Earlier this month, Sony released their most recent version of Aibo, the robot dog. With advanced AI, it has been programmed to love anything pink, and fear heights and enclosed spaces. It also gradually adapts to its surroundings, changing its behaviour as it becomes more comfortable and recognises its owners.
I thought it was cute until tonight, when I watched Metalhead, the 5th episode of Black Mirror where robot dogs take over and apparently destroy humanity.
There wasn’t much context, but it made me wonder about the future of Aibo – by chance I’ve been reading Robo Sapiens Japanicus by Jennifer Robertson, who says that Aibo caters to a tiny, affluent demographic. And perhaps that’s where Charlie Brooker’s social commentary lies – the barren wastelands that Metalhead was filmed against were spotted with the occasional expensive looking house with high-tech gadgets; maybe the dogs had been programmed to be guard dogs of some kind with advanced AI enabling them to track down intruders; in true Black Mirror style, the programming had gone wrong, and now they were just tracking and killing everything.
So what’s going to happen to Aibo? The thought gives me shivers.
I have just arrived home from dinner with an old friend, Leaf. We talked about how our musical education has instilled in us a drive to take the hard route when it comes to mental blocks.
The easy route: run away and drown out that negative voice with Netflix or YouTube, drink and party, and just ignore your commitments altogether – it’s easier to give up than try and fail, right?
The hard route: face your negativity square in the eye, grab it, and wring its neck, even though its skin is poison and its teeth are razor sharp.
Me and Leaf, and others at our school – we held too much responsibility to our teachers, to audiences, to adjudicators and judges, to take the easy route. Running away was just embarrassing and stressful, given we had to return to school everyday and teachers and peers would be more confused than anything else as to why we hadn’t practised in two weeks. It was easier – and saved face – to battle mental blocks and negative voices with more hours in the practice room, more scales, more lessons and masterclasses and performances.
I’m not saying that’s easy – it’s probably a large part of why I’m prone to depressive bouts and anxiety. The negativity and mental blocks never goes away, no matter how hard you fight. You just nurture the reaction that makes you face that voice, time and time again. It’s like honing a muscle – sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, but always there.
Which is why I am writing this post, almost a year since my last, because I have been running from writing. It’s something I care about, and I have so much I want to say – I have 19 drafts that I haven’t even posted! But every time I pause to consider writing a post, I convince myself I have nothing interesting to say, or that the reason I have 19 drafts is because they were too poor quality to publish. It’s easier to run and complain that I’m too busy to maintain this blog, than to stop, and face this fear – that I’m unoriginal and inarticulate – grab it, and wring its neck, even though its skin is poison and its teeth are razor sharp.
Not sure where this is going – something like my hands will heal and become stronger? Not keen on that as a metaphor because I don’t agree with the concept of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and its implications. Anyway, maybe writing and posting this in spite of my hesitancy will be a way of exercising the muscle of resilience, honing that reaction that makes me face up to my fears.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were browsing a kimono stall. We were looking at some silky kimono-like jackets, beautifully decorated in Japanese patterns. I asked her if she would wear one around her uni, and she joked, “they’d probably call me out on cultural appropriation”.
Apparently the students at her university are really big on calling people out on this. They criticise white people wearing dreadlocks and bindis, listening to rap, or post gap-year students who wander around uni with their South American brightly coloured clothing. This may be okay, or it may not be, and I guess this depends on your social circles and priorities, but that’s a debate for another place. Instead, I want to discuss the useof the word itself.
A few weeks after this conversation, I found myself using the word more and more. Even though I didn’t fully understand the concept, the word kept slipping out of my mouth. I was in one of those fair-trade, ethical, eco-friendly natural clothing shops which smell of incense. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable in them and I’ve never really articulated exactly why, but this time I said to my friend, ‘it’s cultural appropriation, eh’. She nodded at my wiseness and agreed that yes, of course it’s cultural appropriation, because it just is. It even popped up in my own thoughts when I was thinking about wearing my big baggy colourful silky harem pants.
Looking back on it, I’m quite surprised at how easily this word became a part of my stock set of phrases, especially when I barely understand the concept. It’s a really complex and interesting topic, and there are loads of articles online which discuss it in more detail.
In the same way, I often say things like, ‘he’s a chauvinistic pig’ when reasoning my dislike for a particularly male character, ‘it’s the establishment, they’re out to get us’, when expressing dislike for the government, or, ‘she’s so liberal and left-wing it’s great’, to describe someone I admire. I stick to a stock set of phrases used in my social group back at university. ‘They’ are the evil politicians, and ‘us’ are the powerless and suppressed – this barely requires explanation. The phrases just come out, and when they are used they earn nods of agreement and quiet admiration.
So the big life-changing-probably-really-obvious thing that I realised is that people react to the usage of these phrases, rather than the meaning. Since coming to Japan and leaving my social circle, I’ve found that I can’t stick to my stock set of phrases any more, and often I have to justify and explain myself and approach conversations from a different angle.
By reacting to the words and phrases rather than the meaning, I think we become numb to the true power and effect and meaning of words. For instance, when my Asian friend described herself as a banana, I asked what she meant. She explained, oh so casually, that she was ‘white on the inside, yellow on the outside’. I was shocked – I had been taught that ‘yellow’ as a descriptor for Asian people is racist and derogatory. I think that she had come from a circle where the term was used with absolutely no racist connotations whatsoever, and she had thus become immune to any kind of negative meaning behind it. Many people here use this term, and once it had been explained to me I kept noticing it more and more. And then one day, as I was cycling into university, a thought popped up into my head, totally out of the blue – ‘maybe I’m a banana too’.
Yes, it happened! I was so super surprised! Like, I was so mind-blown. I actually thought this word so flippantly with no appreciation for the connotations behind it. Whether or not this phrase is bad or non-PC is a debate for another time – instead, I think it’s telling of exactly how powerful and subjective language is – the words and phrases that are used in different social circles really say a lot about the way in which we’re socialised.
We become numb to the words we prioritise and the phrases we respect, and no longer ask the question – ‘what does that actually mean?’ In some respects, this is actually quite humbling. I am forced to question aspects of myself which I feel define my personality, as well as the foundations of the reasons why I like the people I do, because most of the time I’m drawn to people who’s opinion I respect. But if these opinions are mere by-products of their social circle, then what does their opinion actually say about them? Am I too, just a by-product of my socialisation, nothing more? Do I lack in originality? Is individuality impossible? Am a just a standard-mould left-wing minded university student? And I guess, when I describe myself as a ‘free-thinking individual’, ‘free’ is actually limited to the capacity of the box in which I live.
These thoughts can be annoying and irritating and make me feel unstable and like I’m going through some quarter-life crisis (hey may as well be a fifth-life crisis if you wanna be optimistic). But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s actually kinda okay. I guess it’s the only way we can live, because we’re defined by the people we spend our time with, by our upbringing and by our socialisation. So to have the opportunity to step out of this box is special: I have the unique opportunity to see other the boxes which exist, as well as to learn about the box which I came from. Before I came here, I judged other people by the standards which I thought were my own, but were actually the standards of my social circle. By realising this, I guess I become more open to creating relationships with a wider variety of people.
So this is what’s magical and great. Yes, it’s super scary to feel insecure and box-less (well I find sometimes anyway), but I feel liberated in a way. (Although I’m probably just blind to the fact that I am now in a new box, and am limited by a new way of thinking and new stock phrases, but I think I’m okay with that, for now.)
With those thoughts thrown out into the inter-world, have a content new year of the monkey.
Here are a few thoughts about anxiety, which is something that I have.
I like the world. I think it can be a pretty great place. I know it has its faults, but I always try to remember the bigger picture and live each moment to its fullest. Sometimes, I realise the cliché that is thrown at us by our parents and teachers – life is too short. I am moved by the movements of the clouds, or the setting sun as it casts golden shadows, or the drumming sound of rain. Everything shines and sparkles.
When I’m in this nice happy place, joy and love and compassion drown my negative thoughts. For instance, I barely get FOMO (fear of missing out) because the joy of doing something else overpowers my need to fulfil social obligations. But there is a dark side to this. Carefree, happy-go-lucky me is tethered to its nemesis – the anxious, self-conscious and self-critical me. I am prone to overthinking and am so easily thrust into a dangerous cycle, where I focus on every tiny detail of my life and put a negative spin on it. This negativity genuinely becomes my reality. I become crippled by a fear of missing out on exciting events, and am overwhelmed by romance troubles and gossip.
So when scrolling through my Facebook feed triggers a full blown panic attack, I feel sick with myself – have my standards gotten so low that my priorities are to have as much fun as I can, rather than to enjoy sobriety and solitude? Are my priorities now parties, getting drunk, making sure my Facebook profile looks exciting,and basically looking as sparkly, colourful and happy as possible?
When I’m in a good mental space, I enjoy sobriety and solitude more than anything in the world. I have a joy of missing out, not a fear of it; I would rather skip a party to read a book, or bail on a group trip to a festival to catch a quiet coffee with a good friend. When I am in the negative cycle, I can remember this feeling but I cannot quite capture it – it is a distant memory that I desperately chase but to no avail; it is the word on the tip of my tongue; it is the breath of air that I know is there but it is just out of my reach and I am drowning too deep in this bottomless ocean –
– and my mind becomes a conflicted mess. I feel stupid for being overwhelmed by romance troubles and gossip, for worrying about what so-and-so said about me behind my back – especially as my reactions seem so ridiculously out of proportion. Why would I have an anxiety attack and panic attacks and feelings of nausea and depressive bouts and not holding down food all because she said he said she said I said something that I didn’t do? Or over that guy I fancied who went off with some girl at some party? It seems hysterical.
With mental health, it’s near impossible to know why you think things, because there’s just so much going on that you barely understand it. Yes, I recognise the onset of a panic attack, or paranoia and fear as anxiety; likewise I recognise exhaustion, rawness or being overwhelmed by life as depression. However, when these feelings last for days, weeks, I can forget that I ever felt anything else. This is especially so as anxiety does not necessarily manifest itself physically, so there is barely any reminder that what you’re feeling is anxiety. It’s disorientating and stressful when this happens, and in the same way, if you were to forget about, say, having broken your foot, it would feel totally out of proportion that a breath of wind was causing you so much discomfort.
The thing is, I’ve come to realise that this is all part of anxiety and a reflection of my mental space: being overwhelmed by tiny details and inconsequential events; the consequential conflicting confusion. Again to take the broken foot analogy – it’s super sensitive so any pressure on it will be sore. If you keep applying that slight pressure, your foot will get worse and worse and take longer to heal. In the same way, if you are suffering in your mind, something as slight as not being invited to a party can trigger huge amounts of anxiety-related symptoms like nausea, panic, intrusive thoughts or just general self-hate.
Mental health is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and so, very complex, and it should be addressed as such. Yet as a society, we like intellectual, chilled individuals who are rational and level-headed: a mental breakdown over FOMO is in stark contrast to the personality that we approve of and strive for, so it can be difficult to admit to this seemingly irrational side – yet it isan important thing to acknowledge.
As I experience anxiety, I am learning to trust myself. I try to let myself feel whatever I feel and worry about the ‘why’and the ‘how’ later; I hold onto the fact that reacting violently to ‘petty’ incidents does not reflect my priorities. Sometimes I fail at this and sometimes I do not, but I guess it is all a learning process and perhaps it all contributes to this great, vast, and complex thing called life.
Studying abroad at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan
After two months of studying in Tokyo, things are beginning to settle down. The first few weeks were a blur of paperwork, signatures, welcome parties and sleep deprivation – disorientation, despite all their attempts to help us orientate. But at last, it’s slowing down, and I’ve learned the following things: it’s okay if you lose your passport, forget to pay your health insurance and crash your bike. It will work out in the end, and if you chill out, everything just slots into place.
There is so much I could write about: the excitement of studying abroad, the strange ways culture shock manifests, the craziness that is Tokyo, the amazing food, the generous people and the quirky customs of the Japanese. I can confirm that Tokyo fits all the clichés – an eclectic, vibrant mix of nature and neon lights, skyscrapers and shrines, cat cafes and cosplay. Japan itself is beautifully diverse, with snow in the north and tropics in the south, and you can travel pretty easily from place to place. It’s also a great place to access the rest of Asia, with flights as cheap as £50 to get to South Korea or Malaysia. To get a taste of living in Japan, there are lots of blogs, vlogs and documentaries which offer great insights into the place – Vice Japan and Texan in Tokyo are both informative and fun (both on YouTube).
Tokyo is renowned for being one of the busiest cities in the world, but within it there are some magical spots free from traffic and noise, and that’s something that makes it so unique and great. Hitotsubashi is on the quieter side of the city: the area is peaceful enough to feel like you’re in a forest-like dreamland, but it is also next to lots of bars, cafes, karaoke places and restaurants. And on top of that, it’s just a half hour train ride from central Tokyo when you do have the urge to get your city-fix. The university itself is on a super long road called Daigaku Dori (University Street) which is lined by cherry blossom trees, and during spring, the whole place turns a hazy snowy pink – search 大学通り桜 on Google images to get an idea of what I’m talking about! The architecture is equally impressive, modelled on old European buildings. The overall result is a dreamy, Ghibli-like setting.
As for the accommodation, there are only around 100 exchange students so most of us live on Kodaira campus, a 20-minute cycle from university. It is just as beautiful and forest-like there, and is close to a river spanned by old wooden bridges, which is super picturesque. ALSO it’s great because you can see Mount Fuji from our dorms and it is spectacular, and on a clear day it is like seeing a Photoshopped photo but through your real eyes.
Studying abroad is an incredible experience in so many ways. Sure, you have the excitement and the fun, but it’s not just about how many wild nights you have, how many crazy adventures you have or how much of Asia you manage to travel across. There’s newfound space to calm down after the whirlwind of 1st and 2nd year of university, and it’s possible to take joy in just living everyday in a new place, learning a new language and being surrounded by interesting people.
Aside from the fun and excitement, something that isn’t mentioned as much is the ‘English-bubble’ that many students are sucked into. Although it’s discussed in the exchange student body, it’s not really brought up in the year abroad prep back at UCL. Many exchange students are drawn together by the language and cultural barrier of Japan. The international nature of the exchange student body means that it’s very easy to get into a group where English is used as the common language, and given the systematic nature of Tokyo, you don’t even need to rely on Japanese to get by. Of course, it’s up to you who you decide to spend time with – there are plenty of opportunities to converse with Japanese students, and join societies (called ‘circles’ here) and language exchange groups.
However, unless you have a good level of Japanese and/or good confidence, taking that step out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, and often, the prospect of exciting adventures can overpower the prospect of learning Japanese. It’s difficult to turn down travel plans to Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea in place of staying at home and trying to break through the language barrier. Trying to break through this is made even harder by the psychological difficulties of learning a language, which I’ll keep to the following – ‘study abroad’ is not synonymous with ‘get-fluent-in-a-year’: if you allow this pressure to get to you, learning language can be a stressful and anxious journey.
Although it’s tough, I firmly believe that the effort should be made to step out of your comfort zone: be that through watching Japanese dramas, conversing with Japanese strangers, joining a circle at university, or WWOOFing during the holidays – even if it has to be at the sacrifice of the comfort and excitement of your ‘English-bubble’ where you party, make weekend trips away and travel through Asia. That’s possibly the most important advice I could give: make every effort to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, no matter how daunting this may be.
Finally, for those looking to study in Hitotsubashi University, Japan itself, or just anywhere abroad, here are some quick bits of information which are important and interesting: Hitotsubashi’s accommodation is one of the cheapest in Japan, at around £100 a month; most exchange students receive the JASSO scholarship which is £400 each month for the whole year (with the exception of those with Japanese or dual nationality); Hitotsubashi and the dorms are all pretty wheelchair accessible, and there are even ramps in most train stations which is great, although some of them are quite steep which is not so great; the psychological services here are quite bad, but remember that if you’re an exchange student you’re still allowed access to your home university’s services; the modules run in English are very different to the UK and are not particularly challenging, but there are some gems if you find them; you do not need a chest x-ray before you come here because you get one in the medical check up on arrival; vegetarianism is made harder here by the fact that vegetables and fruit are expensive; if you have a driver’s licence, get it converted to an international license in your home country because it is a long, convoluted process in Japan and renting a car is a cheap and fun way to travel if you want to make a road trip.
I think everyone should consider Tokyo because it is so super great and beautiful and I think everyone should study abroad. It’s possibly the best way to spend a year of your life especially because when you’re 50 you’re not going to look back and wish you hadn’t spent a year in Tokyo, because a year is only a year, and I mean maybe some will regret it but the majority won’t. Yes, it’s tough at times but that’s all part of it because it is tough in a way that is new and exciting, and you won’t look back and remember that week where you felt super homesick or that evening where you got massive FOMO, instead you will remember the interesting bits and I think that a year passes in a flash and it is important to take the time and space that studying abroad gives you.
This was originally published in the BASc abroad blog, where Arts and Sciences students at UCL share their experiences of studying abroad. There are a variety of posts so far from Japan, USA, France, Colombia, Spain, and Ecuador, with many more to come, so take a look!
Over 2 years since I last posted something on here! How time has flown. A few nights ago I had a wave of nostalgia and decided to read through all my old blog posts in an attempt to relive my gap year – spent a good few hours down memory lane! And my time in memory lane spurred me to start this whole thing up again – but this time with a different theme and a different name.
So to those who don’t know, this site was previously Riyoko For Ecuador, a blog that I kept to help fundraise for my gap year. Call me sentimental, but even though I cringe slightly whenever I read through all those updates, I’ve kept them all because it was quite a big thing in my life – the decision I made when I was 18 to pack up my bags and just – go. Which was actually bloody terrifying, for so many reasons. Mosquito bites, malaria, getting lost in South America, new places and people and spaces – and also leaving school, and leaving music and leaving a me that had existed for 18 years. In truth, while it wasn’t the experience I hoped for (and I’m sure there’ll be an update about that soon enough), Ecuador was a defining moment in the journey that has led to me, now.
Me, now. Riyoko. I am a thinker. I am a feminist. I am vegetarian and sometimes I make attempts to be vegan. I am Scottish and I voted yes for the referendum and my heart broke a little when we didn’t get it. I am a pianist. I am half Japanese. I like silence. I think about mental health, development, growing populations, climate change, cats, feminism, and art. These things I want to write about. So I write. And this blog will be a little record of the things I say.
Summary of 3 months in Ecuador;
No. potatoes eaten: 10,000,000 (approximate figure)
No. Scottish people met: 0
No. mosquito bites: (I lost count at 53 – on my left arm alone!)
No. tarantulas: 5
My last month in Ecuador was filled with wonderful things like food, boobies, biodigestors and tarantulas: I’ll attempt to express my experiences, but I fear that a mere blog is not enough give an accurate account.
I thought that returning home would be tricky – coming back to a life of expensive buses and cold weather; would my body react badly to the lack of potatoes in my diet? Or maybe I would die in a horrible car crash not wearing my seatbelt. I can’t say I miss the food: every meal would consist of potatoes with rice or bananas (I’ve developed a new appreciation for the versatility of bananas. Fried, baked, grilled, with cheese or chocolate or sugar; sliced thinly and fried to make chifles; you can do so much with them!
However settling back in has actually been as easy as pie. Yes, it feels weird wearing a seatbelt, the weather is so cold I’m wearing layer upon layer, the bus fare has risen (£1.50?! It’s an outrage!) yet it’s good to be home. While I do miss the Ecuadorian music, the fruit and the hot chocolate, I’ve missed Scotland – home – equally. I flew from Quito to Amsterdam, and from there to Edinburgh: arriving in Amsterdam was so comforting hearing all those Scottish accents arguing and bickering in the transfer gate. The highlight was when someone skipped the queue to get through security; I think it went something like this:
“Hey, what’re ye daein’? There’s a queue y’ken!”
“Aye, ah ken, but ah’m a flyin’ silver member sae ah hae a reit tae be at th’ front.”
“Nah, don’t gimme that, ga tae the back o th’ queue!”
“Nach ach oooch aye it’s awful och aye aaach.”
Ah. The joys of Scotland. The only daunting moment of the journey home was when everyone had boarded the plane after a long delay – we were told that they had lost the proper plane and the one we were on had been borrowed from a totally different company. The captain went on to say that the pilot had to be replaced because the usual one had run away.
So I’ve just realised that most of this post consists of potatoes and Scottish people. But it’s a pretty accurate summary I think – too many potatoes and too few Scottish people! But I’ll shut up and start talking about important things like my final project in Ecuador, La Hesperia (this is where the tarantulas come in).
My time in La Hesperia was probably the most memorable out of my 3 months in Ecuador. The work was rewarding, the atmosphere friendly and the food incredible. What more could you ask for?! Every day was really varied – work ranged from weeding plants to painting rooms, reforestation to cleaning the biodigestor (I´ll explain later…) The aim of La Hesperia was to become a self sustainable community solely reliant on their own crops to feed the workers and the volunteers. I always I felt like the work I was doing benefited not just the environment but the community as well.
The varied work meant that every day was a surprise. One day we were set the task to clean the biodigestor: a biodigestor is an eco-thing to produce fertiliser and usable gases, using cow manure. The machine was blocked by the manure and our task was to fix it by, well, unblocking it. Sound gross, but we were reassured that the manure would be dry: the machine was in a greenhouse so the logic goes that the manure was being baked under the sun. This makes sense. So why was it wet?!
At first we tried buckets. Yes. Bucketing wet cow manure outside. If you saw the size of the thing you’d realise it was a lost cause, but we were fuelled by a grim determination to do our task, and do it right. After 15 minutes of sloshing buckets of cow shit in the sweltering heat we gave up and were forced to try numerous different angles.
Eventually we came to the conclusion that the best way to save the biodigestor was to dig under the greenhouse to create a tunnel, so the manure could flow out. Eurgh, it sounds horrible! One of the workers described it as a ”río de caca” – I’ll let your imagination work out what that means. Surprisingly our hard work paid off and we came away from the morning’s work satisfied. In truth, once you forgot what you were dealing with the work was actually fun!
We were pushed mentally and physically in La Hesperia. While our lodgings were idyllic, there was the problem of the bugs, mosquitos and tarantulas that had decided to make our home their permanent residence, too. One tarantula we named Harry, who lived in the common room. He was really sweet in a way once you got used to his presence; every evening when we came down to play cards or lay in the hammocks, Harry would emerge from his hole and watch us. I think he was a bit like an annoying sibling: you were able to live with his presence so long as he was quiet, and you realised just how attached you were when he wasn’t around.
Not so sweet were the tarantulas that moved. After a hard day’s work I was really looking forward to showering and winding down for the day. However it wasn’t until I was in the shower that I realised I wasn’t alone: I looked down and saw in the shadow a humongous dark, pointy, spidery thing that was in fact a tarantula. It was dead thank god – another poor volunteer had the awful experience of seeing it move while she was showering. She and her friend killed it with a broom.
There really is so much more to write, but I think I’ve left updating my blog too long to carry on writing (which is probably a good thing – this post hasn’t exactly been on the nicest of topics). I’ll write a few more posts over the next weeks about trips we made to the amazon rainforest and the Galápagos islands, so keep an eye out for them! And once again thank you all so much for your incredible support. I know that without all the donations and even just words of encouragement, this unforgettable experience would not have been possible. Thank you, everyone.