Wherever you are coming from, however you got here, make yourself at home. 

This my sacred spot—a place I use to practice an affordable version of cognitive self-therapy. Here I attempt to articulate feelings and emotions, to explore and give shape to ideas, to challenge my own beliefs. 

You will find that things around here are kept deliberately simple. 

There is no grandiose plan for this site outside maintaining my own sanity. So don’t expect routine, much less structure. 

Sometimes I write in English, otras veces en español.

Sometimes I write three posts in a month. Sometimes months go by without a post. 

Sometimes posts are long and vivid. Sometimes I briefly long for vivid thoughts. 

I have only one ask of you, don’t leave your website/blog/product/service in the comments. There are no ads on this site for a reason. If you really believe I’ll find useful whatever it is you do, send me a private email. And, needless to say, be respectful with your comments.

Welcome to The Foreigner,

David R.

Do the opposite

Sendai, Japan 

Start at the end. 

Walk backward. 

There are many instances in life when doing the opposite pays off. 

This is one of those instances.

Day one of your PhD is the perfect day to start writing how it ends. 

Create a new file and name it “Final Dissertation”. Write a basic outline of the idea you have today of what your PhD could one day be. Much to my regret, most of the writing done in academia follows the same structure; so this should be fairly easy even without a precise understanding of what any of the chapters are about or will entail.

Once you have a rough outline, skip the intro and main chapters, you will fill those over time. Now it is time to write the conclusions. 

Describe how you envisage your thesis ending. Don’t rush, use your rigor and current viewpoint, and make it as detailed as you can today. Write it in the past tense as you would in your final dissertation: the experiments you did, the findings you made, the implications of your work, and your contributions. This is not just an exercise. This is your final dissertation.   

This isn’t about forcing the outcome. You know nothing at this point. You are just hypothesizing based on your current understanding of what your PhD is about. To imagine what your contributions might be from a place of partial ignorance will help you stumble upon questions that will be hard to think of a couple hundred papers deep into a topic. 

Starting your PhD by thinking, and consequently creating and purposefully educating yourself, instead of blindly consuming somebody else’s work, I believe, will set you off on the right foot.

This is the best chance you have to write the story of your PhD the way you want it to be. Let yourself wander. Be creative. No one is going to read this but yourself.

Write about how one of your findings shuddered an idea upheld by part of the academics in your field. Note what parts of your research ended up being published in a journal or presented at a conference. Imagine how the different aspects of your research, those that appeared independent and unrelated at first, connect in a perfect ending. Visualize the intricacy of years of research yet to be conducted.

As you write, think about the things that went wrong or that you struggled with, either due to personal or material limitations (i.e., motivation, money, time, mobility). Note them down. These should make up the list of things to avoid, your not-to-do list.

Be aware of the questions that keep popping up in your mind. The hows and the whys; these are your leads, your compass. These are the questions people struggle to find the most during their PhDs, when no one is around to ask for directions, and you seem to be facing the same void, over and over. Feel the excitement or vertigo that emerges within you with each new question. Note down the questions you feel most excited about. These should make up the main chapters of your dissertation, your to-do list.

Once you start reading, digging deep, and experimenting with some of the things you wrote about, you may find that your views on the topic have changed or the outcome no longer supports your initial hypothesis. This is the time to start filling the middle chapters. Use the initial conclusions and your new observations to describe what you have found and what has changed, why it is relevant, how it refutes or validates your early viewpoint, and how others can benefit from the process you followed and the outcome you obtained. 

Once you finish writing the conclusions of your thesis, step away, and look at it from a (metaphorical) distance. 

That is it. 

That is all you need to do to finish your PhD. There, in front of you, are the wrong decisions, the bad questions, the struggles, the frustrations, all the things that you should remove from the actions you will undertake in the next 3, 4, 5 years; all written there, in front of you. In the same place, you will find the good stuff, the excitement, the good decisions, the right questions.

Of course, many times you’ll need the experience to learn to differentiate between the two. But how different of an experience would it be if we took the time to imagine the good and the bad from our current perspective and planned to act upon it? How would it affect the outcome?

It turns out you could do the exact same thing about any other professional or personal endeavor.

For a change, just do the opposite.

The amazing photo on the cover was taken by Alex Fu, check Alex’ s work here.

Mentors of shouldn’t and mentors of should

Sendai, Japan

The mentors of shouldn’t are those voices that tell you to do or pursue the apparently irrational, the controversial, the uncommon. Sometimes you can also call them the mentors of must. They steer you toward the experiences you must try, the goals you must attempt to accomplish, the relationships you must build or break. Even if, most often when, common sense, friends and family tell you you shouldn’t. The mentors of shouldn’t are the ones you must listen to when you are not ready, when you fear the outcome, when you feel trapped. The mentors of shouldn’t are the storm you have to go through. 

The mentors of should, on the other hand, are the ones that help you navigate calm waters, guiding your boat after the storm have passed, bringing you safely ashore. They provide the insights you need on stillness, joy and fulfillment. They teach you how to find sturdiness within you after months of emotional and physical cataclysm. 

But you need the cataclysm.

Do you like the cover photo? Check Mikey Dabro’s amazing art here and here.

Donde nunca estuve

Sendai, Japón

Son las ocho de la mañana. El sol está ya en lo alto. Sin nubes que atenúen sus rayos, cuesta alzar la vista. Apenas se escuchan niños jugar o gente pasar. Tan solo se llega a escuchar el cantar de los pájaros y el susurro del viento al zigzaguear entre las ramas de los árboles. Es una de las cosas que me enamoran de este lugar. Si cierro los ojos, aunque únicamente sea un segundo, puedo estar en cualquier sitio. Y en días buenos, puedo ser cualquier persona.

No te voy a engañar, de vez en cuando, de lo lejos emana el ruido de una ciudad que despierta. Mi viaje matutino se ve interrumpido inevitablemente for el siseo de los coches al pasar, eléctricos en su mayor parte. Es un murmullo constante, tenue, que tan solo se ve distorsionado por alguna motocicleta o alguna ambulancia camino del hospital.

Pero los pájaros y el viento se escuchan más cerca y más fuerte. Cerrando los ojos y acariciando la madera de la mesa sobre la que escribo mi mente se traslada incesante a lugares donde nunca estuve, o quizás estuve pero no recuerdo.  

Qué verde es todo aquí, pienso ahora que mis ojos empiezan a acostumbrarse a la luminosidad del ambiente. Que entorno más perfecto, el japonés, y a su vez que sociedad y que naturaleza tan rota. A veces me da por pensar que los terremotos que tan a menudo afectan al país no son más que una representación tangible de todos los problemas sin resolver, el derrumbe artificial de la torre de naipes de las cuestiones que penden de un hilo, los problemas que de forma magistral la sociedad japonesa ha aprendido a barrer bajo la alfombra. Y es que nadie mira para otro lado tan bien como un japonés. 

Pero de nada sirve ignorar la tierra que tiembla bajo nuestros pies. La naturaleza hace de las suyas mientras nos limitamos a aferrarnos a lo primero que aparente solidez. Evitando a otras personas optamos por cobijarnos bajo el arco de una puerta o una mesa, o así dictan las recomendaciones. 

Con el tiempo me he dado cuenta que con los terremotos, como con los problemas sin resolver, rara vez optamos por seguir las recomendaciones. Cuando a nuestro alrededor el mundo se tambalea la mayoría de nosotros miramos atónitos, impasibles, vulnerables; aguardando los segundos en los que la naturaleza parece decidir entre la anécdota y la tragedia. 

Afortunadamente son contadas las ocasiones en las que se decanta por lo segundo. Pero cuando lo hace, rompe familias, desmantela ilusiones, y quiebra países enteros. Lo mismo ocurre con las cuestiones sin resolver, los miedos que debimos afrontar, las frases que no supimos decir. 

Creo que voy a volver a cerrar los ojos. Aunque tan solo sea un segundo. Y viajar a todos esos lugares que quizás no existen y donde, tal vez, jamás estuve.

Cover photo by Ajai Mantri. Check him out!


Sendai, Japón

Se avecina una pandemia. 

Una pandemia más contagiosa que el SARS-CoV-2 y más letal que la COVID-19. Una pandemia conocida, habitual entre personas de toda clase y condición, para cuya cura no existe vacuna y los tratamientos escasean.

Me explico. 

En lo que a las redes sociales se refiere, me considero un mero oyente. En el pasado he participado de forma esporádica en esto del postureo. Como a la mayoría, me agrada sentirme escuchado y a mis neurotransmisores parecen seducirles de forma preocupante los corazones y los likes. Pero al cabo de un tiempo lo enmascarado de todo el asunto acaba por diluirme las ilusiones y regreso casi cabizbajo a mi puesto de vigía del comportamiento colectivo.

Pues bien, en estos días en los que el mundo se recoge en sus casas he observado patrones de comportamiento que, cuanto menos, me llaman la atención. Resulta que lo trending ahora es la filosofía. Una filosofía de tintes estoicos que llama a la reflexión y a la introspección, que plantea la opulencia como el enemigo público número uno, añadiendo valor a los aspectos más fundamentales de la vida, y planteando las dificultades más inmediatas como oportunidades latentes. Observo a clarividentes vaticinando que, cuando todo esto termine, cuando la soledad se apague y broten de nuevo de vida las calles, emergerán del confinamiento siendo mejores personas, despreciando materialismos, y valorando todo eso y a todos aquellos que sin saber cómo habían olvidado. 

Yo les veo, les escucho, y les leo. A algunos incluso admiro. Pero no les creo. 

Empatizo con ellos. Sus ideas me conmueven y las posibilidades, he de confesar, me ilusionan. Coincido con muchos en ver la solitud impuesta de estos días como una oportunidad, un privilegio del que no todo el mundo dispone. Una oportunidad para echarle el freno a esta vida que a algunos nos venía dando tumbos sin control desde hace ya un tiempo. Para dar cuenta de todo aquello que dábamos por sentado. Para reforzar, retomar, e incluso a veces reconducir aquellas relaciones y hábitos que habíamos olvidado. Hasta aquí, todo perfecto.

Pero hay una parte de mí que no puede dejar de comparar la situación actual con aquellas en las que uno es testigo de un accidente de coche o aquellas otras en las que uno recibe la noticia sobre la enfermedad de un amigo. Instantes posteriores en los que nos aferrados con ambas manos al volante, la mirada tensa y atenta a la carretera, vigilantes. Instantes en los que nos preocupamos por la salud y atendemos al bienestar de los que nos acompañan; lamentando todas esas conversaciones que jamás tuvimos, conscientes de la fragilidad de la vida propia y lo doloroso de la ausencia de la vida ajena. Un sentimiento que he visto durar minutos en el primer caso y unos pocos días en el segundo. 

Y es por esto que no me fío de las reflexiones inertes. No me trago la meditación exagerada de la que se hacen eco las redes. Sé que en gran medida el problema es mío pues inevitablemente acojo las tendencias sociales con el mismo miedo con el que se alimenta mi introversión. Al fin y al cabo, qué decir cuando son miles o millones los que escuchan.

Pero observo el panorama y no puedo evitar preguntarme cuánto tardaremos en volver a maldecir la lentitud de los servicios sanitarios, la imprudencia de los transportistas, la inoportunidad de los servicios de limpieza, el desaliño de los obreros, o la dejadez de las cajeras. 

Me pregunto cuántos de estos jaraneros rehabilitados continúan pagando las tasas a sus paseadores de perros, a sus limpiadoras, o a sus jardineros, aunque estos días no necesiten o no puedan hacer uso de sus servicios.

Me pregunto cuántos han dejado de descargarse ilegalmente películas y series y libros para empezar a valorar el trabajo que mucha gente hace con el fin de entretenernos. 

Me pregunto cuántos dejarán de imponer sus carencias a profesores y educadores. 

Me pregunto cuántos dejarán de disfrazarse de salvadores de la humanidad desde sus cuentas de twitter y empezarán a preocuparse por conocer primero el nombre de sus vecinos.

Me pregunto cuántos realmente aprenderán a apreciar lo bonito del silencio entre tanto ruido. 

Me pregunto cuándo volverá a sacudirnos la pandemia del olvido.

Thanks to Rahul Pandit for the amazing artwork of the cover. More of his work here and here.

Lo que de verdad importa

Katwijk, Países Bajos

Me encontraba hace un momento paseando por la playa de Katwijk, en uno de esos atípicos días de marzo en los que el sol se digna a salir.

Paseaba a solas persiguiendo mi sotavento. El viento, siempre álgido y recio en estas latitudes, no dudará lo más mínimo en lacerarte el semblante si se siente amenazado. 

Hoy me apetecía pensar. Caminar y pensar. Dos de esas aficiones mías que el mundo de este siglo parece empeñarse en censurar. 

Después de un tiempo caminando y ya con la retaguardia de las orejas enrojecidas por el frío, decidí sentarme en una terraza. Una de esas muchas alineadas a lo largo del eje que divide el fin del monte bajo del comienzo de la playa, una característica muy típica del paisaje de por aquí. Me senté en una mesa de madera arrinconada a resguardo del viento entre mamparas de cristal. Desde allí, el sol, tímido y tenue, me templaba el perfil con suficiente intensidad como para aliviar los efectos del viento, y al frente entre las mamparas aún podía divisarse la mar. 

Una joven morena de ojos cristalinos, inocentes e indomables, piel clara y mejillas sonrojadas seguramente a voluntad del viento, se acercó hacia donde yo estaba. Le pedí un té — Verde está bien— le dije. Me sonrió, yo asentí pudoroso, y se fue. 

El té llegó al cabo de un tiempo junto con la misma sonrisa que momentos antes se había marchado. Y fue entonces, ya con el té sobre la mesa, una ligera brisa rebotándome en la frente, el sol ligeramente abrazado a mi costado, y el Mar del Norte brotando en el horizonte cuando empecé a escribir. 

Escribo en esta libreta en la que odio escribir. Es una libreta pequeña de unos quince o veinte centímetros pero de anillas tan grandes que hacen imposible escribir a gusto. Aún incómodo, en ella escribo casi a diario porque me la regaló mi mujer. En ella, y a veces para ella, escribo lo que pienso y lo que me gustaría dejar de pensar. 

Entre línea y línea, oteo el horizonte y doy pequeños sorbos al té que me hace compañía. Me psicoanalizo de lejos y el verme me ayuda a pensar. 

En la felicidad pienso, como tantas veces antes. Un tema convertido ya en una especie de desorden crónico para mí.

Después de años de sordos debates conmigo mismo, la conclusión a la que he llegado es que la felicidad son pequeños regalos que otorga el tiempo a aquellos que se atreven a rodearse de gente sin miedo amar de cerca; de esa gente que ama fuerte, sin piedad, que ama hasta hacerte sentir vulnerable. Conozco un palmo de esta gente. 

La felicidad es, o parece ser, el producto de encuentros esporádicos; es un momento, a veces segundos, en los que uno se da cuenta de qué es lo que de verdad importa. Y estos momentos rara vez se olvidan. 

Felicidad es para mí, en el hoy y el ahora, cerrar los ojos y que la brisa, el olor a sal, el azotar de las olas contra mis pensamientos, y el tintineo de la salida de humos del bar me recuerde al entrechocar de cuadernales. Y que todo esto me retrotraiga a tantos momentos que en puertos del levante español pasé de niño, y no tan niño, paseando de la mano de gente sin miedo a amar de cerca. 

Felicidad es la sonrisa de la camarera cuando imagino que me la dedica a mí. O cuando sin cerrar los ojos fantaseo que encuentro el valor suficiente como para decirle que en realidad escribía sobre ella. 

Suspiro a media sonrisa mientras pienso en lo absurdo del debate interno, a la vez que imagino convencerte a ti, el lector, de que de verdad sé lo que digo cuando digo que sé lo que de verdad importa. 

Le doy un último sorbo al té, ya frío de oírme pensar, cierro el cuaderno de anillas grandes y reflexiono sobre la posibilidad de volver a casa. 

Esa casa donde vive la gente que sabe lo que de verdad importa. 

Sebastian Voortman took the photo of the cover. Check his work here and here.

Barco ardiente

Katwijk, Países Bajos. 

Son las 4:53 de la mañana. No puedo dormir. 

Desde hace un tiempo no paro de perder el sueño. Un sueño que se desvanece cuando pienso en qué se ha convertido mi vida. Me pregunto cómo he llegado hasta aquí, un pueblo pesquero del nordeste holandés, durmiendo sobre un delgado colchón echado al suelo por miedo al crujir de las lamas del somier al moverme. En la habitación, únicamente mi cara está iluminada por el teléfono con el que traduzco pensamientos para combatir el insomnio.

Como he dicho, últimamente me muevo mucho; especialmente de noche. Desde hace ya un tiempo, mi subconsciente se divierte situándome en la posición de un mero acompañante mientras él, minucioso y brutal, analiza lo que ha sido y es mi vida. 

Me veo, de lejos, y no me gusto. 

Pero esto no es nuevo, pienso. La mente que tantas alegrías me concede, me atormenta por momentos a partes iguales. 

Me veo de lejos y veo a un hombre preocupado y vulnerable. Preocupado por las decisiones, preocupado por las opiniones, y preocupado por estar siempre preocupado. Veo un hombre vulnerable, abrumado por las opiniones de amigos y familiares. Un hombre atormentado incluso por las opiniones de muchos para quienes con total seguridad pase inadvertido. 

Me veo de lejos y veo un hombre con miedo a preguntar ¿me quieres? por si la respuesta es no. 

Qué mente esta que me hace testigo de las emociones más intensas y a su vez dueño de las noches más oscuras. 

Me veo de lejos y veo un hombre cauteloso. Digo hombre por vanidad, por iluminar ligeramente la gruta emocional en la que me encuentro. Porque si soy sincero lo que de verdad veo es a un niño. Me miro de lejos y veo al mismo niño que con 12 años ocultaba sus infortunios y tapaba las lágrimas bajo las mangas de un jersey de lana gruesa; de esos tejidos por abuelas norteñas para rehuir al frío y revestir las emociones. Gracias a Dios o al azar nací hombre y un carajo le importa a nadie mis desperfectos, los de dentro ni los de fuera.  

Veo un niño que camina despacio, navegando cauteloso las aguas de una vida en donde la confianza, como en la mar, se paga cara. Un niño con miedo a susurrar lo que piensa, aunque las entrañas griten hasta retumbar el bazo.

Me veo de lejos y me veo triste. Y la imagen me apena. La más afortunada de las vidas y la más amarga de las sensaciones. —¡Maldito desgraciado!— me grito, en bajito. Otra vez esa voz, interna, familiar, mi voz. Me pregunto si cambiaré algún día. Y no me refiero al yo visible, sino al yo detractor que aparece en duermevelas, el acompañante inquieto que analiza mi vida desde el innegable cobijo que proporcionan los sueños. El yo al que le cuesta disfrutar por congraciar a unos y a otros. El yo que pasa la vida amarrado a un muelle esperando a que pase la tempestad; pero que aún con la mar en calma, se aleja tan solo un palmo del noray. 

Me veo de lejos y veo a un niño que duerme del lado del corazón para ayudar a la gravedad a abrazarlo con fuerza. 

Me veo de lejos y me pregunto si alguna vez ese niño encontrará los ingredientes para eso que algunos llaman felicidad, pero que a mí, desde hace un tiempo, me gusta llamar Paz. En mi mundo, Paz es una chica de aspecto dócil pero carácter marcado. Aponia—ausencia de sufrimiento—es fundamental decían los griegos para intimar con Paz. Cuánta sabiduría en libros que probablemente jamás leeré.

Me veo de lejos y me gustaría agarrarme por las solapas, como mi padre me hubiera hecho de niño, mirarme a los ojos con la seguridad de quien predice lo peor del porvenir, y gritarme —¡Es hora de vivir muchacho!—pero mi padre jamás me llamó muchacho. 

Es hora de soltar amarras, estibar las inseguridades, poner rumbo ceñido al viento para entre bordadas aprender a sentir sin miedo. 

Sentir sin miedo. 

Mi mente otra vez dando en el clavo. Pero a sentir sin miedo aún no me atrevo. Cuando me veo de lejos lo que realmente veo es un niño preocupado y vulnerable, con mucho miedo a sentir; a sentir fuerte. A sentir emociones de esas tan intensas que a la vida vuelque sobre su eje. Emociones de esas que definen vivencias por las que el presente se avergüenza pero el futuro recuerda melancólico. Veo un niño con miedo a sentirse diferente, miedo a sentirse único y miedo a sentirse solo. 

Solo, esa palabra que desde hace un tiempo se siente como un uppercut en el esófago. 

Me veo de lejos y veo a un niño preocupado y vulnerable, con miedo a sentirse vivo, caminando solo. La soledad que tanto valoro y que tanto me atormenta. 

El caso es que me veo de lejos y no me gusta lo que veo. Y me pregunto si alguna vez miraré y sentiré que quizá la clave está ahí, en mirar de lejos. Oteando el porvenir para asegurar la arrancada. O quizá esté en mí, en ese niño, quien aún preocupado, vulnerable, cauteloso en sus emociones, y solitario en un mundo que a veces da miedo, anda con paso lento, asegurado. Un niño que explora el planeta en busca de algo que echa en falta.

Quizá sea a sí mismo lo único que ese niño realmente busca.

Quizá eso sea todo. O quizá no, yo qué voy a saber. 

Voy a intentar dormir otro poco, que ya me duelen los dedos de pensar en alto. Ojalá tuviera mi cuaderno cerca. Pero me da miedo encender la luz y despertar a alguien. —¡Siempre con miedo muchacho!—, que jamás diría mi padre.

The amazing cover photo was taken by Zukiman Mohamad!


Noordwijk, Holanda.

Hoy, caminando como cada mañana hacia el acceso principal del Centro de Investigaciones y Tecnologías del Espacio de la Agencia Espacial Europea, donde estos días me encuentro, me quedé mirando.   

En la entrada y a la vista de cualquiera que ronde cerca ondean las banderas de los 22 estados miembros.

Mientras me aproximaba hacia los tornos de seguridad, me quedé mirando. 

Para la agencia cada una de las banderas ahí expuestas simbolizan el reconocimiento al granito de arena con el que cada país contribuye al desarrollo tecnológico del espacio. Cada país aporta lo que puede o quiere; unos más, como Alemania, otros menos, como Estonia. Pero en la entrada no hay banderas grandes ni pequeñas. 

Mientras rebuscaba en busca de la tarjeta de seguridad en los bolsillos de una parca empapada por la lluvia, me quedé mirando. 

Símbolos, pensé, no son nada sin el significado que cada uno les atribuye. 

Al igual que las interpretaciones que hacemos de las experiencias que vivimos, los significados son personales, únicos, y a veces indescriptibles. Y como las experiencias, cuando el significado es compartido a veces une para bien, o a veces une para mal. Pero esto no es de lo que quiero hablar.

Hoy me interesa el significado individual. Me interesa el significado íntimo de los símbolos que a cada uno acompañan, ese que cada uno llevamos tatuado en las costillas para no compartirlo con nadie—ese que nunca cicatriza.

Hoy, al pasar bajo la bandera del país donde nací, me quedé mirando. 

Entre estudios de posgrado, prácticas, colaboraciones y demás correrías llevo más de cinco años fuera de España. Cinco años de costumbres nuevas y experiencias inolvidables. Pero también cinco años de caras desconocidas, de desconcierto, de incertidumbre, de no ser de aquí, de no comprender, y de no ser comprendido. 

Para mí el rojo y amarillo simboliza hogar. Simboliza familia. Simboliza calma, y comprensión, y calidez, y cariño. Simboliza recuerdos, muchos recuerdos. 

No simboliza patria, ni tierra, ni honor, ni gloria, ni valentía, ni euforia. 

Simboliza mamá.

Simboliza papá.

Estoy seguro que de ser mis circunstancias otras el significado sería distinto o ninguno. Pero en momentos como el de esta mañana comprendo al soldado destinado a pasar el invierno en otro continente, comprendo a la investigadora afincada más allá de la frontera, comprendo al inmigrante que consigo lleva el recuerdo de un casa de caras y olores familiares—recuerdos a los que todos ellos se aferran para no olvidar. 

Y es por esto mismo que evito maldecir a la ligera los símbolos de otros, sean de tela o de paja o de madera.

Vaya por delante que no me interesan los símbolos de los que gritan. Me interesan los símbolos de esos que callan y aprietan los dientes.

Me interesa saber de quién son las sonrisas que llevan tatuadas en las costillas; esas que erizan la piel y evocan recuerdos; esas que anegan la boca del estómago cuando se está a solas. 

Malditos símbolos.

‘Shikiru’ with the Japanese mind (II)

Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands (6 min. read).

Living in Japan as a foreigner is always quite an adventure. It doesn’t matter how long you have been living here, the sense of curiosity, admiration, and at times even perplexity seem to never cease.

Beyond the distance and the language, it’s a culture that barely resembles anything I’ve seen or experienced before. Different is the adjective often used by foreigners when confronted with the question of how it is to live in Japan; right before highlighting certain patterns and social behaviors that stand out from what we may consider “normal”.

It requires a serious mental effort to put in words how a society, as complex as the Japanese, actually works as a whole. Finding the cause or understanding the historical background that led to certain behaviors is not something we do; we simply give a perspective based on our own personal experience. And that’s ok, but sometimes not enough for the ones listening to fully understand the nuances of what you are trying to convey. A 5-min bar conversation is sometimes simply not enough. Because of this, I’ve created this series.

This is the second part of a set of blog posts through which I’m attempting to describe my experience living in Japan, as well as to bring people closer to and to educate myself a bit more on some of the different hues Japanese society is tinted with. If you just landed here and haven’t read part I, I would highly encourage you to pause and take a look at it first. However, if you just want to keep reading, I’ve made each part self-contained; so you should be good to go.

I dubbed this set of posts “the shikiru series” as a reference to the ritual of demoralization of the opponent that sumo wrestlers go through right before the bout. This is exactly how I feel most of the time when attempting to put in words what has been for me to live in Japan for the last year and a half. Disheartened, I give up before the conversation hasn’t even started. This series is the result of a conscious effort to describe those aspects of the Japanese culture I’ve found to be more distinctive, admirable, and challenging at times. Assisted by the Japanese lexicon, I’ll walk you through my adventures living in and traveling through the land of the rising sun.

In part I of this series I presented the art of giving, or omotenashi, and explained how it is one of the features that has characterized almost every interaction I’ve had with Japanese people, something I will always remember and try to replicate in my personal relationships. In this second part, things may start to turn a little bit more complicated. Today I’m writing about aimai, the concept of ambiguity so widely installed both within Japanese culture and language.   

Aimai (曖昧) — when harmony drives me crazy

This might be one of the aspects of Japanese culture I still have a hard time dealing with and probably it is also one of the most difficult to explain. Aimai literally means ambiguous, vague, or unclear. I believe most students of Japanese language would agree with me if I say that often aimai is synonym of scratching foreheads and sighs of exasperation. The first thing we should understand right off the bat is that Japanese language is meant to be ambiguous and indirect. While most western cultures value clarity and encourage directness to avoid misunderstandings, in Japan is almost considered a virtue and in most cases expected of you to express yourself concisely and indirectly. Let me explain.

Japan is a country that has been largely isolated from the rest of the world for long periods of time. During the Tokugata Shogunate in the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese were kept from leaving the country for over 200 years. Beside isolationist policies, Japan is also a geographically isolated country. If to this we add that only 30% of Japan is considered inhabitable (about 95% of the population in Japan is concentrated in just about 30% of the country’s territory) then we are facing a case where survivability might be a direct consequence of coexistence and common understanding. For the different communities to thrive, Japanese had to work together both to make sure they were making the most out of the limited resources available but also to avoid internal conflicts that could potentially bring people against each other. And so, the concept of harmony, or wa (和), within groups of people was born, which implanted within Japanese DNA a need for maintaining the group’s values and ideals over one’s personal interests – a need that, for what I can tell, still persists.

In order to maintain and promote the values and ideals tying a group of people together, the language must be cautious and contained. Most people will tell you that Japanese language is more about what you don’t say than what you say, since words and mostly silences — what in Japanese is referred to as chinmoku (沈黙) — carry enough meaning if chosen wisely.  This degree of conciseness has given rise to a level of ambiguity in what is said that even between Japanese oftentimes leads to misunderstandings.

A great example of the problematic regarding aimai that a foreigner could experience in everyday life in Japan can be found in the fantastic book The Japanese Mind: Understanding contemporary Japanese culture” on which this series is based:

[…] when a person is visiting someone’s house in Japan and it becomes times for supper, people will often say, ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ But this is not really an invitation; rather it is a subtle hint that it is time to go home. To those from other countries, this may seem confusing, but for the Japanese, it is a natural way to interact socially. So the correct response to ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ is ‘Thank you very much, but I am not hungry’.

Japanese believe one’s opinion shouldn’t be openly expressed – deru kui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる), “the nail that sticks will be hammered down”. Speaking openly about one’s feelings and opinions is considered childish and impolite, since, as some authors pointed out, “to express oneself distinctly carries the assumption that one’s partner knows nothing”. In this regard, aimai could be considered as a positive aspect of Japanese style of communication that favors the creation of bonds, facilitates communication, and eases understanding among people while keeping focus and ties within a group.

Although I would partly agree with this statement, in my experience, aimai wares a hidden face — an evil mask that turns agreement, cooperation and peacefulness into their alter ego: alienation, disaffection and resentment.

The need that I believe most Japanese have to fit within certain groups of people, or to the very least the need not to disrupt the group’s harmony, leads to personal opinions to be withheld and individual feelings to be dimmed in benefit sometimes not of the group’s well-being but of the desires and personal interests of the group’s authority. This, combined with the strong consciousness of social hierarchy that resides within Japanese society, makes it common for large groups of people, often within companies and working teams, to be misled by inefficiencies, mistargeted strategies, and selfish motives. People evolve lacking the capacity to fully express themselves, to develop critical thinking, and to improvise when the situation so requires. Aspects that nicely ties to the concept of kata ni hamatta, which I will talk about in part 3 (you’ll have to wait for that).

Harmony is a a double-edge sword. There are times when issues need to be raised and conflicts have to be addressed. Cooperation and agreement are propped by how we, as a group of individuals, solve common problems, not by force of listening to those that speak louder. I wish most of us, Japanese included, were capable of expressing ourselves freely and openly in a regular basis. Harmony might actually be reached faster this way, maybe not within a group but surely within ourselves.

Forgotten demons and invisible angels

Photo by Dawid Zawiła

Munich, Germany (5 min. read).

What’s your story?

How did you come to be who you are?

Can you point out moments in your life that had a major impact in who you’ve become?

I bet you can.

I’m sure you recall, in detail, experiences that completely shifted your values, encounters that defined your current passions and fears, decisions that brought you new opportunities and goals, all of which directly made of you a different, better human being.

I’m also sure this rollercoaster of events that is your life, with the painful and the pleasant, make all perfect sense in hindsight. Together they form the story line of your life.

There is only one problem. As Rolf Dobelli wrote in The Art of Thinking Clearly:

“It is safe to assume that half of what you remember is wrong.”

Looking back at the events that shaped one’s life is always disturbing. As humans we nourish association and cherish meaning-ful experiences: those of love and tears, of fight and thrive. We are prone to storytelling and the most stirring story we can recognize is that of our own journey.

This meaning we endow our main character with is built years after the experience or encounter has taken place; thus making our narrative susceptible to the filter of present emotions and beliefs.

I’m interested in what gets caught in the filter.

Meeting my old demons.

We all have been through episodes now forgotten. Aspects of your life you somehow erased from memory some time ago. Events not distressing enough to make your heart throb or the hair on your neck bristle. Moments of your existence that had an impact in who you’ve become, not because of what you did but because of what you missed.

I’m talking about the lack of excitement you felt for years at the prospect of uneventful days, the sadness of lonesome evenings at home, the neglected desire to play to be someone who doesn’t take life too seriously.

These unsettling memories and hidden feelings often resurface while coming back to the place you grew up, by looking at photos or hearing stories about the old ‘good’ days. For me they all came in the form of a video, a not so old video I must have recorded around 2010, alone at night, talking to camera.

It was during my junior year in college. I weighed over 230 lb (~105 kg), I had gone through two different (low risk) surgeries, and I wasn’t doing great in college. I was struggling to keep up the pace of my friends who were advancing steadily while I was still stuck with first-year courses after having failed all but two of them during my freshman and sophomore years (back in the time mechanical engineering degrees at my university had a dropout rate of around 70%). Looking at this video and pictures of that time I appeared overwhelmed, stressed and weary.  

My soul shudders every time I look back at those pictures.

The point is I don’t remember feeling this way. Of course I remember the hurdle, the fight, the amount of all-nighters I had to pull to get through college. But those feelings, that look that cries for help, all that is gone. I don’t know what I would have answered back then if you’d asked me whether I was happy. Today, I would certainly answer that I was. I had a dreamed life. I was doing what I wanted to do since I was 14 and I knew you have to fight to get what you want — or so I’ve been always told — so I fought. 

It was right before college when I started to hang out with my now wife, Sara. She had demons of her own. Gigantic, bloodthirsty, soul-destructive demons is how I remember them. I’ve always thought I tried my best to help brightness take over her life, fighting the darkness with my goofiness and shyness. The truth is that she was probably helping me more than I will ever realize.

And so they come, the invisible angels.

The angels that shaped who I am.

In giving meaning to our lives we fall to the misconception of making us source of our own fate. My fight, my decisions, my happiness, my life. We often don’t give enough credit — if at all — to all those around us that make us who we are.

The reason my old demons are gone is because I had angels by my side who kept them away. They brought smiles, caresses, kindness, and affection without me noticing, without me asking for it, when I needed it most. You also have them even if you don’t see them. We simply take them for granted as we go through our lives merely focus on ourselves. 

Back in 2010 my demons were banished by someone who has kept by my side ever since. I like to think that it was in the heat of these battles where the foundations of our relationship was forged. Back to back, riding together this roller coaster of the painful and the pleasant we have become a hell of a team to beat.

Don’t dwell on the past but look around. Your life is somewhat the product of those demons now lost in memory. The way you are, with your fears, passions and beliefs, is the result of experiences you thought forgotten. The journey is made of angels you don’t see and demons you will forget. Thank the former while you can and hold to them, so at the end of your journey, you will be able to declare that you have become a different, better human being.  

‘Shikiru’ with the Japanese mind (I)


*Shikiri (仕切り) is a ritual in sumo fights in which the two wrestlers crouching with their fists on the ground stare intensively at each other’s eyes right before the bout begins in an attempt to demoralize the opponent and win the crowd’s support. Shikiru is the verb form meaning ‘toeing the mark’.

Sendai, Japan (8 min. read).

It’s 10 am.

I’m sitting in the waiting room of place called ハローワーク (“hello work”). Hello Work is a public institution that guides people through the minutiae of job hunting. The waiting room is located in an open space littered with rows of numbered computers and small desks where the job-seekers are called to meet with their assistants. Despite the size of the place, overall, it is incredibly quiet. From where I stand, a slight mumble and a soothing melody is all that can be heard. To my right, a man has fallen asleep in what seems a futile attempt to send an email from one of those old computers. On the other side, sitting right next to me is another man completely immersed in a manga (Japanese comic book) — I wish I could read them too. A kid proudly wearing an Anpanman’s t-shirt is constantly staring at me without setting free his mom’s blouse. As a foreigner, I find it amusing how you always get that bewildered look from kids. Every now and then he turns back to his mom, probably tired of me making silly faces, who is too involved trying to sleep a newborn in a baby carrier to pay her older boy any attention. I have also noticed a police officer walking the floor every five minutes or so. He thoroughly looks through every corner of the room while making quick gestures with his hands; almost like reassuring himself that indeed the spot is cleared.

Every once in a while I stop looking around as a recurring thought flashes through my mind — Japan, what a different country this is.

I’ve been living in northern Japan for almost a year and a half. Throughout this time, a recurrent question arises among friends and family.  A question I always have a particularly hard time answering. It often takes the form of ‘how’s Japan?’, ‘how’s living there?’, or the always puzzled ‘Japan, huh?’. I’d bet though that what some people really want to know is whether the Japanese are as eccentric and bizarre as dictated by their preconceptions of this too often misinterpreted ancient culture. They would like to know whether the Japanese really work until exhaustion, whether they all watch anime and read manga, or whether one can actually buy used underwear from vending machines and enslave a robot to do the laundry.

Aside from stereotypes, which mostly distorts any culture they refer to, the reason it’s hard for me to answer these questions lies in a personal language deficiency. It is not that I find it specially difficult to spot those distinctive characteristics that make Japanese culture unique. But it is in the explanation of the reasons and nuances that make those characteristics so exceptionally defined when I find myself in the lack of the right words.

This time and at my own pace (which usually implies taking way longer than initially anticipated) I’ve decided to make an effort to find a way in which I can describe to others, those who may have never traveled to Japan or those have never had a single interaction with Japanese culture before, what’s being like for me to venture into the land of the rising sun.

As it so often happens, I find myself committing to this new endeavour while reading a fantastic book called “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture” by Roger J. Davis and Osamu Ikeno.  In this book students from the University of Ehime put together a list of Japanese words and expressions, explaining not only their meaning but the historical and cultural context in which they were coined and their implications on today’s social landscape. A highly recommended read to anyone that wants to get a grasp of how hard sometimes is to explain and how easy is to misunderstand the implications of certain aspects of Japanese culture.

Following the structure and the idea behind this book, I’ve decided to make use of the Japanese lexicon by selecting a few words and expressions, some of which are part of this book, in an attempt to describe in a short series of blog posts my experience wrestling with the Japanese mindset.

It goes without saying that first, I’m no expert in Japanese culture whatsoever. I’m just a mere observer. And second, it isn’t my intention to label all Japanese people under the same few categories or words. Japanese, just as any other culture, is a complex conglomerate of people of all different types, with likes and dislikes, traditions, manners, and dialects that change from one region to another. My sole intention with this series is to provide a glimpse into what my impressions are of those defining features I find so admirable and representative, and challenging sometimes, of the part of Japanese culture I’ve been faced with for the last 18 months. I apologize in advance if you are Japanese, or someone living in Japan, and you don’t find yourself, or your experience, faithfully represented by what you’re about to read. So, without extending this intro any longer, here it is the first entry of what I’ve dubbed the shikiru series. Enjoy!

Omotenashi  (おもてなし) – the art of giving without expecting anything in return.

Long has been written about omotenashi and its foundations within the roots of Japanese culture and customs. One simply has to google the word to find hundreds upon hundreds of articles describing what in simple terms could be referred to as hospitality, treatment, or service.

Even without knowing the word, omotenashi is one of the first things foreigners notice upon arriving in Japan and often one of the first things they point out when they try to describe their experience through Nippon lands — maybe just right after mentioning the lack of public trash cans, the fact that there is people, lots of people, everywhere, and the Japanese addiction for queuing and pachinko slots (although the number of users seems to have decreased considerably over the last decade).

The truth is that omotenashi has deeper implications in Japanese than that of a cordial and delightful service. Hospitality is an act of generosity that can be found shaped into many different forms all over the world. In Japan, however, the channels through which hospitality is offered are extended well beyond what we would consider to be sufficient. To understand the far-reaching implications of Japanese hospitality, one would only have to look at the well-known saying ‘the customer is always right’, which in Japanese takes the form of the proverb お客様は神様 (“okyakusama wa kamisama”), literally meaning ‘the customer is god’.

Usually people refer to omotenashi in the context of Japan’s extraordinary customer service. Manifestations of this sense of lavish, almost overwhelming hospitality can be experienced from the always smiling faces and constant bowing of hotel employees, the careful treatment and attention to detail of shop assistants, to the fact that they will run to you apologizing even when you were the one spilling tea over the recently restored, hundred-year old tatami mat (…本当にごめんね!).

The people who know me often hear me saying that Japan is one the places where I find it easier to live, which is the way I’ve found to say that Japan has, from my point of view, the highest quality of life of all the places I’ve ever been. The reason I say this is that, as I pointed out before, omotenashi can be found well beyond services and good manners. One will experience it, for instance, in architecture and urbanism, with buildings and public areas specifically designed to favor a more pleasant stay or an effortless passage. Optic centers will dispose of eyeglasses cleaning stations in front of the stores free for anyone to use. Spotless public toilets are always in sight. Vending machines with hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summer (no underwear that I know of) are found literally everywhere. Bags and umbrella holders are thoughtfully placed in ATMs and bus seats, which you don’t realize you need them until you have them. And the list goes on and on.

For me, however, where omotenashi has really showed up is in personal relationships. It is in my daily encounters with the Japanese when I can feel the profuse generosity I believe the word omotenashi entails. I can think of at least a dozen times where they have gone above and beyond to solve any problem I was having or to just make my lack of problems even more enjoyable. I’m still have to find someone who answers my call for help with ‘今ちょと忙しい…’, “sorry I’m too busy now”. Omotenashi is the main cause of the embarrassment my wife and I feel when we’re incapable of finding ways to give back all the kindness, the warmth, the joy, and the unselfish treatment we always receive when we’re invited to a Japanese house.

Japan is one in a few list of countries where, either due to social obligation or personal morality, other’s well-being is always looked after over one’s own. Omotenashi is definitely one of the things I will always remember about the Japanese and something I will always bear in mind through my interactions with other people.