Friday, July 4, 2014

Where I Find Myself in Life: June/July 2014 Edition

Just a few months ago, I was considering the possibility of staying on the JET Programme for the full 5 years. I now think it’s strange I could have ever felt like staying 5 years, but if I remember correctly, that seed was first planted during a night out with a few people, one of whom used to be a JET years ago and whose words of wisdom were basically: stay on JET for as long as you can, it’s wonderful, I have never been paid as well in the (xx) amount of years since leaving the program.

So I thought: maybe I should. Maybe I should stay here for the full 5 years, pay off as much of my student loan mountain as I can, etc. My student loan mountain is incredibly huge, and in all reality, not even half of it would be paid off by the time I left JET after 5 years, but at least close to half of it would be paid off. And that felt like the responsible thing to do, maybe the right thing to do.

 I try not to think about my student loan mountain very often, but whenever I do, I don’t (reference to this). Not really – whenever I do, it does make me feel pretty stressed out. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to not have it always there, looming behind me, or what it would be like to not have to pay rent like some of the other JETs, and how it would allow me to send more money back home, but then I remember the very specific things and experiences for which I am grateful, and those stirring anxieties find a way to quiet back down.

Anyway, I thought that staying 5 years would be my responsibility in a way. And in the meantime, I would gain even more experience, I would do even more traveling – I would be able to go to the 2016 Setouchi Art Triennale, I would be able to go on that Southeast Asian motorbike tour, etc. All those things that I could not really do as easily if I were to leave Japan.

(All those things involved a motorbike, it seems.)

Then, at some point, I realized (as obvious as it is) that I don’t have to stay in Sendai, I don’t have to continue being a “Coordinator for International Relations.” In fact, there had been a growing desire in me to experience a different side of Japan than the one I know working at the office. (As a side note here, I will add that, for as much as some people’s souls have been destroyed by the bureaucratic setting in Japan, or just Japan in general, I have so far managed to avoid being crushed in a similar way. The kencho, or Prefectural Office, is actually a fascinating organism in a way – a sort of Wonderland in which everyone gets rotated every few years and thus learns many different lines of work. But I think I survive because I stay an outsider.) I started looking into other job opportunities – freelance translation, interpreting, eikaiwa, etc. I thought: should I eventually do something diplomatic? Should I work for an art-related organization? Many things I found were strictly full-time; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t make enough money to support me and quell the raging student loan mountain.

Shortly after all this, maybe the next month, I had a period of time in which my life flashed before me and I thought I could end up being “Forever Miyagi” – one of those among our JET community who join lives with a local Japanese specimen and choose to remain here. That time came when, at the beginning of March, I got a Japanese “boyfriend,” right after I decisively sank to the bottom about all things relationship-related in this country that commoditized human interaction and didn’t seem to approach relationships in the same way I was shaped to approach them. Acquiring a Japanese boyfriend was definitely not on the agenda or even the possibility list, but when it happened, I thought, “Hmmm this must be the guy that fortune teller in Shinjuku told me about at 5 a.m. the morning of the CIR Conference last year after I got off the night bus, better make it work,” and so I tried to make it work and marched on bravely into this new territory of my life.

It was great for a couple of weeks, and then it just wasn’t. At the same time I met this magical fellow who was like a rare unicorn to me among Japanese “men,” I also bought a blue guitar that I named Lulu. In fact, it was the act of deciding to buy that guitar that, through a series of linked events, led to that chance meeting. A few months later, Lulu has proved to be a much better companion and is still with me.

After being Forever Miyagi didn’t work out for me, I realized that the emotional stress of dealing with this person had re-oriented me to enter into overdrive within my own life, to straighten myself out – if he somehow couldn’t make more time for me than just once or twice a month because he was “busy with work,” well, I thought I should make myself super busy, too. And I also took some time to remember all those great things I can do with my life while I don’t have people (or pet) obligations to worry about. 

However, despite those “great things” and despite my constant gratitude at leading a relatively safe and comfortable life, sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything is really worth doing. Sometimes, everything just seems really pointless. And in a way, if you detach yourself enough from everything, I really think it is.

I think that is why I sometimes just feel this incredible need to get away from society – whether in real life or on the Internet. It becomes too overwhelming, and too many things seem unnecessary. Something that occurred during the course of my failure to be Forever Miyagi is my further withdrawal from social networking. The magical Japanese unicorn did not have Facebook (or maybe just didn’t want to disclose it), and getting to know someone without a “profile” to refer to was a little bit scary, but also refreshing.

I used to post photos of concerts or art exhibitions I went to, but I’ve stopped. It feels like a bother, it feels like too much, and I would rather not have it be another thing on the to-do list that ends up tangling my mind. I used to kind of like editing photos that were meaningful to me and posting them in their square format glory on Instagram, which then linked to Facebook. But who am I really posting things for? On the one hand, I liked having a directory of images, something to document those meaningful moments and experiences. But when it became a chore, I stopped.

I want to share some experiences with people, but I noticed I would much rather do so the next time we see each other, over a cup of coffee, or if that is not possible, the next time we talk over Skype. I can tell who listens to my stories and who spaces out. I know a few people who do not use Facebook, and one of them said something that stuck with me: “I love being able to meet someone and honestly ask them – what’s up? How have you been? Because I don’t know.”

The only thing I still feel 100% alright with posting online is the art I occasionally do.

No, I am not happy with where I am with my art currently. No, I am not spending as much time on it as I should be. But I am incredibly thankful I have it. I am thankful that it is an instinct for me to create even when I feel very depressed. And no, I will not be a professional guitarist or singer, but it gives me great joy to look up the tabs to songs I like and try to figure them out without having any prior musical experience. Every day when I leave my apartment and when I come back, I give my scooter Birdie a kiss or a little pat (while looking around to make sure no one sees me doing so) and look forward to the next adventure we have – I say, “Don’t worry, Birdie, we’re going somewhere this weekend.” (I finally bought my scooter, a Suzuki Birdie 50cc, in April.)

With this attitude, being the person I am realizing I am, I am not sure where I will end up. I cannot write timely e-mails, I cannot be dishonest, I cannot pretend to like what I do not like, I cannot force myself to care about things I do not care about. I can see the value in and be fascinated by pretty much anything, but when it comes to what I would like to spend my life doing in terms of work, a job, a career – I know I have to move on from what I am currently doing. I am also really tired of the cliché of “being a bridge” between two countries. I cannot, and do not want to, “be a bridge” between countries.

I don’t want to think about the commercial application of art, about “my role” in the world or “the role of the artist” in general, about what has been done already and what I can do differently, about “the audience,” “the necessity” of whatever I do, etc. Those are all things that I like studying and exploring, but when it comes to applying them to myself, I want to throw it all away and just follow my intuition for a while.

In making art, I would like to associate with people who are equally as honest, people who are not jealous, people who do not manipulate for their own gain. I am not a competitive person, and I don’t think I am an ambitious person. I don’t like comparing myself to others (though sometimes it happens). I don’t care to climb up “to the top” of whatever perceivable climbable social thing there is. (I do enjoy mountain climbing, however.)

I have also decided to stop creating tentative plans for my future. They used to provide stability and reassurance and rationalization that whatever I am currently doing is okay, but after going through many potential scenarios for how I would like the next few years to play out, I am done. So for now, I still think it could be a cool experience to move to Osaka and find a tattooing apprenticeship there (as of several months ago, I actually could not even picture myself moving to Osaka), and I still think I would like to launch my own line of screen-printed tights – so I will work to make those things happen. As far as the other factors in my life are concerned – “whatever happens, happens” and I will do what feels right at the time.

Creating art is one of the most basic instincts I consciously have, the only thing that has genuinely stayed with me for years and years. I don’t want to coordinate, plan, manage, or promote. I just want to create.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mediatheque Pilgrimages and My First Silkscreen Printing Class

Last Wednesday after work, I finally got the chance to go to the silkscreen printing class held by the Sendai Silkscreen Association every week at the Aoba Culture Center.

It is not the easiest thing to find an artistic community after moving to a new place (which also happens to be a different country), and so after first moving to Japan, I struggled a little with this. In the US, I had my dear friends Ashley and Sasha, who provided me with the artistic comradeship I needed. In Sendai, I had no one. I came home, I wanted to be a drawing machine, I failed. For a while. I thought at first that maybe I should try joining a university art club (like the one at Tohoku University), but that never really happened, and despite going to Design Festa both as a visitor and as an exhibitor, I have gone the majority of this year without really bonding with any fellow artistic souls.

At a certain point earlier in the year, after I had come back from Chicago and after Sendai had turned green, I had a small awakening – I decided to start going to the Mediatheque every week. The Mediatheque is probably the only obviously “modern” piece of architecture in Sendai, and it serves as a 7-floor facility for activities related to art, film, and other media. There is a museum shop and café on the 1st floor, as well as the Open Square, which can be used for performances, presentations, lectures, showroom set-ups, etc.; the 2nd and 3rd floors house a library, which I have not really explored yet; the 5th and 6th floors are used as gallery space; the 7th floor has a small theater. Usually the exhibitions are rotated on a weekly basis around Wednesday/Thursday, and it tends to be the case that smaller ones are on the 5th floor and the larger ones on the 6th. The exhibitions are usually organized by local associations and groups, who pay to reserve the gallery space for the week. A nice bonus for the interested visitors is that some of these groups and more experienced artists offer classes – sometimes the information is written on the pamphlets/programs they hand out; sometimes you need to ask.

After I started making my weekly 10-minute pilgrimage to the Mediatheque every Monday or Tuesday after work and dedicating an hour (sometimes less, sometimes more) to circling the 5th and 6th floors, I thought: “Why have I not been doing this all along, for the past nine months?” I knew the sad, somewhat disappointing answer. Although I had been to the Mediatheque a couple times in the months right after I had gotten here, I had forgotten about its existence by temporarily shifting my priorities – it happens. Either way, I felt like I had opened up a completely new world for myself.

Sometimes the exhibits are honestly intriguing; other times there is almost nothing which really catches my eye. I have already experienced a fair number of traditional landscape paintings in my visits to the Mediatheque. Sometimes it makes me half-fondly recall the staleness of the DuPage Art League in Wheaton (my Chicago suburb), with its myriad of painted flowers and horses (which tended to show up unrelated to the actual theme for the month). Of course at the Mediatheque the landscape scenery is different – instead of the American plains and forests, it is Zao, Matsushima, Jozenji-dori, and other both famous and relatively anonymous parts of Japan.

If my schedule physically allows it, I make a point of coming every week. Because every week, even if it is something small, there is something that makes it worth coming. I have seen beautiful stained glass, striking and atmospheric photography, countless interesting painting techniques, and have smelled many fragrant lilies at the frequently put on shodo (Japanese calligraphy) exhibitions.

It was during my first decided Mediatheque pilgrimage back in late May that I came across what I distinctly sensed could become my “artistic community involvement” – a silkscreen exhibition put on by a local association. In my ten or so years of drawing, I had never done any kind of actual print work. A few pieces in the gallery stood out to me, and upon walking out, I started a conversation with the lady at the table. She pointed out which pieces were hers, told me more about the Wednesday classes, and handed me one of her prints. Holding the program booklet and the print (pearly ink and thin, nicely textured paper), I walked away with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Two weeks later on a rainy afternoon, I made my way down to the Aoba Culture Center only to find that the class was over and everyone had gone home. The classes are scheduled for 1-8 p.m., but because of my work schedule, I cannot make it until about 5:30 p.m. even if I leave straight away. The next couple of months got very busy – Oshima Leavers Party, Miyagi International Art & Culture Show, traveling down to Tokyo twice for Group A and B Orientations (and being a Tokyo Orientation Assistant for Group B), then Miyagi Orientation. It was not until last week that I finally felt like I had the time and determination to go, this time calling in advance to make sure there would still be someone there when I stopped by.

When I got to the classroom, Koide-sensei was there along with a few students – a few Miyagi obaachan and one ojiichan, who were all glad to show me how it was done.  I walked around, watched, asked questions, learned. In another week, I will hopefully be trying it out myself. Part of my motivation involves a secret project, which I hope will be not-so-secret by the time November comes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A year after moving to Sendai...

A little over a year after arriving in Sendai, I notice that I have developed a soft spot for this place. I like living here.
I like the skies above me and the streets I walk through.

I like the memories I have made here,
attached to and hidden in specific places and things.

I like rushing through the bent alleyway of Sendai Asakusa, lined with little restaurants and snack bars, when going out of town. I like my night bus journeys which land me in Tokyo at 5:35 a.m., and I like the scenery along the way whenever I can see it in daylight or the early evening.

I like discovering new spaces.
I like the adventures I get to have here, both alone and with other people.

Last August, I came here thinking I would stay on JET for a year, maybe two years at most, then move on to something else. But this original vision has been revised; I decided to do what I thought was best for me when I signed my recontracting papers at the beginning of the year, and now I feel that I might make the same decision next February.

There is still so much I haven’t seen or experienced here, and I do not want to leave until I break out of more old patterns, explore beyond the well-treaded paths of this past year, and feel like I have made the most of my time here.

Whatever time I have lost for working on my art in the adjustment process, the switch to a completely different lifestyle,  and the general tosses and turns of these thirteen months, I have made up for in terms of personal development, which I feel will be crucial to my work from now on.

For the longest time, I felt like I was floating around, unable to connect to my life here and the people around me. As long as I kept feeling like that, I knew my growth would be stunted, and I would not be able to thrive. It took me a year to feel genuinely comfortable here, to start feeling like I can put down some kind of roots, even if temporary, and grow. That is an investment I do not want to waste.

When the time comes to move on, I will know it. For now, I am quite happy to be where I am. Plus, in some way, I feel like it would not be right to leave until I use up the spices and tea I have brought here from the US.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Welcome Back

After a two-year absence from Blogger, I decided to return. As I felt a vague urge to document some of my experiences, I realized I have things I would like to share in written form now. While I prefer other channels for uploading my art, I would like to use this little corner of the Internet to write about various occurrences in my life with the hope that it is even a little informative/useful/interesting/entertaining to whoever stops by.