Explaining America in the 21st Century

In order to maintain the human capital I developed during my undergraduate, I’m continuing my education with courses at my local junior college and taking lite courses over Edx. I’m currently enjoying VJx: Visualizing Japan.[1] It’s a history class in partnership with MIT, Harvard, and Duke that explores three instances of modern Japanese history through the interpretation of visuals. We just completed our first module this week on Japan’s initial encounter with the United States: the Perry Mission.

In the interests of national security, Japan isolated itself from the international community in the 1600s. News concerning global technological and political developments were distilled through a small island in Nagasaki– but were not generally available for the public.[2] Although isolated, the Japanese government at the time was still aware of current events overseas.

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(US Japan Fleet Comm. Perry Carrying the “Gospel of God” to the HEATHEN)

            Nearly 200 years after Japan implemented this isolationist policy, Commodore Perry was determined to undermine Japanese authority and open the country to trade. Encouraged by the American whaling industry and backed by gunboat diplomacy, the objectives of the Perry Mission demanded that the United States have rights to two Japanese ports for refueling. Unable to militarily match the modern, western, American navy the Japanese government agreed to the terms— ending 200 years of isolation and changing the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region forever.

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The ordeal caused quite a bit of domestic scandal and many artists flocked to Kanagawa to draw the “American” Captain Matthew Perry. The different attitudes toward Americans manifested themselves in the various artistic renderings of Perry and his crew.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 12.16.57 AM Spectrum of interpretation: Perry’s son is drawn in a flattering Japanese manner (to the left) and one portrait portrays Perry as a demon (to the right)

The portraits were supposed to represent how Americans look. Some of them are culturally flattering, but others are offensive.

In just around fifty years after their interaction with Perry, the Japanese quickly modernized and became the first non-Western nation to defeat a Western nation in the 20th century. The Russo-Japanese War shocked and enthralled the world. Although the Japanese participated in the legacy of imperialism, they also endowed a sense of agency to many in the non-Western world.

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The Japanese soldiers defeated the Russians in 1905. 

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In the Treaty of Portsmouth a man is pictured negotiating his demands.

In the 21st century, I’ve been charged to teach English overseas and share American culture in Japan. There are many preconceptions that some children have of how Americans should look. In some of the elementary schools I’ve gotten:

 “Awwh man! I wanted to see a real foreigner.”

“Oh he’s kind of short.” (I’m 5’9”)

“If you’re from America… why aren’t you white?”

It reminded me of this scene from the American cult classic, Mean Girls.

No, my ancestry is not European, I’m not very hirsute, and my skin is not white, but I am an American. (At least they don’t think I’m a demon.) Although many things have changed over the years, the international perception of what an American should phenotypically look like has lagged a bit.

However, I’m not one to back away from a challenge and I used my alleged abnormality as an important learning opportunity to teach about my homeland. I start with a graph of statistical information breaking down the demographics of my home state.[3]

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 11.31.06 PM This way they can clearly see the real demographic breakdown of California. After that, I show them a picture of my friends and where some of our ancestry is from. I also make sure to explain that since we were all born in California, we’re all Americans. America’s ancestry is from all over the world— especially once they see that there are Japanese-Americans I feel that the concept is solidified.

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I’ve done a good job disestablishing the previous, unlearned paradigm in the classroom by using myself as an example— some kids are even curious about the process of becoming an American. America is not the same country as it was in the 1960s and even though California’s demographics are not currently representative of the overall country, it’s what America is becoming.

In just fifty years, according to the Pew Research Center, this is where America is moving demographically:

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It is important for foreign students to be up to date and learn about the current demographic situation in the United States. I want to make sure that my students are well equipped to understand America in the 21st century. The America that their parent’s interacted with is not necessarily the same America that they will interact with.

Unfortunately, the current America is losing support from the rest of the world. Favorable international perception of the United States is declining. Their confidence in our economic hegemony is falling[4], the never-ending series of w1019-1ars is destroying our morally upright image[5], and our incarceration rates pale in comparison to most other developed countries.[6] These accumulated negative perceptions can affect everything from our military alliances to our country’s credit score.

However, we’re not ones to back away from a challenge. I believe that certain parts of our country are shifting toward the economic demands of this new century, while others are making us lag.[7] If you want a good overview on the subject I would strongly suggest reading Cal-Berkeley Professor Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs.

Geograpgy-Jacket-ImageThings can change fast, but it’s up to us to make sure it’s for the better. I want to be a good representative of my country abroad and I want to ensure my work here contributes to peaceful international understandings. Who knows? Maybe in fifty years one of my students will have to work in America. I just hope that I left a good impression.

[1] https://courses.edx.org/courses/VJx/VJx/3T2014/info

[2] Hellyer, Robert. “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the” Sakoku” Theme in Japanese Foreign Relations: 1600-2000.” (2002): 255-259.

[3] http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html

[4] http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/17/survey/14/

[5] http://www.pewglobal.org/2007/03/14/americas-image-in-the-world-findings-from-the-pew-global-attitudes-project/

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[7] Moretti, Enrico. The New Geography of Jobs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Oh Snow You Didn’t! Snow in Aomori Prefecture

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I’m back in Japan after a great vacation at home in San José. I saw some old friends, rekindled old romance, but mostly spent some time with my family. Now I’m back in Aomori, or as the locals sometimes call it “snow country”.

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Aomori is the snowiest city in Japan. Located in the northern part of the country and sandwiched between the ocean and tall mountains, the region captures the cold Siberian weather fronts coming from the Sea of Japan. This meteorological phenomenon is both captivating and deadly. My incoming flight from Tokyo was cancelled because our plane could not safely navigate through the intense snowstorm.

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According to this brief news report over 10 feet of snow has fallen this winter with more to come.

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Snowpics

Luckily, I’m safe and warm in my apartment thanks to my space heater. I’m excited to catch up on some music, TV shows, and books this weekend. It feels good to be back.

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Thoughts on Serial


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When I was in second grade (sometime back in 2000) our teacher made us listen to a radio drama called Puff the Magic Dragon. She was very old school and this was the first time I ever listened to a radio drama. Before the widespread adoption of television, radio dramas were very popular in the United States. For example, a broadcast of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles made national headlines in 1938 for causing widespread hysteria among listeners. [1] If I were to describe my experience with radio drama, it’s like going to a movie theater without any screens. Back then, while we did our arts and crafts, the narrator would explain to us the adventures of Jackie and Puff. We made our Christmas wreaths silently as we listened to the voice actors exchange dialogue. Normally, it’s very difficult to get seven and eight year olds to keep quiet and focus, but the story enthralled us and set us into a flow.

It started snowing in the little Japanese town that I live in. Although beautiful to look at, it’s doubled my commute time because I can no longer ride my bicycle to work. The icy winds and slippery ground also slow down my walk. To break the precarious tedium, I decided to give This American Life’s spinoff show, Serial, a try.

Serial is an entertaining hybrid of traditional radio drama and true-crime T.V. The story combines the captivating elements of Dateline (or the Japanese equivalent, Sekai Gyouten News) with the voice of an intelligent, yet unpretentious journalist. Serial reexamines the murder of Hae Min Lee, a beautiful honor roll student and varsity lacrosse player, who was mysteriously strangled to death in 1999 during her senior year.

Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee

Charged with Hae’s murder was her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, an equally attractive honor roll student and football player. Both Hae and Adnan came from immigrant families. On top of their sports and studies, they volunteered, worked part-time, only to have their bright futures destroyed by this tragedy. The prosecution portrayed Adnan and Hae’s romance as an American version of Romeo and Juliet. Adnan allegedly killed Hae in a bout of passion. However, the show’s host, Sarah Kroenig, reveals the case’s evidence was very flimsy and she sets out to find what really happened 15 years later.

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Adnan Syed

The podcast is well produced and very entertaining, but not immune to scrutiny. Several Asian-American writers have accused Kroenig of being blind to the racial implications of the narrative—unwittingly using model-minority Asian Americans against the African-American Jay (whose sketchy testimony put Adnan behind bars for life). [2][3] However, I found these claims mostly unfounded and overly sensitive. I agree with Wallace-Wells that it’s not really racial privilege that Kroenig uses against anyone, but “instead with the psychological tourism that comes in the aftermath of a crime” she can safely observe and judge everything. [4] I’m guilty of this too. I love real-life stories because they are easily relatable on a level that fiction can rarely achieve. However, I do understand that it‘s unfair to enjoy the story without experiencing the actual trauma first-hand. Real-crime tales crop up on Dateline, then Japan’s Gyouten News, and then everyone around the world is entertained by the over-simplified misfortune of others.

On the other hand, Serial redeems itself for me because of its pure journalistic properties. Kroenig does not take a side throughout the story and she’s helped millions of Americans realize the arbitrary nature of our judicial system. Even though I enjoy and recommend it, a part of me wishes that the world of Serial didn’t actually happen. It’s hard to think about Adnan being in jail since I was in second grade.  I guess it’s like looking at the snow, versus having to walk through it. Life was less complicated when we could just be entertained by Puff the Magic Dragon. ♦

You can start listening to Serial here:

  1. This claim was actually a fabricated exaggeration by obsolescent newspaper companies. [Story here]
  2. http://www.theawl.com/2014/11/serial-and-white-reporter-privilege
  3. http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliacarriew/the-problem-with-serial-and-the-model-minority-myth
  4. http://www.vulture.com/2014/11/strange-intimacy-of-serial.html?wpsrc=nymag
  5. http://www.vulture.com/2014/11/serial-podcast-why-is-everyone-obsessed.html

Turning A House Into A Home

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This week a precocious student in my class asked me for help on one of his compositions. He beckoned me over and pointed to his dictionary. “Which one?” he said. He was trying to say that he had a barbecue at his friend’s house, but the dictionary came up with two words: house and home. “Hmm. In this case, either is fine.” I responded hesitantly in Japanese. He wrote down “home” and I moved on to help the other floating hands in the room.

I have become increasingly grateful that my native language is English. Our grammar is horrendously inconsistent to learn.

“Why is it goats, but not sheeps?”

“Why do I use –ed for danced, but not eated?”

“What’s the difference between must and have to?”

These are just a sample of questions that I have to answer spontaneously, nearly everyday… First thinking about their relationship in English and then translating them into simple Japanese. If there’s no consistent reason, I usually just say sorry (すみません, sorry in Japanese can be used ambiguously to demonstrate sympathy) for English being difficult and say that they need to just remember these things. Many of the kids in my school are smart and learn these nuances quickly, while others are simply “clever” and stick to the simpler grammatical patterns to avoid mistakes. It reminds me of my school days back home.

I grew up in a competitive school environment. I was mostly an A student with a few B’s here and there. My middle school years were awkward at best. Looking back, I never wanted to return. Luckily, by the time I finished high school I passed 10 AP classes and started college with junior standing. However, I opted out of the traditional “college experience” and the huge debt[1] normally associated with it by living at my parent’s house. This didn’t mean I was an overly dependent youth. On the contrary, I carefully calculated when I would graduate, what the size of my loan would be, and where I could start my “life”— which to me meant true independence. Personally, thousands of dollars for a couple of commoditized, financially ruinous years was not conducive to my life goals. I stayed at home (thankfully my parents let me) and worked while going to community college and then the local university. I only paid a $1000 for my entire lower division.

For the time being, I was tethered to my hometown. I experienced a lot of my firsts, some of my lasts, my peaks, my pits, and everything in between. The longer I stayed home, the deeper my relationship with San Jose was becoming. I almost joined the 37% of Americans who never leave their hometowns.[2] When I graduated I was fortunate enough to have two job offers, a local one that would pay me quite a bit more and another that would let me live overseas at extremely favorable costs. Although I was very conflicted, I picked the latter. Even if it also meant going back to middle school.

My new employer is very generous and has provided me with a spacious, subsidized two-bedroom apartment. It came fully furnished with a washing machine, refrigerator, and a nifty doorbell camera. For a twenty-one year old, this place is a dream come true.

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But something is missing. I still have this beleaguering feeling that I’m not at home and that I’m living on an extended vacation. Being in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language has made everything strange. The awkward times are here again. I know theoretically from an academic perspective what I should be doing and saying to fit in, but I feel as if I’ve reverted back to a child. Although I want this to feel like home, I didn’t grow up here. I feel at home in Silicon Valley because that’s where I was raised.

In Julie Beck’s article from the Atlantic last year she discusses the psychology of the home. She writes, “If home is where the heart is, then by its most literal definition, my home is wherever I am. I’ve always been liberal in my use of the word.”[3] For me, I thought that home meant where you have all your major life experiences: your firsts, your lasts, your pits, your peaks, and everything in between. However, I’m starting to learn that your house is what you make of it and these experiences unfold everyday no matter where you are. Maybe we never stop growing up. I still don’t know which word that boy in my class should have used to describe the barbecue, but now I know how to describe my little apartment in Aomori. It’s my home. ♦

[1] http://www.cnbc.com/id/47159110#.

[2] http://pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/Movers-and-Stayers.pdf

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/the-psychology-of-home-why-where-you-live-means-so-much/249800