Throughout my experience so far I have had a love-hate relationship with my wifi connection. Even before the internet, as someone who grew up in libraries, I have always thrived on information. When I have a question, I dig until I find the answer. But the ability to access information is changed in a place where you can’t communicate well, and in Japan turning to the internet may not always be possible. Sometimes your questions do not make sense to locals long immersed in your new context. Sometimes you feel burdensome constantly asking. But I have found that when your ability to independently solve problems is compromised, the greatest opportunities for community emerge. It is in these moments that I have found the greatest sense of connection with those around me and discovered local gems that the internet may never have led me to.
Language is probably one of the most frustrating barriers CAPI interns will face during their times abroad. While you are here, your desire for connection is great as is the opportunity for adventure at hand. During my first month I picked up the necessary, popular Japanese greetings, but found myself unable to go more in-depth. People would often come up to me and make a comment or ask a question, and I would hear phrases commonly repeated, but I am unable to engage meaningfully in many parts of daily life. Because the Japanese alphabet is entirely different than English, looking up words is not an option. However, this has led to many interesting conversations with my co-workers whereby I try to imitate sounds or explain the context where I heard the phrase. It turns out that there are just some sounds I am apparently not physically capable of making. When I was partnered with a tutor in June I finally had the information I so desperately desired and our sessions are one of the highlights of my week. Now I can read Hiragana, one of the 3 sets of Japanese characters (there are over 40!). The first day I sounded out a word on the train and I got so excited that the guy beside me said something. I will always wonder what conversations could have been. Last night I was stopped on the street by a group of excited Japanese ladies. We had a conversation for a few minutes while they used single English words they knew and I used the little Japanese I had. I still have no idea what they wanted or why they were so excited, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with religion? Nonetheless they were excited I had stopped, gave me a newspaper article and a cellphone number to call and wished me a good evening. Despite the fact I did not get much from the content of our conversation, their efforts to embrace me into their community (whatever that may be) gave a positive energy to entire interaction. In moments like that you realize that it not the content that matters, it is the connection.
Adventuresare something I usually prepare for. Meticulous about details I look up train times, possible sights where I’m going, closing hours, etc. As a result I usually know where I am going to go and what I am going to see before I get there. The lack of accessible information in Japan has forced me to shift from my usual comfort zone into what I am calling “planned spontaneity.” One of the first questions I usually ask people I meet is what their favorite place is in Japan or the Greater Tokyo Area. Many people give me similar answers and I always note the most popular ones. When I first realized that my privilege of ready access to information was going to be taken away, I started stockpiling a list of names and mapping out where they were whenever the wifi gods shined on me. Then on my weekend mornings I pick a place and just go.
This has made my travel way more fun and way more meaningful because I am present. Even if I get places when they are closed or spend more time getting lost overall I lose the fear of missing out on what could come and focus on the experience at hand. I don’t have to rush to see this or eat that or go here. I climbed Mt. Takao last weekend and I got to the train station at the base with no idea where to go. I followed the crowd and the signs and next thing you know I’m onwards and upwards. The cool thing about Japan is that you’re never alone. Even in a forest there are almost always people around. And in circumstances like this despite the language there is a solidarity among people that we are all here with the same goal and that in itself forms the community. We say konichiwa as we pass each other on the trail (though I’m pretty sure one section was actually just walking through a river) and we feel connected in our journey to the top. Again what matters is not the content, but the context.
I realise now what a privilege it is to have access to information. For people around the world who are illiterate, deaf, blind, monolingual, unconnected to the internet and without access to education, life must be so much more challenging when barriers are put in front of them. It is easy to understand how people can be misled, how religions can be misinterpreted and how development can take a stand still. In this way the internet can be an incredible tool to break down barriers. But at the same time the internet can be incredibly isolating, making it possible to by-pass physical communities in to maintain virtual ones. No longer is there a need to ask for directions or take a class to learn something new. It’s all online and we can thrive as independent units with access to all the answers. But this way of thinking may not bode well for us long term and the consequences of thinking that it is possible to solve every problem technologically may be high. Because sometimes the best solution is the simplest one, and the value created from a community in solidarity should never be overlooked.
While I like to know things and planning is definitely important for mitigating risk, I realize now that it’s actually more fun not knowing sometimes and seeing what surprises await you. The experiences can be more powerful than you imagine and the connections made just as strong as the ones from a wifi signal.