The Time to be Cynical

Living in the rural north of Japan can lend a certain air of idealism. With virtually zero crime and an almost utopian village society that I thought only existed in Disney movies, I often catch myself thinking about just how awesome life is here, and indeed how even better it would be if I were able to speak fluent Japanese. The quality of life here is pretty high for virtually everyone, including myself, who would never be able to come straight out of university and expect a lekker 4WD car, snowboard trips every weekend and Sushi for dinner! Indeed even Sapporo, Hokkaido’s principle city, is inhabited by a mere 3 million citizens, yet spans the size of Johannesburg easily, replete with a functioning subway and rail system. It’s a city populated by mostly middle class folks. People who are thus relatively well-off. And the atmosphere of the city oozes this out of every pore. So why on earth should I live in South Africa?

I should probably explain that this post stems from a hectic week at the other blog that I write for, where pessimism towards SA has advanced into active cynicism by many of the site’s contributors, not the least of which includes me. To be certain up until now I’ve held what I thought to be a relatively upbeat view of SA. I could shrug off the rampant crime and corruption in government, together with the suffocating monopolies of Eskom and Telkom collectively, because I had always hoped that after the transitional birthing pains of a newly-liberated country, these things would start to fall away. Instead, they’ve only compounded upon themselves… exponentially. And it’s depressing, especially when reading from abroad, to have become so disenchanted with the country I’ve lived in my entire life up until now. It has given me everything that has contributed to my current well-being. My education, upbringing, friends and family as well as many other less-obvious factors have all resulted from the experience of living in South Africa. But what now?

It’s easy to assault the many educated elite who are streaming out of SA for their lack of patriotism, as well as their ungrateful attitudes at the country and government that has raised them from sniveling toddlers to educated professionals, but the brain drain is not the heart of the problem. I don’t think anyone chooses to leave SA lightly. Nobody wants to hate their country, and indeed only the most ardent of verkrampte old-school Afrikaner would leave simply because of the race of their president. But when you look at the antics going on now (that is, if you can. Often the power cuts out and the TV/Computer is inaccessible), the crippling forces in SA is becoming endemic, rather than temporary. So I no longer frown upon the many friends and acquaintances leaving SA right out of university for London, Australia or Canada, because I believe that SA has eroded to the point where even the most patient of optimists has to draw the line and start thinking about their futures.

But I shall not follow suit. I could theoretically prolong my stay in the JET programme for another three years if I so choose, but that would only erode the positively glowing impression I have of Japan as well as make me watch my country decline from afar, as well as stagnate intellectually and socially from all the remote isolation from my voluntary braai embargo. But like some friends of mine, I have decided to give it five years. Five years of living in SA to see if things will turn around. That’s enough time to begin a noticeable turnaround from the dark precipice towards which our faithful comrades are steadfastly hurtling us at. It’s enough time for me to finish my university education and perhaps get some field-related work experience, but most importantly, it’ll allow me to become a nuisance to the hordes of apologists rooting for JZ and his ilk to dismantle the very freedoms they fought so hard to attain.

I am in the rather unique position, as a post-graduate in the political field, to actually do something about my country’s decline. I’m not, of course, talking about reaching for the AK47 and going underground, but rather I am capable of helping wage the intellectual war against the bafoonery we witness on a daily basis in SA. Through the blogosphere and other mediums it is possible to write a convincing commentary against the forces that wish to self-destruct SA. I’m not talking about mere propaganda here, as that would simply be a matter of lowering myself to the idiocy as the same people who believe Zuma is a great choice for president, but rather helping other like-minded individuals write substantiated and rational argument to stand up against the torrent of drivel issued from the ANC and government’s collective mouthpieces in the foreseeable future.

Sounds grandiose, as I am wont to posturing at the best of times, but the reality is that what little I am able to do about the situation will likely never amount to a hill of beans, but at least it’s something. So I shall try for five years, and then perhaps think about making another country my new home. I’ve recently fallen in love with snow, so perhaps Alaska has need for my extensive talents and skillset! Anywhere that lets me snowboard can have me! What can I say, I’m cheap!

So other than a creeping pessimism, what’s news? Not much! It snows a crapload now, and a blizzard came through Hokkaido last week which made it particularly frigid. Otherwise I have spent most of my time on the weekend either snowboarding or recovering from snowboarding! I don’t fall over nearly as much now and it’s become seriously enjoyable. I expect most of my time this winter will be spent on a board in the snow, enjoying the winter while I can, as it’ll be quite sometime before I can experience a comparable winter again. Tiffendale is a tad expensive to consider in SA!

For those non-South Africans wondering what on earth a braai is, observe the following instruction video on braai etiquette for an introduction.

Written by admin in: Things Japanese |


A gentle snow storm in Hokkaido.

After returning from an awesome trip to South East Asia with sibling and friends, the now-fully winterized Hokkaido was a stark reminder as to the rather different weather we experience here. On speaking with several JET folks both in Hokkaido and further afield on the mainland, it seems the January post-holiday blues are in full effect. Nonetheless, myself and my neighbouring colleague Chris had long-ago planned to do as much skiing (Chris) and snowboarding (me) as possible in order to avoid said depressions! And let me now say, it’s freaking awesome!

Ok, to be fair, the first day is a bastard. I don’t think I have ever fallen over as much in such a small timeframe in my life. Oddly, I was reminded of when I started to learn golf and experienced a similar level of frustration and humiliation. Nothing says ‘you suck’ quite like falling down a slope like a ragdoll while eight year old Japanese kids zoom past me laughing their asses off at the gaijin strugglging to get back onto his feet and down the hill. It’s a pain, and it’s difficult, and my body doesn’t know how to lean right against the board without catching the edge and falling over like a clown. And there‘s the physical pain as well. Ice hurts. It reaaaally hurts. On one particularly bad wipeout I could’ve sworn I’d broken my bum. Twisted knee, stiff and sore muscles and being perpetually cold and wet and covered in snow from head to toe. The first day, much like the Normandy invasion, was tricky. Needless to say, I slept well that night!

The second time, however, is when snowboarding becomes fun. I don’t quite know how I did it, but at some point your body pretty much gets sick and tired of you falling down like an ass and kinda switches into ‘boarding mode’. Once this physiological switch turned on, I found myself carving back an forth down the slope in utter childish glee. Whereas before I had absolutely no control over my descent, I found myself heading for the lumpy bits of snow that aren’t ploughed at breakneck speed, creating a fountain of powder behind me. Truly snowboarding is fantastically enjoyable once the basics sink in and some balance is achieved. Not to mention what great exercise it is. Even now, 2 days later, my legs are stiff from the exertion. If anything, snowboarding has reminded me how important sport is to me and how much I enjoy it. This is the first time in 15 years that I haven’t played hockey for a club or team, and I think I’d actually forgotten what fun it is to play sport! SO! If you live in a winter snowland and find yourself getting cabin fever, go rent a board and play outside. It’ll do you the world of good!

Aside from snowboarding, the past week or so has been spent reacclimatizing to Japan, enjoying the comforts of home but missing the enjoyment of an overseas holiday, and seeing sea lions! Yes indeed, near Wakkanai there is a small dock that plays host to a gaggle (herd?) of sea lions, who seem to think the -15 degree weather up north is preferable to wherever the hell it is they come from. Their fat and lazy demeanor was quite hilarious, and watching them ‘playing’ in the frigid ocean water was amusing right up until I lost all feeling in my face thanks to the cold and opted to retreat back into the car. It also turns out Wakkanai has the world’s most depressing aquarium which, after the bitter-sweet experience of Cambodia, should be a blast in the coming weeks!

Sea lions!

So, in summary:
#1 Snowboarding breaks your bum and associated ligaments
#2 Snowboarding is AWESOME!
#3 Skiers are annoying, with their poles and lame thin instruments and dorky pants
#4 Sea lions are as funny as they look.

Written by admin in: Things Japanese |

The Killing Fields

It’s been a while since my last entry, but I’ve been trying in absolute vain to describe the experiences of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, as well as the ‘torture museum’. It’s difficult to describe not because I have forgotten or cannot recall what they were about, or that they were too shocking for my sensibilities, but rather that I feel I should try and describe precisely what it is I felt on that rather depressing day in Phnom Penh.

The Killing Fields are small. Much smaller than I’d expected. One would think killing about 100 people a day for five years would have required a lot more space and equipment, but the Khmer Rouge were surprisingly Spartan in their savage practices. About the size of two soccer fields, half of which is submerged in swampy water, the grassy meadow that remains is a bit deceptive. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking that the fields were simply a poorly-tilled farmland once upon a time. The genocide occurred several decades ago, so there is obviously a lot of growth and natural encroachment, resulting in depressions that are covered in grass and little flowers. It’s almost a pleasant picnic spot in the rather brown and harsh rural area that so characterizes Cambodia.

Except, of course, for the 20m high charnel filled with human skulls. That tower serves as the most obvious reminder of the sheer brutality of the maoist-inspired communist ‘reform’, resulting in anyone with even a smidgen of education or money being led to the field and smacked in the head with a pickaxe, bamboo, or anything at hand. The methods of the killing were simple but effective. Khmer cadres would ship bus loads of ‘bourgeois’ enemies of the state to this field and others, blindfolded and restrained, lead them up to a pit/grave, and then execute them. To make sure all were dead, a cadre would work amongst the dead and dying in the pit and slit their throats. Delightful stuff. This went on for years…

… But the Killing Fields doesn’t elicit a great amount of sorrow in me, or even sadness. I had expected these feelings above all else to surface when we set out that day, but they played a distinct second fiddle to the profound anger I felt. The bodies are either still buried in the marsh or neatly stacked in the charnel tower, and the shallow graves are all green with swarms of brightly-coloured butterflies fluttering about, so it’s a bit difficult to get ‘sad’ about it. Sure there are some traces, like clothes still stuck in the ground and some bones and teeth laying about, but it’s generally viewed with a detachment that disturbed even me, someone who has raised callousness to a new level! So I was angry instead. But angry at what, exactly? The human being in me felt a bit of hostility to the people who did this. Those folks with the pickaxes and clubs who had to build a detention camp because they couldn’t kill all the innocents in one day’s work. But mostly I was just angry at the absurdity of it all.

The Cambodian genocide was a tragedy, no doubt, but I think what really got me is that this happened again, and again, and again throughout the world, irrespective of race, culture and religion. Genocide truly is a major argument as to how people are the same all over the world. Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Albania, Nazi Germany and Communist China, all have committed horrendous acts that overshadow the relatively paltry number killed in Cambodia’s purge. But you’d think people would learn? Not the animals who commit these atrocities, but the rest of the ‘civilised’ world who are supposed to stop these things. Each and every time genocide has broken out the modern world steps back and feigns ignorance until the killing is over, and then floods the world with apologies and rice bags for the survivors, resulting in a flood of new books on the shelves from UN generals and priests in rural Rwanda telling of how they were powerless to stop the bloodshed. This, quite simply, is bullshit.

Even now there is little doubt that genocide is occurring in Darfur, and what is happening? Paltry peacekeeping forces sponsored by the UN that are so toothless and constrained by the rules in which they must operate as to render them ineffectual, political leaders playing down the violence and Human Rights NGO’s that are so consumed by their own self-righteousness that they would prefer to sit on a panel and whine for two years instead of actually doing something about it. When the Human Rights Council in Geneva takes six months just to decide on a timetable and agenda for their next session, you know something is truly wrong at the top of the organizations who are designed to combat these kinds of acts.

Now I am a realist in political terms, so I can understand how states outside of these affected regions really don’t care unless there’s something in it for them. Likewise I doubt the frothy-mouthed civilians in America would dare let their military embark on another tough military operation, regardless of what the objective is, but that doesn’t make it right. Self-centered global politics doesn’t condone genocide, nor should it ever. And yet it does, time and time again.

Now it sounds like a political rant, but these are the exact kind of thoughts I experienced whilst at the Killing Fields and staring at the still-bloodstained floors of the torture halls in the city. I can only be so angry against the thousands of brainwashed Khmer Rouge communists who committed these acts, but I reserve my utmost hatred for all the things that allows genocide to happen, again and again and again. For the Khmer Rouge (now ‘reformed’ of course) who are still in government positions to the Chinese foreign policy that would actively sell AK47’s to the Sudanese in exchange for oil rights to the many IGO’s that sit for endless months and years in coference halls swilling expensive mineral water and wine while they feign some kind of half-hearted ‘concern’ about human rights abuses in these countries. It’s all bullshit, and it will all happen again, guaranteed. Nothing has changed in the past 40 years since the Cambodian genocide, and nothing will change in the next 40 which will somehow convince the world that preventing genocide is something to be encouraged.

And that is what I think I was really angry at when I was looking at the grassy undulations that were once the scene of daily atrocities; the absolute and sheer futility of it all. I was angry because I knew that for all our ‘development’ as a human race we still treat each other like animals, fit for nothing but labour and slaughter. This fundamental hasn’t changed so far in our history, and I doubt it will for the foreseeable future. I hate that genocide happens, but above all I hate that we’re not disturbed enough about it to the point where it doesn’t happen again.

A more cheerful entry soon! John has been learning to snowboard! More details soon!!! – John

Written by admin in: Things Japanese |

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