I am supposed to be in the summary forum when I stumble into Satoshi-san in the library.
“Are you bored” he asks me.
“Just wandering” I reply. He’s seen me more than once in places I shouldn’t be. Bracing myself for a scolding, I contemplate pretending to be scared so he can confirm that I respect him and let me go about my business. Authority seldom want you to follow the rules, they just want you to follow their rules.
“You’re allowed to be bored. Just make sure the admin don’t see you” he says.
Taken aback, I nervously laugh.
“Not like there’s one right in front of me” I reply, hoping my candor doesn’t bite me in the ass. I feel somewhat bad for skipping classes but I don’t leave them feeling very satisfied. I’d rather sit on the deck and nod off to the ocean.

I want to interview Satoshi-san. I asked him earlier but he politely declined. I’m curious what he really thinks of us participating youth. Sometimes I notice him wearing a troubled expression that paints us as a bunch of no-good partiers that are wasting the Japanese taxpayer’s money. But his unwavering presence and constant helping hand prove otherwise. This moment is too opportune so I ask him again.
“Can I interview you”? I ask. This time he says yes.

I learn that the expression comes from anxiety, a constant nervousness that doesn’t fade no matter how many times he is on stage. He rehearses his English often, including the “no party” jokes. It’s tough for him because he knows how trivial and rudimentary many of the rules are. He bends them wherever he can, acting as a constant medium between admin and the participating youth, being stretched thin. I ask him how he takes care of himself. He doesn’t; if he allows himself to take a break he fears he will not have the strength to get back up.

When the interview is over he states that he is not going to take me back to the lecture hall as he should.
“I just hope you are maximizing your time, as that is what I wish for all participants on SWY to do” he says. My final interview is over. I thank him profusely, hoping it conveys that he helped me do exactly that.

***

Whenever Kevin and David crack jokes about happenings on the boat, it’s rare that I can recognize what they’re talking about. “Were you even on SWY?” is a line Kevin has jokingly thrown my way more than once. I often floated away to work on a project called Humans of SWY, adopted from HONY. My seat was empty during most seminars. My letter group would be running around, looking for me while I’d be scanning the couches in the library, the stairwell steps, and the lounge. This is what I spent a lot of my SWY journey doing. Checking all the nooks and crannies, coaxing stories out of their hiding places.

It made me feel so full. After interviews I would step out onto the fourth floor deck and stare at the vast blue, absorbing what had just happened. The ocean was my only witness to private moments of wonderment, awe, and spiritual rapture. When I asked with genuine interest, I was surprised how willingly the people I spoke to would shed their outer layers. At times, I hated that I couldn’t heal their pain. I was frustrated at my naivety, my first world ticks. I’ve lived a relatively pampered life. Desperately scouring my head for words of healing, I’d come up empty. I doubted the ability of language, a common feeling I’d been experiencing all of SWY despite being one of the few native-English speakers aboard.

I was reminded that people don’t want advice, they just want to be heard. Matt shared a quote in my Dialogue for Peace course that has grounded me countless times since it left his lips: Before trying to be understood, aim to understand. I remind myself that I am not some sort of savior; I am just me and the most I can do is hold space for people. Not just give them two minutes of my time and then disappear elsewhere. And when I listened to each person’s story, truly listened, I learned not only about them but about the world.

I learn that there’s no such thing as safe spaces in India. I laugh when an albino gleefully tells me how he milks his situation by dying his hair black to pull the European card because it helps him get girls. I learn how the innocent act of “sliding into DM’s” are derailing decades of cultural norms in Tonga. Girls are getting married before they are 20 because they are meeting the boys on Facebook. I learn that teachers in Brazil annually get paid how much I make a month at Canadian Tire. I learn about amazing individuals- the way they view Christ and their country, their rocky relationships with their parents and their opinions on love.

Stories are crafted when an individual selects what he or she wants to learn from of an experience. That’s why when someone would tell me that their story wasn’t interesting, I refused to believe them. Every person has a story and just because it doesn’t encompass a turbulent past does not mean it is not worth sharing. A favorite moment of mine was when I stood with a friend, peering over the dark blue ocean as he drunkenly shared what he thought the stars meant. I remember running into my cabin to grab my journal, desperate to write down the beautiful words before they melted through my fingers like liquid gold. The party tugged me back to the music as if my limbs were attached to translucent puppet strings. Soon enough, I was dancing, no words written down and the bag was only picked up at 3:30am when the night came to an end. But I can still remember his words. “Constellations don’t discriminate” he said. “Every time we make a wish we cast it into the sky and there appears a star. We look up and see our dreams and aspirations. We all dream of the same things. We all want the same things.” I thought of how all the stories I’d been hearing were so unique but played on universal themes. We all feel the same things, it’s only the intensity that varies.

A lot of my interviews sucked. I interrupted at all the wrong moments, asked deep questions before I took the time to build intimacy and unconsciously pushed the interview one direction by asking superficial questions. Listening is an art. But I did get better. I reached a depth I wouldn’t have thought possible with Japanese youth (JPY’s) despite the language barrier. The first conversation I had with one JPY told me that he was only on SWY because he wanted a vacation from his grueling job. When I interviewed him, I learnt that his parents couldn’t afford post-secondary education which is what propelled his dream of one day opening up a free school. I’m not sure why he opened up the second time around. Did I listen more attentively? Was he more comfortable, courtesy of the beers? Or was it because this time, I wasn’t invested in fitting him into an archetype?

Oh, the nuances of communication. How you can listen but only hear white noise because you are listening to reply, not to understand. How small talk can be excruciating but it is a much needed gateway. How my shitty sarcastic jokes during breakfast can make the JPY’s laugh and suddenly I feel light again, as if my hangover had evaporated. How when you ask questions with a spirit of genuine interest and compassion, people will open up to you. How creating a supportive culture breeds good stories. How the responsible thing to do when you are too tired to maintain that spirit is put the pen down, and take a break. Listening to a story requires holding space for someone, even if just for a few minutes.

To everyone who donated their time and were courageous enough to open up to me; this wouldn’t have happened without you. You showed me that in vulnerability lies strength and I was reminded over and over how great people don’t just happen. They are chiseled out of pain and perseverance. The threads of your stories have been interlaced with mine and I will carry them with me through time.

adronitis. n. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.

You can view the project in its entirety at  https://www.instagram.com/humansofswy/

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