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Looks can be deceiving – On being Asian in Japan

14 Nov

(This was originally written a while back for an editorial piece. However it did not really fit into the requirements, due to the general style and structure of the writing. Hence, it’s up here instead – for friends and family!)

“Is that your water bottle?” My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) asked, gesturing towards the turquoise David’s Tea tumbler on the table.

“Yes,” I responded.

“It’s… very nice.”

The exchange seemed normal enough till I found out that it is not customary for teachers to drink water during their classes. I guess it’s another one of those things to add to the “Only in Japan” list; a list that all foreigners start when they come to Japan.

Call it whatever you may, it exists.

Some lists bear striking resemblances, others differ greatly.

For example, I am a Canadian of Chinese ethnicity who grew up in Singapore and I’ve had conversations with my non-Asian friends who speak of experiences foreign to me.

I have never had someone stare at me as I walked down the street. I don’t feel like I’m an unidentified alien when I walk to the grocery store. Nor do I get surprised looks when I greet people with simple Japanese phrases.

In that respect, some might be tempted to think that Asians have it easy in Japan. However, like any issue that has to do with identity and appearances, that is only one side of the coin. When I first applied for a position on the JET programme to teach in Japan, I did so with initial trepidations due to my Asian heritage.

Would I be what the teachers and students in Japan were looking for?

See, I lived in Vancouver where there’s a diverse community of Caucausians, Aboriginals, and Asians who proudly proclaim themselves Canadian. Before arriving in Japan, my work in the University of British Columbia involved interaction with international students on a daily basis. There, I was exposed to students with varied backgrounds and was conditioned to think without having preconceived notions of individuals. Yet, with all that training, in addition to my background growing up in a culturally-diverse society, I am not spared from judging others by their appearances.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to me that in the eyes of the Japanese public, I must be Japanese since I look it.

When I first started teaching, students greeted me in Japanese and continued to do so even after I had been introduced to the school as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). Teachers at my school told me they first thought I was a new Japanese Teacher. In fact, every single person I’ve met in Japan has immediately assumed that I am Japanese.

Yet, without a doubt, I betray my ‘gaijin-ness’ with more than just my broken and sorely-lacking Japanese.

There’s a Uniqlo right in my neighborhood that I frequent. The first time I tried on a dress, I did what any Canadian would do, step into the changing room. On a whim, I peeped out of the changing room before closing the curtains. My eyes went from the horrified look on the sales representative’s face to the pairs of shoes that were outside the various cubicles.

Who would’ve guessed that the Japanese do not wear their shoes into fitting rooms???

Another time, a student came to me after having received her journal.

“What is wrong with this sentence?” she asked as she pointed at an underlined portion of her journal.

“Absolutely nothing, it’s great!” I said.

As I recounted this exchange to my supervisor, I learnt that in Japan, correct answers are marked with circles and wrong ones with checks.

What a great thing to find out, after already marking 280 of their journals.

Yes, I may look like one of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like the foreigner that I am.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully embrace looking Asian. I appreciate the chameleon-like ability it gives me to blend in. However, there is a danger that lurks when you start to believe the perceived reality that others have of who you are.

Take my situation for example: I look Japanese. People believe I am Japanese. I believe I am Japanese. (Sounds something like Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, maybe?)

So, maybe it’s not that simple.

There are other factors at play; the desire to embrace a culture and reflect one’s adaptability, for one.

If you have chosen to be in Japan for long-time work or studies, you likely relish the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture foreign to your own. Ideally, you would interact with it on your own terms. Realistically, you will be faced with situations you’d have never dreamed you’d encounter. Amongst difficult things like homesickness, fatigue, and stress, you may find yourself looking to be part of the community that you are so seemingly submerged in. Things that you’ve added to the ‘Only in Japan’ list start to become a commonality, possibly even a habitual trait of your own; an attempt to adapt and fit in, maybe? Or a genuine identification with culture?

Either way, for some this shapes and strengthens you. For others, this splits you in half. To the latter half of you, I say, “be wary.”

Take heed to find the balance between the fine line of adaptability and losing yourself.

The countless encounters I’ve had with the surprised looks and remarks about my not being Japanese did eventually take its toll on me. At one point, not being able to speak nor understand Japanese well made me feel highly inadequate as a person. Only when a friend remarked, “but, you speak English…” did I realize the need to consciously remind myself to put things into perspective…

So, whether you decide to add or delete things off your personalized ‘Only in Japan’ list, never, ever, let it diminish who you are.


Of Packing and Homes.

15 May

Since my last post on Boston, I’ve been wanting to give equal attention to New York and Montreal. However, in a mad rush of things, upon my arrival back to Vancouver, I’ve been caught up with packing.

Packing, of itself, may seem like a simple process of shoving things into boxes. However, friends who’ve observed me packing for Germany can be my witness, I have a tendency to pack and label my boxes accordingly. To make matter more complicated, this time, I have additional factors on my list as I separate my stuff into categories.

These categories include:

1. Stuff that I’m leaving in Singapore for my sister who starts her first-year experience in UBC in September

2. Stuff that I’m packing to bring with me to Japan

3. Stuff that I’m bringing back to Singapore

4. Stuff that I’m bringing back to Singapore to be shipped to Japan, via air or a visiting friend, at a later date

Some find packing a calming and luxurious activity.

Personally, I often find myself getting sentimental and teary-eyed. These events could be triggered, maybe by  an old t-shirt that I got at a youth camp some 10 years ago. Or by a bus ticket which I received when I met the nicest bus driver ever in Vancouver. Or by nail polishes that a past student gave to me when she returned to Korea…

Today, I rummaged through cards and letters – if you want to test the prowess of your tears, this is a sure winner.


These letters date back to as early as 2008.

As I paged through each envelope; some beautifully decorated, some humourous, with others bordering on offensive (like ‘aunty joy’ :p), it was as if I was swept through a myriad of memories, reliving key moments in my life, all in the mere hour or so it took to read through everything.

These memories made up what once was my home. Some would argue that it still is.

Regularly I’ve contemplated the idea of a ‘home’. I have written earlier posts about it, and have come up with the conclusion that home is wherever I am. In other words, I make the effort to create a home at each geographical location I am placed in by building up relationships, exploring places, partaking of food and experiences with others, thereby creating new memories.

Idealistic, maybe, but it is the only way I can reconcile the fact that I’ve moved so many times, am still on the move, and will probably continue to be ever-moving for a long while more.

If I really take the time to think about things (especially now that I can afford that time, with the lack of impending responsibilities and what-not), deep inside I’m conflicted between wanting to explore life, going on adventure after adventure, and wanting stability.

As I close the chapter of my life as a student at UBC and move to the next chapter, I can’t help but wonder if I will ever return to Singapore. This question, an honest question, eventually leads me to the conclusion that as I continue to put my trust and faith in a good God who’s plans are higher than mine, it is there that I will find stability.

Stability will be found no where else, not in a location, not in a person, and not even in a pug (sadly).

As of now, I am excited for the next immediate plans of working and living in Japan. When that chapter comes to an end, I will be looking forward to the next.

Maybe it will call for me to be in Singapore, maybe it won’t.

Each letter, reminds me of a person, which reminds me of an experience or experiences, which reminds me of my time in Singapore. Though I don’t see myself returning for good any time soon, and though I can sometimes feel anxious about the day that I might or might not return to SG for good, I know that the time I spent in Singapore, both the good and the bad, the relationships and the experiences, all remind me of God’s goodness and grace (:

In a not too far-off future, I look forward to a day, similar to today’s, where surrounded by boxes, I’d find myself sitting in a mess of cards and letters from those in Singapore and those in Vancouver, and I’d once again reminisce the goodness and grace of the One whose plans are beyond my wildest dreams or imagination.



Reaching Toward the Glowing Comfort

17 Apr

It was all dark when I realised that this was the start of my life. Confusion surrounded me, there was no place to go. Around me, the ground, it seemed to swallow me up.

Unexpectedly, I adapted. Time, a concept I came to be familiar with, passed. I grew; digging deeper, soaking in any cool, liquid goodness I could find.


A new sensation entered my senses. Warmth, heat. I tried to open my eyes, but could not. I could only barely sense it through top of my head. I wanted to grow closer to that warmth. It seemed pleasant. It gave me hope that the darkness I struggled through was not in vain.

Time continued to pass. I stretched further and further downwards. Reaching as low as I could go. The growth above and below was unequal. Despite unrelentlessly pushing myself forward, I felt my legs grow longer and stronger, but my eyes still saw black darkness. Limited in my options, I continued in what seemed like a mundanity.

Time, a concept that I started to lose track of, passed. I had forgotten for what purpose I pushed myself to keep growing. The darkness was my only comfort, the only thing I was familiar with.

Then, it came as a surprise.

It was painful, sharp, and blinding. My eyes, they were finally open. I remembered when I had first felt that tingling sensation of warmth. I looked above and found my new source of comfort. A round ball of glowing light.

Time, continued to pass. There seemed to be no room for me stretch out my legs. Was I stuck? Maybe, I did not need to stretch out further. Now, I could concentrate on stretching myself towards the warmth and push myself closer to its source.


I thought that there was no where to go except up. Yet, why does it seem like my head is falling closer to the ground rather than closer to the radiant ball of glowing warmth?


Something, something; it is pulling me away from my home. Stop, stop! It hurts. This place is all I know. I grew up in its darkness. The warmth that calms my heart is right there. What will I do if you rip me from the only things I know? Why do you try and halt my efforts to reach that comforting light?


Ah, I had fainted and am now awake. Where am I? My feet, they feel a familiar sensation. The same that I had felt when my life had just begun; cool, liquid goodness. This familiar sensation. Warmth. I open my eyes. There, glowing in the sky, my comfort and hope, the round ball of light. I stretch out my feet in relief… there is space? Space! Space for my feet to stretch out further than it had before. My life’s goal has not changed, as long as I am able to continue reaching forward, I will one day reach that comforting light.


Change is always scary. It can often be painful and confusing. It can also be crippling, causing you to settle, for what you may think is the best alternative.

The process is not easy. Just when you think you finally understand it all, you are shaken and uprooted from what has become familiar. However, if you persevere and allow yourself to go through the discomfort, you will find yourself in a better position for growth – whatever that growth may mean to you. You will then learn that it was only your own shortsightedness that kept you in a place of stunted growth. 


A Collared Life

10 Apr
Mao with his red flea collar

Mao with his red flea collar

A fluffy snowball caught my eye as the bus turned a corner. The cat stretched its back out on the porch of the house and seemed to pull a yawn of content as it soaked in the sunlight.

“Its owner must be so lucky to have such a ball of cuteness in its care”, I thought to myself.


A sign of belonging. It makes all the difference between a stray and an owned pet.

A sign of identification. That cat belongs to Mr. Winterland or Ms. Spring (yes, I’m excited for Spring).

I still remember when I bought a flea collar for ‘Mao’. It marked the day that we acknowledged adopting the black-and-white stray as our own.

Collars are not reserved for animals alone. You’d be surprised at how many of us don our own collars of identification…

1. Family Collar

  • Are you a son or daughter? Brother or sister? Father or mother?
  • Perhaps you identify with the responsibility or piety you have towards family that affects important life decisions

2. The Work Collar

  • Does what you do at work excite you? Or does work enter your thoughts so much that it torments you in your dreams?
  • Maybe you’re working towards reaching that next place in your job, or keeping an eye out for that unique opportunity

3. The Significant Other Collar

  • Your every move seems to coincide with the actions and plans of another person
  • Are you finding it hard to imagine life without him/her?
  • People associate you and him/her interchangeably as a single item (oh lookies, an unintended pun)

4. The One who Lives for Food Collar

  • Do you find yourself smiling most widely when presented with food? (A picture speaks a thousand words)
  • No work without food?
  • A typical conversation might go, “How’s your day?” “Not too good, I can’t decide what to have for lunch!”

5. The Student Collar

  • The writing never stops?
  • The reading keeps piling up no matter how much you do?
  • You’re goal is to finish that final final

So what collar are you wearing today?

Yay for stress-induced nonsensical blogposts that get churned out in between writing papers and studying for finals!

Milestones (not endorsed by restaurant of the same name)

9 Apr

Friend: “It’s the last two days of school!”

Me: “Nah, it doesn’t matter much to me anyway. I still have papers and finals. Until those are done, I don’t feel as if its over yet.”

Part of that burst of pessimism, from yours truly, stems in the fear of celebrating perceived successes too early. There’s always the nagging thought at the back of my mind that likes to whisper, “life is gonna turn around and bite you in the butt, just when you least expect it. Be on guard, be on guard.”

The other part of it is further away from pessimism, and closely connected with the concept of ‘saving the best for the last’.

It’s like when you eat a sunny side egg, and you work your way around the yolk. Carefully and intentionally scraping at the sides for every piece of egg white around it. Then, the finalé; when you pop that yolk of perfection, in all its wholeness, into your mouth, biting it as the precious yolk runneth over.

However, now that I think about it. Today marks my last day EVER, going to classes as an undergraduate student. True, I may still have responsibilities and tasks that lie ahead, but its unrealistic to think that there will ever be a day where I can celebrate accomplishing that one big life goal. After all, it’s human nature to reach for greater heights each time.

LIFE IS A JOURNEY – a widely referenced metaphors (information gathered from metaphor class, of course) – as such, that journey will have multiple check points, some more significant than others, but none insignificant.

My conclusion is that I should still celebrate the little milestones in life.

Every little victory is motivation to keep trudging forward.

The Waiting is Over…

7 Apr



This came in my inbox at 4.25pm this afternoon. Of course, I only see it at 11pm…

Fellow Canadian JET-to-be’s, look out for that email.

I’m so thankful that I’m finding this out on a Friday and need not fret over it on the weekend.

OKAY. OMGOSH. I KNOW THAT THIS IS SUCH A USELESS POST. BUT i’m like, really excited and happy and I can’t write properly. Gosh.

OKAY I’ll STOP HERE, for fear that I will bore all of you. AHHHHHHHHHHH


edit —

the above post was written on Friday, but I put off posting it for a few days 😉 Now I’m in a slightly better frame of mind to write more comprehensibly…

Before you ask me where exactly in Japan I’m to go.. as of now, I’m still unsure of the precise location. As mentioned in an earlier post, the JET Programme is a large organization, and as such I will have to wait till the end of May to find out.

Whats next? More exciting paperwork, of course!

I’m looking forward to making future posts on the adventures of a Vancouver JET newbie ❤

Shared Experiences

4 Apr

I find that what often gets people entangled in their emotions is the skewed perception that they are the only ones going through an experience. The belief that their situation is unique, and that they are all alone.

Would you not agree?

Think about a time when you were awfully stressed or anxious about a particular thing.

Actually, here’s one.

You’re stressed out over a paper.
You talk to your classmate, “how’s your paper going”.
“Oh, I have no idea where to start”, he goes.
“Me too!” you respond.

Then, what do you feel?

Relief, perhaps? Possibly stemmed in the fact that someone else shares similar emotions that are tormenting you and you’re not alone?

In any case, I choose to believe that I am at a point of my life where I am going through a bout of emotions that is shared by a rather large crowd:

1. The about-to-be-graduates

This category does not require much elaboration. I believe that many are looking forward to being done with their undergraduate degree, so much so that classes seem to be a drag and final papers a chore.

At the same time, stress levels should be pretty low.

Especially if you already have plans after graduation, like a full time job, or an acceptance to do your masters, or the education program (which seems to be the route that many of my fellow English Language majors are on), where your grades don’t seem to hold as much weight as they previously did.

As for those who have nothing planned after, I think you would oscillate between the anticipation of having nothing to do, and the anxiety of having nothing to do.

As for me, I oscillate between ALL those feelings. I kind of have something planned after graduation, but its all relative to other things, which mean I actually don’t have anything planned after graduation. I’m happy to be done, and relishing having no assignments and homework to think about, but also wondering about what my life will look like after exiting UBC.

That brings me to the second category…

2. The anticipating JET candidates

You might or might not already know this, but I applied for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme in November 2013. Yes, it was about 5 months ago. It’s a pretty extensive process (oh, you don’t say?) for an assistant language teaching position in Japan. I received an email late January notifying me of my passage to the second stage – The Interview. That took place in February.. and I’ve been waiting since to find out if I will be shortlisted.

The time has finally come, it’s April, when the emails/letters/pigeon mail start to stream in, letting candidates know of their acceptance or rejection.

So, as we enter the month of April… I choose to believe that many, like myself, not only started checking their inboxes/mailboxes/windows, but also googled things like “when do Canadians usually receive their acceptance into the JETprogramme?”

This might actually leave you feeling more anxious, especially when nothing turns up, and when the first link in the search engine directs you right back to the official JETprogramme Canada website.

Not very helpful.

Having said that, I guess this is the beauty of being a part of this process. It is such a long and extensive process, but guess what? Everyone else who applied and got through to the interview round, is having similar feelings. Not just those in Canada, but all around the world.

Oh, the beauty of applying to a large organization.

Thus, the waiting now continues.

The Colour White

28 Mar

The day I realised my first strand of white hair, I was incredibly excited.

It marked the beginnings of my entry into a shared experience with the older and wiser (??) group of human beings.

To date, there’s been two strands of white hair that would pop up noticeably on the top of my head. It amuses me. They seem to taunt me each time by growing faster and whiter each time I dispose of them.

“You will never get rid of us. We’re here to stay.”

A classmate recently told me that I shouldn’t pull them out by the roots. Apparently you damage the hair roots around it when you do that; promoting more hair loss.


Am I to be robbed of one of my favourite pastimes – the searching and pulling out of white hairs…?

Oh, and did I mention that the searchable count of white hair has increased from 2 to 3 strands?

The Aftermath

23 Mar

 What does it feel like to be graduating?

“Me, me! Ask me!” 


“I’m graduating in 2 months!”
A soon-to-be graduate can often be on a emotional roller-coaster ride.

On one day she might be excited to finally be done. On another, she might be stressed because there is uncertainty surrounding her future plans. The next, she might be depressed because she feels sure that stepping through the doorway of graduation is only the beginning; the beginning of the trek through life’s mundane messiness.

What does it feel like to be graduating?

Soon-to-be graduate: “Haha..”

Interrogator: “Why?”

Soon-to-be graduate: “…”

A half-empty bag of Old Town Hazelnut coffee.
Stacks of half-used post-it notes.
Piles upon piles of discarded notes.
More notes.
Cheat sheets from ENGL 229A – the course that pushed her in the direction of English Language.

The years, 5 to be precise, of her undergraduate life are coming to a close.

Questions and uncertainty lie ahead of this soon-to-be graduate’s life. She is excited, anxious, and scared.

Excited that she will be receiving a concrete piece of evidence of the accomplishment she spent half a decade on.

Anxious to find out the next direction her life will take.

Scared that her purpose in life will not be found.

Yet, she wills to keep choosing to put one foot in front of the other. Loving where each step, forward or backward, will take her. Enjoying what’s left of her undergraduate experience and looking forward to what the uncertainty will bring.

When time permits she will then set forth to achieve the following:

– piece together the necklace requested of her by her aunt
– create more calligraphy art pieces
– bake
– try out new recipes
– page through all the half-read books
– clear her wardrobe
– sort through her stuff and try to reduce her belongings to 2 luggages for ease of movement

Here’s to the last 12 days of school!

The Dreaming Cycles; what happens when you’re awake

8 Mar

The Dream Cycle1

I have a problem.

My problem is that I dream too much.

I dream for what seems like a second, only to realise that light has turned to night, and more than just a couple hours have gone by. I go through stages of what I would like to call the “dreaming cycle”, only to realise that I’ve gone full circle and possibly not moved an inch forward.

Stage #1: The Dreaming Dreamer


  • You’re inspired.
  • You sit through Creative Writing class when your professor shares with the class his experience with the publication process and immediately start making a mental checklist of things like where to submit your articles, catchy topic sentences…
  • You spend hours looking through calligraphy/graphic design pieces/videos/photos/articles, reasoning with yourself that you are simply getting inspired

Stage #2: The Driven Dreamer


  • You feel like anything is possible.
  • You’re out to conquer the world.
  • You have 10 things on your checklist and you WILL have all of them done by today

Stage #3: The Depressed Dreamer


  • The day is gone and you completed.. half of one of the things of your list. In other words, you completed nothing.
  • It’s been 4 months since your last blog post.
  • Everyone’s work seems better than yours, there’s probably not going to be anyone out there who will appreciate your art, or what you call art
  • You end up doing nothing all day, but yet you’re tired and mentally exhausted

Stage #4: The Deranged Dreamer


  • You’re mad
  • What are dreams anyway?!
  • My life is never going to amount to anything

Stage #5: The Defeated Dreamer


  • You have decided that its time to get your head out of the clouds and focus on the path ahead of you
  • School and work become a priority
  • You avoid the things that used to inspire you – tumblr/VIMEO/instagram/deviantart etc
  • When you do go onto any of these sites, you feel like everything is condemning you in the face and you’re reminded of your incompetence
  • …. oh wait
  •  look at that beautiful calligraphy work
  • HEY, I could do that to!!

Go back to stage one and repeat it all over again.

I can’t say that this stages happen in this order, or if they even happen at all.

I do think that my problem lies with my impatience and lack of perseverance, which is one of the reasons I’ve written this post. I want to remind myself of my acknowledgement of these weaknesses I have, and to hopefully see improvement in future years.

Now, if, I had everything in my control, this is how my ideal day would look like:

1. Wake up when my body decides its well-rested and not when my alarm clock rings

2. Indulge in training: Spiritual (reading the Bible and other books that are waiting to be read), Physical (exercising)

3. Create a calligraphy piece

4. Have an awesome photography shooting day, perhaps catch a pug or two

5. Actually, I would play with my pug

6. Make a video

7. Start and finish reading a new book

8. Write a blog post

9. Submit an article for any publication

10. Write a book from cover to cover and get it published

And there you have it, Joy’s perfect day.

Disclaimer: Enjoy this rant for what it is, but do realise that it is a rant, and an exaggerated one at that. It is heartfelt and honest, and hopefully to a certain extent, humourous, but I do have a grasp on reality – I promise.