Saturday, December 27, 2008

Modern art through the eyes of a security guard

I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario on Saturday. It was educational, eye-opening and enlightening. But not in the way the art gallery intended.

I was wandering around on the fourth floor of the art gallery, where the works of contemporary art are on display. At one point, I found myself standing in front of five identical canvases hanging on one of the walls. Each canvas was painted completely white except for a small square of beige in each corner.

Mistaking my jet lag for stupefaction, a security guard decided to approach me.

"Can I ask you a question?" he said.

"Of course," I replied.

"What do you think about that?" he said, pointing to the five white canvases in front of us.

His question took me by surprise. I wasn't sure how to answer it. I didn't know whether to give him the "right" answer or an honest answer. The truth was that I didn't think much of the paintings at all. I didn't like them. But I didn't dislike them either.

I wasn't sure if he was a passionate art lover looking for an lively discussion or just genuinely curious to know what I thought.

"Um . . ." I said, stalling. "Um . . ."

I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say so I just decided to tell him the truth.

"Well, modern art isn't really my thing. So I don't know."

He loudly kissed his teeth to signify his disapproval.

"I don't like this stuff," he said.

He told me he wanted to paint a tiny black dot on a canvas and call it a car in a snowstorm.

"They'd probably hang it up in here," he said with a laugh.

He told me he hated patrolling the fourth floor. The second floor is where it's at. He said he likes the older stuff because it gives you a real glimpse into history. He told me he never gets bored when he's working on the second floor. But the fourth floor? Pure torture.

"Have you seen the sink?" he asked.

I told him I hadn't.

"Okay," he said. "Come with me."

He led me through a few rooms and stopped in front of a huge canvas with an actual bathroom sink glued to it.

"There you go!" he said.

The mere sight of it inspired another round of teeth kissing and eye rolling.

He took me around to see a few other works of art that he particularly despised. It was my own private tour of the art gallery. With a security guard. Who hated modern art. It was like the anti-tour tour.

It was educational, eye-opening and enlightening. But probably not in the way the art gallery intended.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home for the holidays

Greetings from the city formerly known as Toronto. That's right. Toronto has a new name and it's "Snowmageddon." (Or at least that's what the scientists at Environment Canada are calling it.)

And while it's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as over-exaggerated hype, it really did feel like I was flying into some sort of apocalyptic nightmare on Friday. I was on my way from Osaka to Detroit, where a huge winter storm was whipping up winds and dumping snow across the region.

Now, hearing people scream is disconcerting at the best of times. But hearing people scream on an airplane is downright terrifying. Severe turbulence was shaking the plane like it was a pop can in an earthquake. At one point, the plane suddenly dropped about 20 feet. We were lifted out of our seats. You could actually hear all of the overhead luggage rise and then thump back down. It was so bad that people were screaming.

I wanted to hold someone's hand but I was sitting in the dreaded middle seat, sandwiched between a half-drunk elderly Japanese man on my left and an aspiring rock star working on a concept album about underwater robots on my right. I didn't think either one of them would appreciate me whimpering in their laps.

Despite the ice pellets, howling winds and thick fog, we managed to land safely in Detroit. I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Snowmageddon but it was being walloped by an even worse winter storm. As a result, my 2 p.m. flight was cancelled and I was rebooked on the 5:30 flight out of Detroit.

So I wandered around the Detroit airport for a bit. Had a bean burrito at Taco Bell (my first burrito in three months! It was surprisingly delicious). Just before 5 p.m., they cancelled my second flight and rebooked me on the 9:30 p.m. flight.

So I wandered around the Detroit airport some more. Ate some sushi (it felt like I had been in Detroit for months and was feeling nostalgic for Japanese food. It was surprisingly terrible). I made some American friends. We talked mostly about the weather and our cancelled flights.

Just before 8 p.m., they cancelled my third flight. I lined up for an hour only to be told there were no more flights going to Snowmageddon that night and that the earliest flight they could book me on was the one leaving at 9:30 . . . the next night!!

There was no way in hell I was spending 26 hours at the Detroit airport. Not after a 12-hour flight from Japan. Not after spending eight hours at the Detroit airport. Not after not sleeping for 24 hours. Screw that and screw them.

I got the last seat on the last bus leaving Detroit for Snowmageddon. Due to the severe weather conditions, it took almost seven hours of painfully slow driving to get to Toronto. But I finally arrived. At 3:15 a.m. on Saturday. More than 35 hours after leaving my apartment in Kyoto.

I arrived in Snowmageddon but my luggage did not. It is being held hostage at the Detroit airport. It may arrive. It may not arrive. If it doesn't get here before Christmas, there will be no Hello Kitty-themed presents under the tree.

In the meantime, there is snow to shovel, gingerbread men to eat and parties to attend (in the same clothes I've been wearing for the past three days). Blogging will be light to non-existent over the next two weeks. So until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Me on the BBC

For those of you (okay, all of you) who don't live in South America, you can listen to my interview on BBC Radio Ecuador thanks to the magic of the internet.

The following clip features me on the BBC talking about my pilgrimage to Obama, Japan. I think I did okay. Except for the part where I said "buenos dias" when I should have said "buenas tardes." (Oh, yeah. I'm sooooo international.)

The interview runs about eight minutes. The questions are translated into English and my answers are translated into Spanish. There is a lot of translating going on. So I really only get about four minutes of airtime.

Enjoy! Or don't enjoy! It's up to you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

School daze

The following post is dedicated to my sister Jane, who sent a mass email to the entire family congratulating our two younger sisters on getting through the fall semester at their respective universities. My name was conspicuously left off the list of studying Marchildons.

"How could you forget I'm in school?" I wrote. "What the heck do you think I'm doing out here?"

"I don't know what you're doing," she replied. "You just write on your blog about your adventures, so I forget you're doing work."

She has a point. So instead of writing about my adventures, I'm switching gears and writing about what it's like to be a Canadian student at a Japanese university. Jane, this one's for you!

In addition to studying Japanese five days a week, I am taking a variety of other classes, including one called "Japan in Charts and Tables." This does not accurately reflect the content of the class so I have privately renamed it, "How Japan is Going to Hell."

Every Tuesday afternoon, from 4:30 to 6:00, we learn about the various ways Japan is going to hell. The formula is always the same. Each class is devoted to one serious economic issue facing Japan. The professor takes us through a series of mind-numbing charts and tables (all of the data is in Japanese) to illustrate the severity of the problem and underline its causes.

In addition to bombarding us with charts and tables, the professor also hands out long lists of obscure Japanese vocabulary. Pages and pages of words I will never use and promptly forget.

Seriously, what's the point of learning the Japanese words for "crude steel," "appreciation growth," "detailed aggregative analysis" or "foreign currency exchange reserves?" I don't even talk about that stuff in English.

After the lecture, we break up into small discussion groups to solve the problem . . . in 10 minutes or less. (Here's a sample discussion question: "What should be done to balance the burden of medical expenses in Japan's aging society? Discuss especially from hospital management perspectives.")

Hospital management perspectives? The only perspective on hospital management I have is from watching Grey's Anatomy.

None of us are even remotely qualified to solve Japan's complex social issues. We're students, not government policy advisors. It is a credit to the professor -- who is keen and earnest and absolutely wonderful -- that he actually thinks we would have something worthwhile and intelligent to say.

Trying to get my discussion group to agree on anything is like herding cats. Because we all come from different countries, we all come at Japan's problems from different perspectives.

When discussing poverty, Seema from India refused to acknowledge poverty was a real problem in Japan.

When discussing unemployment and the slowdown of Japan's economy, Onika from Jamaica suggested that maybe Japanese people shouldn't work so hard.

Ricardo from Mexico can't speak English so he usually sits there not saying anything at all.

I tend to fall into the role of the peacemaking Canadian, who just wants everyone to get along. Our solutions to Japan's problems tend to be the same every week -- more government regulation is the basic theme.

We then present our solutions to the class while the professor furiously writes down all of our ideas. We suspect he is feeding our solutions to the Japanese government. We also suspect this whole "scholarship" thing is just a cover for the Japanese government to get some cheap international consulting. We're getting paid to solve Japan's problems. (I'm totally putting that on my resume.)

How Japan is Going to Hell is one of my favourite classes. The professor is incredibly intelligent. He is Japanese, speaks fluent English, has a PhD in economics and spends his spare time installing environmentally sustainable technologies in developing countries.

Plus, it's refreshing to hear about Japan's problems, especially from a Japanese person. Everyone else wants to talk about how wonderful and special this country is. How Japan has the best food, the most polite people, the most beautiful cherry blossoms, the most cutting-edge electronics, the most efficient trains, the cleanest cities. A lot of people believe Japan is perfect. Well, it's not. It's good and bad. Just like every other place on earth.

There you go, Jane. A little bit about what I'm really doing out here in Japan. So the next time you give a shout out to the students in the family, I hope you remember to include me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sex + Chicken = Christmas in Japan

The other day, the topic of conversation in my Japanese class turned to Christmas. Our teacher wanted to know how we celebrated Christmas in our home countries.

We talked about Santa and presents and lights and carols and food and eggnog and tinsel and TV movies and all of the things we think about when we think about Christmas.

"Do you know how we celebrate Christmas in Japan?" the Japanese teacher asked us. "We eat chicken and have sex."

She matter-of-factly explained that Dec. 24 is called "Holy Night" because that's the night young people rent hotel rooms (on their parents' dime) and have sex. She told us her own son is desperately trying to find someone to spend a very unholy night with. He has been going to singles' parties three times a week in order to find a girl he can unwrap on Christmas Eve.

However, the "Sexy Christmas" concept is only for young, single people. Everyone else simply celebrates Christmas by eating chicken. Which probably has less to do with the availability of turkey and more to do with the size of ovens in most Japanese homes.

Basically, we learned that Christmas in Japan has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with sex and chicken. It is refreshing to see a non-Christian country celebrating a Christian holiday in a most unchristian way.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Protecting The Great Bear Rainforest

One of my favourite bloggers, Darren Barefoot, is working with a coalition of conservation groups to help save British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.

When Darren emailed me to ask if I would consider promoting their efforts on my blog, I said yes right away. Protecting one of the world's last great wilderness areas is a cause close to my heart.

I have spent a lot of time hiking, camping, kayaking and canoeing in British Columbia's beautiful backcountry. The value of these wild places is not something you can put a price tag on. You can bulldoze a forest for short-term economic gain, but once it's gone, it's gone. The loss is incalculable.

The campaign to protect the Great Bear Rainforest is called Keep the Promise. It focuses on a B.C. government agreement to protect almost 2 million hectares of land on the B.C. coast by March 2009. Darren does a good job of explaining it so I've simply cut and pasted his email below.

Here are the details:

The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest tract of intact coastal temperate rainforest left on Earth. It comprises over 77,000 square kms--about the size of Austria. It's home to three kinds of bears (grizzly, black and kermode), six million migratory birds, 3000 genetically distinct salmon stocks and many species of plants unique to the region.

Two years ago, the province of British Columbia committed to protecting this region under a new conservancy. All the stakeholders--the provincial government, logging companies, First Nations and environmentalists--agreed to a new approach to resource planning, and committed to its implementation by March 31, 2009.

While some progress has been made, BC must still initiate a regional plan to ensure conservation of these critical ecosystems. With the March 2009 deadline fast approaching, we're running a campaign to help secure the fate of The Great Bear Rainforest.

Individuals can send a message to the government of British Columbia, urging them to keep their promise to concerned citizens in BC and around the world by signing an online petition.

We've also made a two-minute video that you might want to check out. And we just launched a photo contest on Flickr.

Cheers. DB.

The campaign needs all the support it can get, so please join in! Do it for the bears (the real ones, not the gummy ones).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Autumn in Kyoto: Part II

Three weeks ago.

Three hours ago.

It is strange to be on the cusp of fall with Christmas just around the corner. The timing is all wrong. Snow, not leaves, should be falling from the sky.

It is beautiful, though. Tourists from every corner of Japan have come to Kyoto just to see the changing leaves. They really are that spectacular (the leaves, not the tourists).

Leaf viewing can be a bit of a gong show. You have to share the experience (and the trains and the shops and the restaurants) with hundreds of thousands of Japanese tourists madly snapping pictures of absolutely everything. It takes away from the natural beauty and the quiet serenity of the parks and gardens. But, at the same time, it's nice to share an appreciation for the simple beauty of a fiery red maple leaf with other people.

I wonder how my pictures would turn out if I bought a fancy digital SLR camera instead of using this cheap, little point-and-shoot camera. Japan would be a good place to invest in a real camera and learn how to take pictures properly. I certainly wouldn't be out of place walking around with a huge camera strapped around my neck in these parts.

Speaking of people walking around with huge cameras strapped around their necks, my friend Kathleen and I were approached by an old timer who wanted to know where we were from (I've said it before and I'll say it again, the old guys love me out here. I swear, if you are single and in your 70s, Japan is the place to be). He seemed really happy and excited to talk to us. He even gave us copies of photos he had taken (which we are holding in the picture below). I think he may have been drunk.

It was fun taking in the fall colours with Kathleen. And not just because it meant I got to spend the weekend with a girl I met on the internet (I love how dubious that sounds). Kathleen and I have been reading each others' blogs for years so when we finally met in person, it felt like we already knew each other. Or, as Kathleen put it, it felt like we were catching up rather than getting to know each other.

We also tested out Japan's famous "anti-hangover drink." I don't know what is in this drink exactly, but everyone swears up and down that if you drink it before you drink alcohol, you will not get a hangover.

We downed one little bottle each on Saturday night. I am happy to report that we woke up bright and early on Sunday morning hangover-free. However, I suspect this has less to do with the magical potion and more to do with the fact that we didn't drink very much alcohol.

That little anecdote really has nothing to do with fall. I just wanted to post the picture of us posing in the drugstore. I like the story behind the photo. We bought the anti-hangover drinks and decided to ask the pharmacist to take our picture. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to ask of a pharmacist. But she played it straight. She didn't bat an eye. She didn't crack a smile. She simply took our photo like she was filling a prescription. I wonder what she was really thinking.

Returning to the original spirit of this post, I leave you with one last picture of fall before all of the leaves turn to mush.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Layer upon layer of absurdity

Life is absurd. But my life seems extra absurd these days.

Last week, a BBC radio producer in Ecuador emailed me out of the blue. She said she had read my blog post about my recent pilgrimage to Obama, Japan, and wanted to interview me about my visit.

I wrote back and said I would be happy to talk about it. We arranged a mutually convenient time for a simple interview. Or for what I thought was going to be a simple interview.

When the producer called at the designated time, she asked me to hold the line for a few minutes before she patched me through to a live talk show. A live talk show? Now? I started to panic.

She explained that I was going to be on a South American-wide evening talk show and that the hosts would ask me questions in Spanish. She reassured me that the questions would be translated into English, and my answers would be translated into Spanish. So there was nothing to worry about.

And just like that, with no advance warning, I was thrown into the middle of a live BBC talk show. In Ecuador. From Kyoto. On Obama. In Spanish. Absurd doesn't even begin to describe the experience.

The hosts (a very lively duo, whose names I forget) asked me lots of questions about Obama. What was it like? What kind of town is it? What do the people of Obama the town think about Obama the man?

My favourite part of the show was when they asked me if I had heard the song "Obama is Beautiful World," which was recorded and produced by the "Obama for Obama Support Group." I told them that not only had I heard the song, but that I was lucky enough to have had a private listening of the CD with none other than the president of the Obama Support Group himself.

They asked me to recite a few of the lyrics, if I could. I told them this was tricky. The song is written in Engrish so the lyrics don't make a lot of sense. It's better to listen to the meaning behind the words. So I talked about how the song meant that the world would be a better place with Barack Obama in power. Or something like that.

It was at this point in the interview when the absurdity of the situation hit me. Here I was, sitting in my apartment in Kyoto pontificating about a Japanese town that accidentally shares its name with the next president of America on a live BBC radio show out of Ecuador when I should have been in class studying Japanese, which is something I am actually getting paid to do.

My life at that moment seemed buried under layer upon layer of absurdity. But that's exactly the way I like it.

The more absurd things get, the happier I am.