Props: Akiko Naka & Wantedly

Akiko in Petra

As you know, I was lucky enough to sail around the world twice. One my second trip, I met Akiko, who was working as a translator. She is now the founder of Japan’s Wantedly, known as ‘Linkedin for millennials.’ At that time, she was a fresh-faced graduate from a prestigious university with a fancy job lined up with Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. She was full of energy and extremely smart, with an endearing Kiwi accent (she had gone to high school in New Zealand, and despite not speaking English fluently when she arrived, became top of the school. No surprises there).

Now Akiko is something of a celebrity in Japan’s burgeoning startup scene – she’s done TED Talks, and been featured in well-known media around the world, particularly in Asia where her company is expanding. She is my favourite millennial, having started coding from the age of nine. She’s a risk taker and her dream was to become a Manga artist and indeed, after a few gruelling years at Goldman Sachs, she quit and gave herself a year to make it happen. As we know, success is not usually linear and predictable and often life takes us in unexpected directions. The money didn’t follow and instead, life took Akiko to Facebook where she worked before quitting to found Wantedly. Although in interviews she has said she doesn’t want to be considered pioneering because she’s a female leader in the tech and recruiting industries, given the cultural context of conservative, patriarchal Japan, it is incredible that a young woman has been able to be so successful. Times are a-changing.

The mission of Wantedly comes at an important time – it seeks to change with way people feel about work, and to match employers and job seekers based on values and meaning. Money and prestige take a backseat to passion and fulfilment. Her heroes are Steve Jobs and Dan Pink.

Based on my fond memories of hanging out with Akiko, I am not at all surprised by her success. I remember her indefatigable nature – she would get up at 6am, go to the gym and workout, then work all day and socialize all night, getting by on very little sleep and having almost no downtime. Maybe her energy levels were fuelled by her compulsive drinking of vegetable juice. Regardless, it is kind of cool having a famous friend and seeing their star rise.

がんばってね!

 

 

Tune in, Tokyo

14712861_10153714705356853_3737233960148924578_oI found a cheap ticket to Tokyo so faster than you can say ‘konnichiwa’ I was on my way to spend a few days with my dear friend Ai. We survived living in a small cabin together as we sailed around the world some years ago, and a year and a half ago, Ai, recently heartbroken, came to my rescue in Seoul as I found myself in the same predicament. Her calm, strong presence was healing and comforting to say the least.

I have lived in Tokyo and spent a lot of time there over the past ten years. It’s a megacity, that’s for sure. I’m always amazed by how it stretches into infinity, as if it was its own galaxy. Lucky for me, Ai lives in a upscale residential ‘hood in central Tokyo. Despite its central location, her place was incredibly quiet and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Tokyo – despite being home to millions of people and gazillions of stores, restaurants, cafes, clubs etc, it’s so eerily quiet.

When we weren’t eating ourselves silly, I spent some time visiting my old haunts – the glitz and glamour of Roppongi Hills, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, the craziness of Shibuya, the peace and quiet of Yoyogi Park. After some hours of this, I remembered the reasons I chose not to live there longterm: it’s a giant concrete jungle with an incredibly confusing subway system with little English available. Navigating it can be exhausting. One also expels so much psychic energy on deciding where to go, what to do, what to eat, what to buy. It’s the paradox of choice: there’s just so much choice, it’s hard to decide. Even buying something as simple as a toothbrush, one is confronted with fifty different shapes, sizes, functions and colours. When I remarked about this to my friend, who had spent two years living in the undeveloped Solomon Islands, she said, “I know what you mean. Life was in a way easier in the Solomons because I had no choice about so many things.”

Another thing that struck me was the rampant consumerism and materialism. There are just so many shops! For everything! And shopping is a kind of national sport. I think the Japanese economy would collapse if people stopped shopping for even a day. Of course, no one, apart from perhaps the Italians, does aesthetics so well. The sheer array of beautiful (expensive) things for sale is mind-boggling. My favourite store, Muji, with its Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, is what heaven looks like and I spent an hour just walking around and touching all the things that I may one day own (if I win the lottery).

But my absolute favourite thing to do in Tokyo is to just walk around the narrow, winding streets of its diverse neighbourhoods and observe people go about their daily business. The sushi chef hard at work, a little old lady petting a stray cat, a boy riding his old-school bike home from school, a gaggle of salary men on their lunch break playing Pokemon Go in the park next to a patch of lotuses, a family taking their child all dressed up in kimono to visit a shrine. People are also unfailingly polite and always greet you with a smile, even if you’re shoving a camera in their face.

A friend once described Tokyo, the Big Daikon, as Fantasy Island. There’s truth to that. Anything you want, you can get it. From north to south, east to west, there’s so much to do and see. Even if you spent a year just walking around and exploring, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the city’s terrain. There are too many secrets that the city won’t reveal. And that’s good news for someone like me who can’t get enough of this beautiful, maddening, confusing city that doesn’t sleep, and despite the constant flickering of neon lights, is oddly quiet.

Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stellar journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

“Home”

After four years of being away, of making some of my travel and life dreams a reality, I finally stepped foot back on the fertile soil of home. I have been back in the land of the long white cloud (and the long black) for two weeks. It has been intense, confusing and a bit of a roller coaster – which is to be expected.

A few months ago, as I tried to sort my life out and plan what I would do over the vacation (or if I would move back permanently or take another job in another country), I had a romanticized idea of what my time back here would be like, based on an amalgamation of my favorite memories from the past: drinking wine in a cozy bar with leather couches and a roaring fire with my friends, hanging out at the public library and writing everyday (which I’m doing right now, but it’s the second time in a few weeks), going to yoga and capoeira classes everyday, shopping at farmers’ markets and eating like a rabbit, being cultured and going to concerts and arthouse films, lounging around in my mother’s bathtub under a heaping of bubbles bought from Lush, walking the family dog along the beach, hanging at the esplanade sipping decaf flat whites, shopping for classy and original clothes by local designers so I don’t need to dress like a 14 year old anymore (thanks Seoul!).

Alas, I was thumped on the head by Reality. While I’ve been able to live out bits and pieces of my being home fantasy,  expectations and reality have been often clashed. It would be appropriate to insert a Buddhist quote about impermanence here, but we all know intellectually that everything is impermanent and nothing stays the same. It’s just jarring to be confronted with it on a daily basis, in both big and small ways. An obvious example is that old shops and restaurants have closed down or moved. It’s disorienting. On a more personal level, friends and family have changed jobs and careers, gotten married or divorced, had more kids, gotten sick or even passed away and your old friends from back in the day, a clique brought together by being big fish in a small pond have dispersed and are only held together by the fraying thread of Facebook. After a bit too much wine, the family stories come out and you find out that people are much more complex than you thought. There’s a bottomless pit of family secrets to fall into and coming to terms with the fact that those you put on a pedestal do not belong there.

There’s coming to terms with the fact that everything is so damn expensive. I knew I would spend a lot of money, but not THIS much money. Holy crap. $3 for a bottle of water? $3 for a one way bus ride? Talk about reality slap. But there are so many things that I have been ‘deprived’ of that I go nuts: chai lattes, marinated mussels, merino wool sweaters, organic NZ yogurt, authentic Japanese food, real carrot cake, sexy underwear, op-shopping, leather boots, lamb everything, licorice, and of course all those movies and concerts cost money too.

Also jarring is the fact that I have had to step out of my Peter Pan bubble of denial. Yes, my friends are buying multiple houses, stepping up their career game and breeding. Family, family friends, and friends all take me aside at one time or another and ask that most Kiwi of questions, ‘So, when are you going to buy a house?’ It’s a national obsession (after rugby) – on the six o’clock news, on the front page of the paper and the talk of the chattering and working classes. I start feeling very inadequate and very poor. To add insult to injury, I sometimes get the ‘why don’t you have a husband and kids?’ question too. I retort that when I die, my face will be eaten off by my thirty cats, but I’m OK with it.

Then there’s trying not to fuse with the reality of those you are bound to by blood. I have had many moments of biting my tongue, of trying to be generous and compassionate. Instead of flipping out with a snarky ‘Well, all you do is go to work, come home, cook dinner then watch TV and go to bed’ statement, I breathe and remind myself that this kind of boring, predictable, stable life has advantages too. It’s just not for me, and that’s OK. I do not need to keep reverting to my sixteen year old self and slam doors every time I disagree with someone else’s life choices.

And we can’t forget the lifestyle piece: in this small city on the coast, sandwiched by pristine mountains and beaches, people talk about the lifestyle. While some smart, ambitious and enterprising people have been able to forge incredible careers and still get to enjoy the lifestyle this part of the world affords, most people I meet and know work to live. They don’t care about climbing up the greasy monkey pole. Instead, they want their freedom and free time to enjoy the outdoors and slow pace of life. To stay home and raise kids, to be able to head out camping for weeks at a time when the mood strikes them, to survive on a part-time wage so they can do other things. It’s seductive, this idea. Leaving behind the rat race and all its pressures and pitfalls. But again, it’s not for me.

I’m in the midst of this ‘coming home’ story and I’m sure with more reflection, my experience and opinion will change. In the meantime, the beauty of this little paradise on the east coast of NZ’s South Island  still takes my breath away. Enjoy.

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Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).