Friday, February 26, 2010

Heading to Hokkaido

This time tomorrow, we'll be plowing through the sea somewhere between Japan and North Korea. Sergey and I are taking the slow boat to Hokkaido to celebrate our birthdays in a part of the country neither of us has been to before.

Although we celebrate our birthdays on the same day (February 28), Sergey was actually born on February 29. He's a leap-year baby, which makes him seven and a half and makes me a pedophile.

We'll arrive in Hokkaido on Saturday night, after 20 hours at sea. We have no reservations, no plans and generally no clue what we'll do once we get there. It's all part of the fun. We want to be open to any adventure that comes our way, even if it means sleeping in a 24-hour McDonald's. We both just want to go for long walks, see what we see, and find what we find.

We'll be back next week.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Freaks on Ice

It was a balmy 20 degrees and sunny in Kyoto yesterday. We took advantage of the warm weather by heading indoors, bundling up and going skating.

Sergey and I spent the day at the Kyoto Aquarena, which (like the name suggests) is home to both a swimming pool and a skating rink. Just not at the same time. The Olympic-size pool is turned into a skating rink for six months of the year. This only makes sense in Japan, where there are strict rules governing seasonal appropriateness. Summer is for swimming; winter is for skating -- whether you like it or not.

Skating on a frozen swimming pool was a lot of fun. Except for the part when Sergey fell head-first into the ice, smashed his knee and broke his camera. The skating came to an abrupt end after that. I bought Sergey a hot chocolate to make him feel better (but also to assuage my guilt since the accident happened immediately after I tightened his laces).

I captured some of the pre-accident action on camera and edited it into a short film I'm calling "Freaks on Ice." Why watch the Olympics when you can watch quality skating right here? I think we might have a shot at ice-dancing gold in 2014. Russia, here we come!

Friday, February 19, 2010

I passed!

The results are in. And they are good.

I passed the master's entrance exam. This means I will enter Kyoto University's Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies in April. This also means I will be staying in Japan for two more years.

I'm really excited about the master's program. The school has a great reputation and most of the classes are in English. I'll get to do interesting research in a field I'm passionate about. I'll learn a whole bunch of new things. And, best of all, I'll get paid to do it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I can't turn down.

The only thing I have mixed feelings about is staying in Japan for another two years. It's not that I'm unhappy here. I have good friends, a nice apartment, and a comfortable life in Kyoto. But it's a lonely kind of life sometimes.

I don't feel connected to the community (I blame the language barrier), and I generally have no idea what's going on (I can't read Japanese newspapers or websites). I picked most of my friends from a transient pool of people -- and almost all of them will be going home in April.

I find myself spending large chunks of time alone. Back in Canada, I used to like being by myself. I used to actively seek out solitude. I never found it difficult to be alone. I found it easy to go for days without talking to another human being. But I don't enjoy being by myself as much here. Being alone in Japan just makes me feel lonely.

It's a low-grade loneliness that never goes away. And it's a corrosive kind of loneliness. Sometimes I feel like this sense of isolation is slowly cutting away at me from the inside. I think a lot of foreigners in Japan feel the same way. You either get over it or you go home.

The sense of isolation ebbs and flows. But for the most part, I like living in Japan and I'm generally pretty happy here. My excitement over entering the master's program overshadows any hesitation I might have about spending another two years here. The positives outweigh the negatives. I passed the exam and I'm glad.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The aftermath

My master's entrance exam has come and gone and a lot of people have been asking how it went. The short answer is it went okay. But I don't really know. I won't get the results for another week.

"Do you think you passed?" they ask.

This is a tough question. The short answer is, yes, I think I passed. But I'm not really sure. What worries me is that the written exam and oral interview are given equal weight. Fail one and you fail the whole thing. I think I aced the written exam. The interview, not so much.

The exam left me feeling confident. The interview left me feeling shattered.

Pass or fail. It's out of my hands now. But no matter what happens, the experience drove home a few important lessons.

Lesson one: I work best under pressure

A few days before the exam, I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I was terrified that I was in over my head. That I wouldn't be able to answer a single question on the exam. I was plagued with anxiety and self-doubt.

This is nothing new. I am always a nervous wreck before a big event. But if experience has taught me anything, it's that worrying about something you can't control does you no good. I wasted a lot of time and energy worrying that the exam would be filled with questions I wouldn't know the answers to. And, as usual, my worries turned out to be groundless.

I do this a lot. I worry about things I can't control. I worry the plane I'm about to board will crash. I worry I will be hit by a car when I cross the street. I worry about the past. I worry about the future. All of this worrying is pointless. It's a complete waste of time. It's like an acid that eats you up from the inside. If I could stop worrying, I would. I just don't know how.

But unlike unnecessary worrying, I don't think being nervous before a big event is a bad thing. I think it means you're invested in the outcome and you care about what happens. The trick is to channel those nerves to your advantage.

My friend Gilles taught me how to view nervous energy as a positive thing when I used to swim competitively. I used to have a lot of trouble quieting my mind before a race. I was consumed with dread and self-doubt. I used to get so nervous that my stomach would shut down. I would almost fall off the blocks because I was shaking so badly.

Gilles helped me realize being nervous was a good thing. Your body is vibrating with energy, he said. This nervous energy is your body's way of preparing itself for battle. Your muscles are humming with anticipation, like coiled springs about to explode. Just turn your brain off and let your body rev itself up until the gun goes off and then release that tension by exploding off the blocks and swimming as hard as you can. You'll do great. You always do.

And it's true. I always do great under pressure. Pressure pushes me to do my best and try my hardest. I never crack under pressure. The pressure-filled moment itself is not a source of anxiety. It's the worrying about the pressure beforehand that causes me to unravel. Which makes no sense because if I know I thrive under pressure, then why would I ever worry about it?

But there I was, nervous and stressed on Friday morning waiting for the clock to strike 10 and the exam to begin. I mentally checked out of the classroom and imagined I was at the start of a triathlon instead. I pictured myself standing waist-deep in water with hundreds of other competitors waiting for the gun to go off.

The start of a triathlon is a nasty affair. After the gun goes off, you will get punched and kicked by thrashing arms and legs as swimmers battle for a clean line of open water. (Someone once used my head as leverage during the swim portion of a triathlon. They pushed my head down with their hand and swam on top of me to get ahead.) You have to keep your wits about you and not panic. Just absorb those kicks and punches, try not to swallow any water, stay calm and swim. Eventually the crowd will thin out and you'll settle into a groove.

Don't panic. Don't give up. Fight and everything will be all right. This was the mantra I repeated in my head before every triathlon I raced in. It seemed like an appropriate chant before the start of the entrance exam too. After all, I was mentally preparing myself to get kicked in the head by a few questions.

The clock struck 10 and the examiners ordered us to start. I took a deep breath ("This is it!") and pulled the exam out of its envelope. There were four essay questions. But we only had to answer two.

Bam! The first question kicked me in the head. "Describe one engineering technique used to reduce industrial air pollution, giving examples of blah, blah, blah . . ." Engineering! I knew right away I'd have to skip this one. There was no way I'd be able to fake it. All I know about engineering is that it involves wearing a ring on your pinky finger and building bridges.

Pow! The second question punched me in the stomach. It was about fishing and maximum sustainable yields and went something like this: "If x means this and y means that and a whole bunch of numbers mean something else, please calculate blah, blah, blah . . ." Math! I immediately crossed this one off the list too. I wouldn't even begin to know how to fake something like this. All I know about math is that I failed it twice in high school and, as a result, developed a lifelong aversion to numbers.

Since I had already crossed two questions off the list, this meant I would have to do the remaining two questions no matter what. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I'd be able to answer them. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw one of the questions was about biodiversity. I can do this, I thought to myself. Which is ironic because, up until about a week ago, I knew almost nothing about biodiversity.

I spent the past month studying in the library and one of my favourite procrastination techniques (aside from stepping outside to eat carrots) was to walk around and browse through the books in the English section. So last week I was wasting time in the library, browsing through books in the English section when I stumbled upon a collection of essays about biodiversity written by E.O. Wilson.

The essays were well-written and utterly absorbing and I ended up reading the book cover-to-cover instead of studying that day. Well, that book ended up saving my ass in the exam. I was able to write a pretty decent (in my opinion, anyway) essay on biodiversity and was able to give specific examples of how different ecosystems work. Who says procrastination doesn't pay!

The second question asked us to write about the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" as defined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It wasn't something I specifically studied but I felt like I knew this stuff inside and out having worked at two UN climate change conferences and having actually seen the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in action (or, more specifically, in inaction).

After one hour, the general knowledge exam was over and I was left feeling like I rocked it. My essays may not have been perfect but I thought they were solid and compelling and coherent.

After a short break, it was time for the second exam -- the specific knowledge exam. Like the general knowledge exam, this exam was also an essay-style exam but unlike the general knowledge exam, it had only one question. You would either know how to answer it or you wouldn't.

I pulled the exam out of the envelope. The question was simple, yet complex. It was based on a quote from Raymond Williams, "To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing." The task was to discuss this concept in terms of environmental communication.

Now we're talking! None of this math and engineering bullshit. I spent 15 minutes drafting an outline on a scrap piece of paper and spent the next 45 minutes completely absorbed in the act of writing. I filled four single-spaced pages before the end of the hour. Again, I didn't think my essay was perfect but I thought I had done a pretty good job answering the question in a clear and compelling way.

I left the classroom feeling like I had rocked both exams. I felt stupid for having wasted so much time and energy worrying about how it would go beforehand. I'm sure other people answered the questions better than I did, but it doesn't matter. I proved to myself that I knew more than I thought I did. And that I thrive under pressure.

Lesson two: My Japanese is shit

I was given the option of taking the exam in Japanese or English. (I may be a masochist but I'm not a moron -- I took it in English.) I was lucky. Most of my friends didn't have a choice. They had to take their entrance exams in Japanese.

It's one thing to take a master's entrance exam on a very specialized academic topic in your native language, it's quite another thing to do it in Japanese. My friend Sergey, for example, had to take his master's entrance exam in Japanese. Sergey is a film studies major. The fact that he can write, read and talk about obscure concepts like direction and lighting and angles in 1950s Japanese cinema in Japanese is mind-blowingly impressive. Sergey is a language genius. In addition to his native Bulgarian, he is also fluent in Russian, English, Japanese and his own made-up language, Sergey-go.

I am about one-fifth as smart as Sergey. I thought about what would have happened if I had to take my exam in Japanese. I thought about the question on biodiversity and I thought about how I would answer it in Japanese and the only thing I could come up with went something like this: "I like nature. It is very important. I especially like big cats -- lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and the black ones." Epic fail.

Lesson three: I suck at academic interviews

I have always done well in job interviews. I think this is because I know that the people interviewing you are judging you not just on your skills and experience but also on how well you'll fit in with the team.

No one wants to hire someone with a flat personality or a bad attitude. You can look great on paper but if you don't have energy, enthusiasm and a sparkling personality, you're probably not going to get the job.

Turn on the charm and make them laugh has always been the way I've approached job interviews. It's not scientific but it works. I haven't gotten every job I've applied for but if I make it to the interview stage, I know the job is mine. I have gotten every job I have ever interviewed for.

Well, guess what I just learned? Being likeable and charming doesn't work in an academic interview. Professors are not looking for someone who can tell good jokes around the water cooler. They are serious people who want to know if you're going to be a good researcher and be able to come up with an interesting and original thesis. Do you have the intellectual chops to make it in the world of academia or not?

I'm afraid I fell short on the qualities they were looking for. It didn't help that the interview room was (intentionally, I think) set up to be like an interrogation room. The room itself was very large. There was one long table in the front of the room. Four professors sat side by side at that table. Facing the table, at least 15 feet away, was a small chair and desk where I was asked to sit.

It was intimidating. And I think that was the point. This was not a friendly chat. This was a serious panel interview. The professors got right down to business. No time for small talk to put me at ease.

They asked hard questions. They pointed out the holes in my research proposal and asked me to fill them. I had to answer "I don't know" more times than I wanted to. The longer this went on, the more flustered I got.

I should have been better prepared. You cannot coast your way through an academic interview on charm alone. Lesson learned.

Lesson four: I am not afraid to put myself out there

There are a lot of things about myself I don't like. I'm docile. I'm insecure. I'm lazy. I make stupid mistakes. I repeat the same stupid mistakes. I ruin a lot of things just by opening my mouth. The list goes on.

But there are also a few things about myself I do like. And one of the things I like most is that I'm not afraid to put myself out there. I will do and try pretty much anything. I love a good challenge and I am not afraid of falling flat on my face.

If I want something, I go for it. I let nothing hold me back. And I won't give up. I'm a persistent little fucker.

Maybe I'm not smart enough to be a master's student. But that won't stop me from trying. Life is short and you've got to put yourself out there and just give'r.

(For the non-Canadians reading this, "just give'r" is a popular, low-brow expression, which loosely means going all out and taking care of business as awesomely as possible. It also means getting wasted and rocking out as hard as possible, but I am not using it in that context here.)

Maybe my exam wasn't perfect and maybe the interview wasn't great. I don't know if I passed or failed. But I do know that I did the best I could. And I can't do any better than that.

I just have to wait and see if my best is good enough for Kyoto University.