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/
“The hardest part about doing social work is trying to make poor children’s families understand that there is a future in education. If they work on the streets doing child labor then they will not be able to study. I go to villages, forests and the slum areas and try to convince parents that education is more profitable. When the children don’t want to work then we teach them dance, cricket or soccer. Both play and education is important. And a lot of the time when they come into the classroom, their mind gets changed on its own.”
“Perfect happiness entails being peaceful with myself first. If I am peaceful with myself, I will be peaceful with other people. And whenever I’m peaceful with other people I will be able to serve them. For me, serving humanity is a divine calling. I’m a Christian and I have this strong conviction that when you serve others, you are serving God”
“My whole world view changes by my mood. And it’s really quite bad. But the way I am now has kind of been where I’ve stayed after a lot of emotional mayhem. I was an individual who felt a lot and couldn’t help it. I would feel myself into paralysis. My idea of perfect happiness could only be achieved at a Zen level of spirituality. I still hold some of those ideals, they still shape me and my actions. But I found out that I needed to be much more pragmatic and that even if I was a Zen master the rest of the world would still be operating somewhere else. So I decided that it would be more effective to use bits and bobs from spirituality in order to become the most effective person or participant in the society that is in front of me.”
“I live in a place in NZ which is wrapped by the beach. Both my parents have a huge environmental focus. Moms a marine biologist and my Dad’s spent time working for national geographic as an underwater archeologist. So I feel like I’ve grown up as a part of the ocean. My mom introduced me to a natural reserve down the road from where I live. She had me taking photos and helping out with local conservation projects. It was at a time where there was a process of giving that land back to Maori people. So foundations were being put in of Kaiteki responsibility which pretty much means guardianship of the land and keeping it there for future generations. On the land there’s quite a lot of bird life-penguins and albatross’s. I’m not huge on religion but the environment is my spirituality. I feel like I greet a greater power when I see the albatross fly or see the penguins come home at night. I started at the reserve at a young age and I’ve seen how it’s been changing throughout my life. Now it’s kind of starting to dawn on me that I need to share this experience with other people because not enough is being done.”
“I’ve never felt oppressed because of my gender. My parents suggest me to be independent than to depend on a husband. So I really believe in individual power. However, you can’t believe this if you are under different circumstances or in a society that doesn’t allow women to be independent. I used to feel that politics has nothing to do with my life. Political protests? I can’t believe that people are killed for this. If I was in Ukraine or Egypt I would participate in those revolutions because they need a bright future. I don’t want to live a life where you can’t have any positive goal. Japanese people don’t know what’s happening in government. I guess…they don’t question it because it’s good when you compare it to other countries. This protest demonstration happened a few years ago when the prime minister suggested a change in the constitution people didn’t like. I remember my social studies teacher being so impressed how young people would go to the building of parliament and say “no” because that’s never happened before.”
“Since we were in elementary school, Japanese people tend to have similar opinions. So it was a hard time when people ask me “What’s your thoughts?” Every other PY have their original strong opinion so it’s hard to think “What about me? What am I thinking?” Before I came to SWY, I just wanted to visit and work for other countries. When I communicate with local people in NZ, Vanuatu and Fiji, the local people were very kind to us and I feel their warm heart. I was really appreciative to those countries. But many people also talking to me about Japanese being very nice. On the ship I talk a long time with some PY’s and realized that I learn more about Japan from them. I thought Japanese was very shy, quiet, and boring because they tend not to speak out a lot but…how do I say…some OPY told me that the most interesting delegation is Japan and I was really happy to hear such a thing. This is a very good opportunity to think about my own country.”
“In Kenya 2011, there was a belief that if you take an albinos private parts to a witch doctor, it will make you rich. So a lot of people come to albinism organization and cheat you-they come and say they’ll give you a job and then they will sell you for 20 million in Kenyan money. So all albino people had to stay together. Personally I work with the other. I want to spend time with ordinary black people so I can know what they are doing. To prove them wrong and show them that it’s not a disability. I can do everything they can do and I can even do it better. One thing that inspires me the most is when people accept that I’m albino but yes, I can do this. Even talking to girls in Kenya. Sometime she’ll be like “He’s an albino? No I can’t talk to him” when you go approach her and she ignores you and that’s it. But there’s another time when you go to a party and lots of girls come up to you and want to know where you’re from and want to talk to you more. So it’s 50/50. When I see someone who wants to know more about me, that empowers me the most.”
“In theory you can say that there is unconditional love but in the practice, I don’t think it’s that simple. You don’t have the intention to ask something in return but I think you’re always expecting something back. But that’s not bad. I think what’s more important is that everyone is capable of giving love. Because sometimes people lose the capacity to give and receive love. They don’t really get the definition of love. My definition? I have had many definitions throughout the years but for me, it is seeing the best and worst of someone and still appreciating them. But it’s more than chemistry. When people say they fall in love and feel butterflies, I think probably they are just hungry. I think real love is related to a decision. Almost like you kind of decide to love, something like that.”
“When times are stressful, I go by myself, just stay in the ocean for a few hours and then everything seems to calm down. Then when I come back home it seems like my problems are not as big as I thought they were. It clears my mind. How does it feel to be inside of a wave? Oh my god, I think it’s the best feeling. Once you catch a wave, you’re hooked. It’s like a feeling of freedom and fun at the same time. And there’s lots of different aspects to it. It can be like a very sunny day with a beautiful sky but it can also be more of a stormy day with wind blowing and then you can feel the presence of nature and how powerful it can be. Surfing has given me the opportunity to travel. I try to do at least one surf trip every year. I’ve been to places like Peru and Costa Rica and El Salvador just for surfing. Right now it hurts to look at the ocean and not be in it, especially here in Fiji because it’s such a wave paradise. The schedule is too tight. But also, I’m glad because it gives me a reason to come back.”
“When I was in university, I volunteered with an orientation program. The idea was to help new student’s transition into university life. One of my happiest moments was at the end of school when the students would come up to me and thank me for the support. Even now, when I run into them on the street, there’s that instant connection that comes from being a pillar for them throughout their experience. Right now, my biggest struggle is determining what my priorities are and what I want to do moving forward. Working in finance can be fulfilling in certain aspects but I feel as though I’m not helping people to the most of my abilities. I think it’s a very small niche of people that we work with and I feel as though there’s more that I can do that caters more to my personality type and my strengths. I don’t necessarily know what industry that is. It’s been a little bit of a journey of self-discovery and I was really going into SWY with that openmindedness, hoping I could find inspiration from other people and I definitely have.”
“My greatest fear is being alone. I was dating this guy that was way older than me. The sex was amazing and we were actually very serious. Thing is, I was so afraid because he was 13 years older that he would probably die before me. That relationship ended. How? Uhm… so I got deported from the United States. I’m not allowed go back because they accused me of working there but I never actually did. I had a credit card and I tend to say things that don’t make sense when I get stressed so because of the pressure, I answered some questions falsely. He didn’t want to move to Brazil because he doesn’t speak the language. Colombia was the last time we travelled together. And I knew that he kind of wanted to end it so I just manned up and said that we should just go back to being friends because I won’t be able to go back the states for a while. Sometimes I still think about it. I remember me crying in the airport and random flashes come to my head. Right now, I feel like I’m getting in the way of my happiness. I totally overthink sometimes and have problems trusting people. I used to very romantic. I think I might have lost some of my happiness in romance.”
“I’d tell my younger self to accept yourself now, not later. Because I got to learn that the hard way and when I did, it changed a lot of things. I have this scar…it’s from a big surgery that ended 2 years of suffering. I couldn’t diagnose the case because it was so misleading. Doctors kept being confused all the time about symptoms. I took so many wrong medications and I spent years not satisfied with how I looked, not getting enough nutrition no matter how hard I tried to plan that to happen because the food was not digestible. When I was sick, I was skinnier than I am now. All the guys were working out. I was into a lot of other interesting things and had achieved a lot but I wasn’t enjoying it because I allowed this to get into my head. My mother-she’s a fantastic person, a leader by nature. But her biggest insecurity comes from all the times when she was bullied for her weight and you can feel it when she talks about it. I grew up seeing that in my mother and when you see a person for their full being that she or he is, you want them to see themselves that way too. But they still have that big insecurity they are not able to fend off. And I’ve seen this in myself. It’s hard because it’s always influenced by culture and by family pressure sometimes. But people look so really beautiful inside and out when you feel they’ve removed that barrier and they’re being their natural self.”