeal has become even more so. As the problems escalate, tensions between the regions ethnic groups also are becoming more electrified. It is difficult to predict what will happen in Xinjiang’s foreseeable future, but one thing which is certain is that its current road is not a comfortable one.

 

 

 

 

On the Trail of the Wild Onegaishimasu


If there is one word that you hear every day, every hour, maybe even every minute in Japan, it is Onegaishimasu(お願いします). You hear it when you meet someone. You hear it when someone asks you to do something. You hear it thrown on the end of a sentence when someone isn’t entirely sure what they should say next. If in doubt, Onegaishimasu will get you through the day unharmed.

There is however a big problem with this word.  It is an elephant in the room that is so large that it long ago crushed the room and has moved onto obscuring the entirety of Japan in its vague shadow. No one seems to really know what it means.

The word does of course have a meaning, but it seems to have become rather unclear with the passing of time and excessive overuse. Onegai (お願い), without the shimasu on the end roughly gets used to mean ‘a favour’

A quick Google search didn’t much help on this one. The featured answer was entertainingly specific and raised its own questions. It jumped straight to usage of Onegaishimasu in the game Go. Apparently even when Go is played properly in English, you start the game with a well meant Onegaishimasu. See, to me this seems pretty ridiculous as I can’t see the word being a particularly integral ritual of the game. In, let’s say, Mahjong, you build a wall out of your pieces because it symbolises…a very great wall.

Turning onegaishimasu into an essential part of English Go seems to me a bit like making the phrase “lovely weather today”, even when it’s absolutely pissing it down, a ritual at the start of all football games. Imagine it’s the world cup for a moment. The pitch is a quagmire, the players resemble washing up sponges before the game has even begun, yet they turn to the skies in unison and cheer “LOVELY WEATHER TODAY” and the game begins.

No. It just won’t do. And neither should onegaishimasu be considered special to Go. The two players are essentially sitting down to a table, nodding, then saying a long, drawn out, awkward ‘so…’.

So… let me look to personal experience to try and understand that mysterious onegaishimasu. It was the 7:40 am in the office and one of the teachers came over show me her English lesson plan for the day.

“hello Timothy, onegaishimasu”.

Onegaishimasu number 1.

“This is the lesson plan for today, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number 2.

*runs through lesson plan, with numerous onegaishimasu-es along the way*

“Is that lesson ok? Onegaishimasu.”

Onegaishimasu number nn

“thank you, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+1

“yoroshiku Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+2

*teacher exit right*

Apologies for using the word, as I’m sure you’re very bored of it by now, but Onegaishimasu is certainly very polite. It exists to be polite. The problem is it’s clearly more than a mere thank you.

Thinking of the word as a thank you has after all led to some rather odd English usage in Japan. Japanese textbooks teach kids nice and early to say thank you all the time. That’s no bad thing. It would just be better if they use thank you when you would use thank you. Say, for example, when you are giving thanks. Instead, the most common usage in Japan’s English textbooks is as an ending phrase for longer texts. A text may look something like this:

Hello, my name is ben. I am 13 years old. I am from America. I like tennis. Thank you!

Yes, the English is accurate (more than can be said for some English blips in the elementary school materials), but plain odd. Who is being thanked? Why? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the dark mysteries of that pesky onegaishimasu. An Onegaishimasu would fit very comfortably there, if Ben had spoken in Japanese. Part of me wants to try using ‘thank you’ in English conversations whenever a Japanese person would use Onegaishimasu, but I fear the world would think me a madman.

So let’s move on from that. Thank you.

Seeing as the word seems to mean more than simple polite gesturing or thanksgiving, we need to go back to the drawing board. Enlisting the aid of locals should help. That definitely can’t just confuse the situation, right?

One day, a co-worker had just, naturally, said Onegaishimasu.

Afterwards she turned to me and asked me how best to say Onegaishimasu in English. It’s worth noting that she is an excellent English speaker with a native English speaking husband. My first reaction was to claim we don’t really say onegaishimasu in English, but it just wasn’t a satisfying answer, so we continued trying to get to the bottom of the conundrum. I asked her how she would explain the phrase.

“please be kind to me” was the tentative answer, but she hadn’t convinced herself. Japan is already a kind place, so there is no need to ask for more kindness every twenty seconds. That would just be greedy.

She added that when she asked her husband the same question, he philosophically answered “Onegaishimasu is… Onegaishimasu.” and left it at that. Clearly the novelty of the world had long worn out the poor man.

So I took a different angle and asked how she would explain Onegaishimasu using Japanese. Stumped. There she came to a horrible realisation. All these years and she literally hadn’t known what she was saying. In such dark times as these, there is probably only one phrase to use. Only one phrase that can console, or at the very least fill the ensuing awkward, impenetrable silence. お願いします。

Given all this, there can only be one answer to the mystery. There isn’t one. Nobody knows what on earth an Onegaishimasu is. Because of this, I will be forced to the same radical measures as many have been when trying to understand the Scottish delicacy of haggis -to hunt the hills for a wild Onegaishimasu, because it definitely doesn’t exist logically in the language.

Early observations of school life in Japan


Seeing as I came to Japan as an assistant English teacher, Japanese school makes up a big part of my life currently. As such, my schools are very much worth writing and thinking about. In short, I’ve been very impressed with how school works here, but school life in Japan is still very new to me and I am in no position to talk in terms of good or bad just yet. Instead I am restricted to commenting on what I currently like or dislike about the differences in system. I also work in a limited environment that cannot be representative of Japanese schools as a whole. Though there are some points that will be universal across the country, many of my observations will be completely unrepresentative of other schools.

Quick note on the lack of photos on this post compared to usual. The education system here is rightfully disapproving of public sharing of photos including students, so I have only used a photo where students’ faces are not clear.

General observations

Firstly, school size.  My base school is much smaller than I am used to. Where my secondary school had nearly 2000 students, I estimate my base school has fewer than 500 students – maybe even fewer than 400. I don’t know if this is standard across Japan, but other schools I have seen around Matsuyama do not look much bigger. It could simply be that Japan prefers smaller schools, but more of them.

Being in Japan, there are some things you would only get in Japan.  There are some rooms for example with tatami floors; an iconic element of Japanese buildings. One day after school at one of my elementary schools I attended tea ceremony club – they did that naturally in a tatami room in the school. Though my school doesn’t seem to be particularly into martial arts, I know some schools are. The local high school for example has a Kyuudo club, Japanese style archery.

The school day is very long here. The teachers must be in school before 8am, and most are in well before then. I leave at 4pm, but the other teachers stay for longer. I essentially follow the time schedule of the students, but plenty of students stay longer than me for sports and clubs after school.

On the mention of sport, a higher proportion of students really tries hard at sport, and enjoys it more for trying all the harder. I disliked sport at school and only really started to enjoy it after I left. The culture around sports was different. In the UK, there were the sporty kids and the not-sporty kids. I was amongst the latter and would try hard not to be involved. I was driven away from sports by the macho approach donned by the sporty kids. Students in Japan seem more supportive of each other when it comes to sports. For my middle school’s sports day, each of the teams (each year group has one class of each group colour – red, yellow, blue or green) had its own group dance that they did to egg on their teammates. Green, my team, just would not give up with the group dance. They kept going for a big proportion of the day.

One element of the schools here which makes me uncomfortable was very present during sports day: the militaristic element. It’s not just there during sports day, but marching, coordinated routines, dramatic flag-waving, unified shouting, and bowing to the national flag was all there making sports day feel occasionally like a battleground. It was a very happy battleground, but a battleground nonetheless. There is something puzzling about Japan’s occasional overt militarism. They have had no official standing army since World War 2, yet military-inspired culture is still going strong.

Non-academic and responsibility

I know of many people in the UK that lament how UK schools apparently do little or nothing to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Though I do not 100% agree with that sentiment, there is some truth to it, and without getting into the phrase ‘real world’, which bugs me like no other phrase, Japanese students do develop non-academic skills as an obligatory part of school life. Students help for example every day with serving lunch. They dress up in white aprons and face masks and make sure their classmates all have their meal. Following lunch in the elementary schools, the students pull out their toothbrushes and follow a guided tooth brushing video. I’m still confused by the existence of this video and despite it not being far off watching paint dry, I watch it every time with the utmost attention. I just can’t help myself.

I’m not entirely sure what roles they are, but a large proportion of students seem to have responsibilities between classes to report messages and collect items from the teachers’ office. Where in the UK a visit to a teacher’s office was unusual and maybe even a little intimidating, there is constant dialogue between students and teachers here.

The students are also the school cleaners. There is a cleaning period every day where the students and teachers (but mainly the students) get out brushes and cloths, and sweep the school clean. I help with cleaning the teacher’s office, which suits me fine – I just stand up from my chair and start. The students cover the whole building. Students in the classroom, students in the office, students in the corridors, students in the bathrooms; everywhere gets covered in a mere 20 minutes.

Learning focus differences

As a language teacher and enthusiast, I can’t help but feel the language teachers are too serious in the middle school. My fellow language teachers are kind people who are good with the students, but I can’t help finding their classes a bit too serious for language learning. I remember having quite wacky classes for German back in school and the wackiness was exactly what was needed for language learning. Efficient language learning should utilise all sorts of memory and recall tricks, many of which can focus heavily on the silly. Addressing that of course can lead learning in the opposite direction – all silliness and no substance – but being too serious in language learning slows down progress. You have to shrink inhibitions to develop communication. Language learning is essentially a study in communication after all. The best language learners are willing to gesture a lot (though cultural differences can really screw that up sometimes), they smile and show expressions clearly, and they just go for it. Of course that is easier said than done – I know first-hand – but it makes all the difference.

There is however also fantastic news on the language front. Japanese students get started young. There is an initiative in Japan right now to improve the country’s English standard and one of their methods to achieve this is to further encourage the learning of English in elementary school. This is great news. Although elementary students don’t push to a particularly high English level, they should be less intimidated by the idea of studying English when they’re older. In the UK most students only begin foreign languages at secondary school where, as a new subject, it is considered intimidating and overly difficult. The walls of inhibition go up and few get past an elementary stage.

Outside of the world of spoken language and into a different kind of communication, everyone seems to learn to read music in music class. That was at least in my school reserved for students that took music as an optional subject later on in school. I see that as a wonderful thing. I see it as a step towards demystifying music, making it more accessible; it takes a good chunk of the elitism out of music, as can develop occasionally in the UK. I sat in on an elementary school music lesson where every student was reading standard notation to learn how to play the Doraemon theme tune. Most students were learning on the recorder or melodica, but one student had the piano part and a few others were learning percussion parts. They had a whole band going and I was left thoroughly impressed.

Meditation before class

Something that really impresses me is the short meditation times between classes. Students sit with their eyes closed in silence for a few minutes before class begins. The teachers however do not, and personally I think if the students meditate before class, so should the teacher. The teachers work hard to be role models in so many different ways, so why miss out this opportunity? If the benefits of meditating before a class are recognised for students, is it not reasonable for teachers also to make use of those benefits?

Student/teacher dynamic

I expected a stronger sense of hierarchy in Japanese schools than actually exists. Though the final word amongst staff will always be reserved for the principal, the student/teacher dynamic is softer than I expected. It could well be that my schools, being in a small town, are more relaxed than city teachers but that assumption doesn’t really work in practice. The teachers here work not directly for the school, but for the Matsuyama board of education. They change schools, mainly within the city, every few years so most of the teachers here in Hojo will have also worked in inner city schools.

Discipline is very interesting. The stereotypical highly regulated, ordered classroom doesn’t exist. Instead, the students generally keep themselves in better order than students in the UK would. This is great on average, but when there is a troublesome student, you notice. The main teachers often aren’t so adept in controlling them as in the UK, and I personally am not allowed to be involved in disciplining students. Though I am happy not to have to discipline anybody, it can be frustrating when it would be useful and there is nothing I can do.

The question however is still there. Why do Japanese students require less explicit discipline? I think part of the answer lies in the teacher/student dynamic, as both sides appear to treat each other more as people and less as a teacher and student. When you start seeing someone as a person more than you see them in their role, you tend to stop being an ass where it’s not necessary. Similarly in UK schools, the teachers who did treat students on a more equal level tended to be rewarded with more abiding students. I also wonder if the short meditations in between classes help. I can’t help but notice that often one or two of the students who keep an eye on the other students to check they have their eyes closed and therefore are not meditating themselves are amongst the cheekiest in the class. I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-academic responsibilities like school-cleaning and food-serving contributes to the students’ self-discipline, but the thought is purely speculative.

What next?

There is of course much still to learn about Japanese schools. Here are a few things I want to explore further. I’m mystified by the ‘moral education’ text book I’ve seen in the office. The very concept of teaching morals out of a standardised textbook puzzles me, and I assume the class has its roots in the national learning movement of the 19th century, but I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to, as cynical as it may sound, is this. How come so many Japanese students genuinely really like school? What’s the secret?

Leading on from that mystery, what can other countries learn from Japan’s school system?

There is still much more to learn, and for that I’m thankful.

Setting up life in Japan


It’s been a month now since I moved yet again to a new place, this time settling in Japan. I had wanted to see Japan for a long time. Even the first time I moved away from the UK to China with Project Trust, I had originally hoped to go to Japan instead, and it had been years before then that I had dreamed of going there. Now, I’m here.

First Impressions

I came here as part of the JET programme, a programme run by the Japanese government to help promote cultural exchange in Japan. The majority of Jets, including myself, become English language teaching assistants. So, for the first time in over four years, I’m back to teaching English.

I live and work in Hojo. It’s a small town just outside of Matsuyama city, the largest city on the island of Shikoku. It’s not the most known city in Japan, so for reference it is south of and across the sea from Hiroshima.

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Hojo is a quiet place. Once it’s own town, it has been swallowed up by Matsuyama. I imagine this is due to Matsuyama getting larger, whilst Hojo (and simply all of Japan’s rural areas) steadily depletes of people. When I first arrived it struck me as a ghost town. I realise now that it’s not quite a ghost town, but it can be eerily empty sometimes. Japan has a rapidly ageing population and it shows much more clearly in smaller towns. Most young people move to the cities, leaving the age demographic in the countryside heavily skewed. That said, there are clearly enough young families in Hojo to fill up the schools. There are two junior high schools, a senior high school and numerous elementary schools, and where there are schools there are young families. Where they all these young families are however, remains a bit of a mystery to me.

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It is a nonetheless a beautiful near-ghost town. On one side of Hojo is a bright blue sea dotted with sub-tropical islands. The closest of these islands is called ‘Deer Island’, as it is…well…inhabited by very tame, very friendly deer…as well as plenty of impressively large insects and dangerous plants, but that’s Japan. On the other side of town, rice paddies run up to the edge of lush green mountains. Storks stand in the paddies as giant dragonflies flit across them. It is on all accounts a very idyllic place; it is probably the most beautiful place I have ever lived.

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My local city is no metropolis either, but it’s a pleasant place. It is one of the few lucky towns in Japan to actually have a real castle. Most of Japan’s castles of old are really replicas that were built after the originals were burnt down by A. warring clans, B. war between Samurai and the government, or C. bombs in the second world war. Matsuyama castle has, despite all the burning of castles round the land, been standing since 1611.

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It is also famous for Dogo onsen, apparently one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the country, and the inspiration for the onsen in the Studio ghibli film ‘spirited away’ (a film that, coming from someone that doesn’t really enjoy watching films) should be obligatory viewing…as are all studio ghibli films.

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We also have the best city mascot. Japan being Japan, in constant need of being adorable at every corner, it has many a cartoon mascot. Matsuyama’s flagbearer is Mikyan, half dog, half Tangerine (mikan in Japanese, hence the doggo’s name). Mikyan also has an evil friend, dark mikyan.

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I should be forgiven for thinking dark Mikyan was a lime (such an evil fruit, you know), but apparently the evil version is a rotten mikan.

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I am yet to buy any Mikyan-related goods, but I will no doubt have 60 Mikyan soft toys, Mikyan curtains and carpets, Mikyan pajamas and formal suit by the end of my time here.

The nicest thing about coming to Japan as part of the JET programme is that you have a community as soon as you get there. Despite Matsuyama being a small city, there are around 30 JET ALTs (Assistant language teachers) in town. There are three of us in Hojo. So, in those tricky first few weeks where you are just trying to settle in and meet people, us JET folk get a head start. It helps of course that they’re a really good bunch of people in Matsuyama, a group who will no doubt get mentioned a fair few times in future blogs. It is true that despite having been here a month now, I feel I haven’t got to know the other ALTs well enough yet (partly down I imagine to my ineptness at dealing with small-talk…) but I’m more than happy in knowing that there is such a good group of people just half an hour away on the train from Hojo. It’s going to be a highlight of my time in Japan getting to know these fabulous folk.

Seeing as I’ve been here a month, I should perhaps write about the events of the month. After all, there were a few festivals in town, as well as a few natural disasters nearby, but for today I’d rather talk about Where i’m personally at. Writing about events and the like will have to wait for another time.

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Back in school I set myself a list of goals, a list which I deemed not achievable. Included on that list was to become a hyperpolyglot (able to speak 6 or more languages), be able to consider myself a writer, get a first class degree at university,  travel the world, and explicitly live in Japan and Germany.

Well, i did all that. Plus more. That is in itself amazing and I have to stop sometimes and think – did I really do all that?? how did that happen? But that has created its own challenges. What happens when you achieve what you really didn’t think possible? What do you do when all your goals are already surpassed?

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I have formed new goals since my school days, but the realisation that a list I deemed impossible to complete was actually very much possible. That evokes my confusing feelings. Positive, but confusing. I don’t want to share all of my new ‘unachievable’ goals here, but they are big ideas. Maybe I will surprise myself again after a few more years of work.

Of course in the short term I have my goals for Japan. This little piece of writing represents the beginning of one of those goals. I am putting pen to paper (and then often transferring it over to the digital world) once more. I hope that I can be more honest and more meaningful in what I write from now on. Writing has a capacity to be extremely powerful, for both the reader and the writer, but holding back restricts that. In the past, I have held back. Sometimes that was to avoid panic from my readers. Sometimes it was to avoid terrifying myself. yet in the long term that does no favours to anyone, so lets start with some honest writing right here.

Honest thoughts at the beginning of my life in Japan

I could easily record only the amazing, the positive, the envy-evoking parts of life in a new land. I have done that in the past. Now, if i look back at what i wrote about living in China, I can see right away that something is missing; that my recollections are insincere. The honest feelings are gone now, and with it a true recollection of events.

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So what am I really thinking, past the rose-tinted glasses?

This is my 6th consecutive year of not staying one place for longer than a year, and it’s having its effect:

Year 1. Kuitun, West China. Year 2. Start of degree, Leeds, UK. Year 3. Beijing. year 4. Part back in Leeds, part in Leipzig, Germany. year 5. back in Leeds. year 6. Japan.

I feel detached. Though it is true I was disowning the UK to a certain extent even before the first time I left it, but it truly does not feel like a home anymore. I feel most at home with a backpack on, boarding a train to somewhere I’ve never been. I think when I left the UK, I wasn’t just looking for experience and adventure, but I was also running. I still haven’t worked out what I was running from, but that running away has led me all the way here to Japan. I’m still running. Perhaps my situation is like Sparrowhawk, in wizard of Earthsea, running from the parts of himself he doesn’t want to face. If so, I don’t know what those parts are. It certainly doesn’t stop me from running.

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I would have thought that after 5 years of moving so regularly that it would get easier. Instead it has been the opposite. Moving to Kuitun was strikingly easy. Not speaking the language, moving to the Gobi desert at the age of 19, I settled in in less than a week. Now with more experience living abroad than many will ever have, I found Japan very hard to settle into. By western standards, Japan is cleaner, more polite and freer than China (that last point is worth discussing heavily in the future), and yet China was so much more comfortable to me. Maybe 19 year old enthusiasm softens cultural change better than holding a degree training students in the art of cynicism. That is at least relatively cynical in comparison to 19 year old enthusiasm. Technically if your academic work is cynical, it probably isn’t properly academic, in the same way it should not optimistic.

That said, I do still love the adventure of this unpredictable lifestyle. It’s just getting harder and harder. When I look to see what old friends are doing, and I see there (apparent) stability, I don’t understand it. So many people that seem content with gradual change. Content with the same job, the same circle of friends, the same scenery. I’ve only been here for a month and I’m already busy considering what happens next. That perhaps sounds condescending of those who have settled. Really it is the opposite. It is a mix of something similar to envy, and an inability to understand that way of being. I have the option to stay here in Matsuyama for up to five years, yet the idea of being somewhere for longer than a year seems so strange and distant to me now. As much as I have loved the places I’ve lived, the only place I was not ready to leave was Germany (which for anybody who is in doubt, is the finest place in the whole world).

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I can almost here the unrestrained yells of ‘privilege!’, ‘ ohh, your life is so hard!’ wailing across the hills at this point, but there is a tendency to look at any situation in absolute terms. This is an extreme irony, as nothing, nothing, (spot the flaw here) is absolute.

I am kicking myself for writing that, but the point is staying, as it just highlights the prior sentence.

For every wonderful experience, there is a dark side, or at least an opposite, to it. For every opportunity I am privileged to experience, there will always be some kind of repercussion. There is an analogy from one of the existentialist thinkers (Kierkegaard possibly?) of two brothers that highlights this problem better than I would be able to personally. It’s work looking up, but in short, one brother leaves his home town for adventure, whilst one stays. One day, they meet again, both in envy of each other. The brother who went has stories and adventure under his belt. The brother who stayed has a family, a community and stability. Both want what the other has.

So after 5 years of moving at least once a year, I sympathise with the brother who went. Adventure is no absolute wonder, as valuable as it is.

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And this is how I begin my time in Japan. I have completed one line of impossible goals and I begin a new collection of impossible goals. I am so happy to be in a childhood dream, yet I’m also at a point of limbo. I’m still running. At some point I want to know what I’m running from, but I think I’m too afraid to turn around.

Watching the rain fall over Matsuyama castle as I write this is somehow grounding. Five years on from when I started running, I don’t know where I’m going. Yet the road truly is longer than the goal, and the road is as beautiful as it is winding.

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Coming to terms with Adventure


 

One of my first friends was an adventurer. He was a soft toy man dressed in yellow named adventurer Sam. Little did I know that in the future many of my close friends would share the same name; it must be a special name. Adventurer Sam was always well prepared. He had a soft toy water bottle and soft toy binoculars. Inside his backpack, perfectly sized for a soft toy adventurer, he carried a soft toy map. That way he would never lose his way. He was a childhood hero; a figure to look up to. If he could be an adventurer, why not me?

My parents are adventurers. In their mid 20’s they left their home land of New Zealand for The UK and started a new life in Edinburgh. Did they know they would stay in Britain for ever? I don’t know. What I do know is that they left practically everything. Family and friends all on the other side of the world, replaced with the rainy streets of the Scottish capital. Their small island in the Pacific turned into a smaller island in the Atlantic, and home was geographically as far away as you can go without leaving the planet. What a decision. I’ve always taken it for granted; that my parents lived as long As I’ve been in alive in New Zealand, then only to trade it forever. But really it’s amazing. They must have been truly brave to move so far.

I always wanted to be an adventurer. As a child I was fascinated with ancient Egypt, and while other kids wanted to be famous footballers, I dreamed of pyramids and ancient gods. I wanted to be an Egyptologist, and perhaps so myself to be a little Indiana Jones. More likely though, I wanted to be like Adventurer Sam.

We used to always spend the Easter holiday in the Lake District. When I was four my mum and step dad called my ‘the champion mountain climber’ because I had climbed one very short mountain with them. For a few years I carried that title deep in my heart and believed that it was true. I wanted to conquer the highest mountains and see the greatest views the world had to offer. My strongest memory from early childhood is walking through the forests in the Lakes, one hand held by mum, the other my step dad. We never found the bears.

I went with my dad in the summers to the west coast of Scotland where we sailed Scotland’s western isles. There I felt nature, and learned its strength. When the sun came, its light played with the sea. The waves shifted and reflected the sun over us. Sometimes dolphins swam alongside the yacht and we became for a short time a member of their community. When the dark skies came and the sea was pulled into black waves, I learned that nature must be respected. She is not evil, but she can be terrifying and violent. When you sit in a small boat that leans so far in a storm, that you are almost touching the wailing sea, you learn the violent beauty of our world.

When we landed on islands it felt as if we had found new land. We were the first people that had ever been there; the island our own kingdom. I still remember the disappointment as we found signs on the ‘black isle’ that people had been there before us. The other boat in the harbour should have been proof enough, but so is the imagination of a dreaming child.

In ‘normal’ life I lived in Cambridgeshire with my mum and step dad. In Cambridgeshire there are no lakes, no mountains, and very little nature. Instead agriculture reigns entirely. Some find the endless fields of crops beautiful. I see in it the end of nature. There is nothing to connect with there. We lived in a region we hated and stayed because of my step dad’s work. There was no adventure in Cambridgeshire. When people tell me that it is my home, it hurts. My mum grew up on a farm where the plains of central Otago meet the mountains. My step dad grew up near the lake district. I was born in Edinburgh, a city never far from hills and the sea. We never fitted into Cambridgeshire, even me who has spent most of my life there. I only ever really felt at home when I went to see dad in Scotland. The strongest influence Cambridgeshire had on me was the desperate desire to escape it.

I remember one of the teachers I respect the most from my school days telling me “you’ll grow to appreciate here after you leave it.” I’ve gone back a few times now. Every time I last a few days before questioning how I managed to stay there so long. I go there to see family, catch up with a few friends, then I leave again.

The point here is, I was always going to end up needing something I could quantify as a ‘real’ adventure. When I did finally leave Cambridgeshire after school was done and dusted, I was really running away in many respects. Maybe I still am. I’m not entirely sure.

That was four years ago now. I packed my bags, got on a plane and landed in China. At 19 years old I was moving to the Gobi desert. The adventure hasn’t stopped since. In four years I’ve been a teacher,  been a student in three countries and lived in five cities. I’ve travelled thousands of miles on trains and buses; watched from their windows as lush mountains turn to deserts. I’ve started to learn how little I know that there is to know.

At the end of my first year in China, some friends and I sat in a courtyard in Beijing and considered how surreal it would be to be back in the UK. One said: “we’ll never have an adventure like this again.” We had all lived and worked as teachers in small cities across the country, far from the well known metropoles. I didn’t believe him and promised it was only the start. In some ways that adventure never actually ended. In other ways, we truly never had an adventure like it again. If I told you that we all met on a small Scottish Island with a population of around 200 people, you probably wouldn’t believe me. That first adventure ended after all in a town of 20 million.

Going back to the UK actually was an adventure too. My Chinese city, Kuitun, had a westerner population of roughly two; me and my friend who I lived with for the year. Some others lived twenty minutes south in Dushanzi, but nonetheless in a city of 300’000 we stuck out like sore thumbs. The first day back in the UK was extremely uncomfortable, because everyone wasn’t Chinese, and it just didn’t feel right. It took a month to readjust.  I missed good food. I missed things being affordable. I missed the language. The UK was all wrong.

That year was the only full year I’ve spent in the UK since leaving school. The year after I was back in China, and I’m writing this right now from Germany, where I’ve been for the last three and a half months. Although it was a great year I had cabin fever the whole time. After a year that was split up by long train journeys across the whole of China, a whole year in Leeds felt like a cage. Because of that, I think I’m still running. I love university, but despite that A whole year in one place had become so difficult.

In three weeks I go back to the UK for the first full year since year 1 of uni. My relationship with it has completely changed. I see it more as a nice country which I like staying in, rather than a home. Four years of hopping in and out of it seems to have its toll eventually. Not so long ago I thought this point would be feel like the end of my ‘adventuring’. There are no more times where I ‘must’ live outside of the UK. That’s all done now. But it’s so problematic.  My childhood was characterised entirely by a need to run, to explore the world; and the frustration that that need couldn’t be realised. Now, after four years of changing worlds and experiences, I  feel the sense of adventure disappearing but simultaneously don’t want to stop. My friend’s comment back in Beijing comes back as a ghost. The adventures never were the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that after another whole year in the UK I’ll be itching to run away again. Already I’m considering whether it is better to move to Europe or to Asia. But for every year I keep running, the less it remains adventure, and instead becomes normal life. It becomes normal to have friends for a few months, only to wave goodbye forever at the end of that all too short time. It becomes normal to wonder if you can still keep your life to one bag if you need to. The concept of ‘your own bed’ disappears. Your own bed is wherever your sleeping at any given time. I’ve been told for example that I can have my own bed back this time I visit Cambridgeshire. The last few times I’ve been sleeping in the living room, and both ways are fine, because my bed isn’t my bed anymore.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences of the last few years for anything but in truth, for everything you gain, you lose something too. Embrace adventure too much, and it seems you lose a sense of home.

Something is still puzzling. As a kid, adventure was always associated with nature, but my last four years has been spent almost entirely in cities. How do I assimilate the root of that need to run, with the actual result? Is that why after four years something seems lacking, or does that stem from too long simply up in the air never staying in one place? The exception is my old dream of becoming an egyptologist. I have something in common with my old dream. I do explore culture, and although the cultures I learn about are very much still living, the foundation is still there.

I think over the next few years my concept of adventure will change. They say life itself is an adventure, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t fit with the relatively superficial conceptualisation of the word explored here. I think as this superficial material adventure becomes more and more a form of normal life, experiences gained along the way will feed a more philosophical form of adventurism. That is to an extent already happening. When you start to realise more deeply that every nation thinks differently, and that their thoughts are not right or wrong, but a different understanding of existence,  existence suddenly becomes much more fluid. There lies perhaps the next adventure: No longer in places, but in mind sets. Maybe the next few years will prove that theory wrong, but one thing is doubtless. The adventurism embodied for me in a childhood toy and hero, adventurer Sam, is not the same adventurism that lies in the future. I still need to come to terms with adventure.