Conversation with a Japanophile
Todd Wassel’s first taste of living abroad was teaching English in Japan. He is now a conflict resolution and human rights expert and has lived in Thailand, Timor Leste and Sri Lanka in addition to Japan. He is currently based in Kosovo.
Here Todd talks about doing what you love, cross-cultural marriage and how he became a Japanophile. This post is part of the Blog4Japan campaign helping to raise donations for the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.
What made you first decide to try living abroad? Was Japan the first place you lived?
Japan was the first time I had ever traveled outside the US. In fact it was also the first time I had been on a plane! I was 21 years old and decided to study in Japan for a semester. My school ended up canceling our study abroad program so a friend and I found a University program and set everything up ourselves. I guess that was my first experience in learning to get things done on my own. My 6 months in Japan opened up a whole other world to me and after graduating from University I moved to Japan and ended up staying there for 5 years.
How did you meet your (Japanese) wife?
I actually met her after I left Japan. We were both working in Timor Leste just after the violence in 2006. She was on an extended mission there and I was working on peacebuilding issues with a NGO. There wasn’t much to do in Timor at the time due to the security restrictions. We met during a Hash House Harriers (running club) meeting. She had to remember my cell number on her way home through the IDP camps, luckily she did!
What language do you speak to each other? Did you both know each other’s language before you met?
Usually we speak English, unless we are around other Japanese people or we are in Japan. Luckily we both knew each other’s languages before we met. She studied in the US and England. Of course her English is much better than my Japanese.
Why did you decide to go into international development work and in particular conflict resolution? Was it difficult to make the transition from teaching?
My life abroad opened up a whole new world to me and a career in international relations just seemed to make sense. I liked my time teaching in Japan but it wasn’t really my calling in life. I’m a big fan of doing what you love. I made the transition by going back to graduate school and sucking up a ton of new loans. In grad school I slowly began to narrow down what I wanted to do and conflict resolution, peacebuilding and negotiation just fit well with my personality and temperament. I wouldn’t really characterize myself as a risk taker but I do love living in unstable far-flung places and changing lives and jobs every few years. From the outside people think I am taking risks, but for me I’m just doing what makes me happy and following the opportunities that pop up in those wonderful environments.
How does being with a partner from a different culture affect your views of the world and international events? Do you feel more global in general, or do you mainly feel affinity for Japan?
Tough question as in general I consider Japan to be my second home. It doesn’t have much to do with my wife as with my own personality and the fact that I fell in love with Japan from the moment I first arrived. But after being on the road for over 11 years now I feel global in general. Although in some ways I have become even more American, but in a way of wanting to represent the best (according to me!) that I think American culture has to offer.
And on a personal level, what wider influences does being with some one of a different culture have on your life?
The impact is wide ranging. We now have two homes halfway across the world from each other. It’s tough to balance our roaming lifestyle with visits back home. But then again I get to eat a lot of yummy Japanese food too! We haven’t really decided on where our home base will be, and this is difficult to decide. We also have to be sensitive about the other’s culture, beliefs and there is A LOT of compromise involved… but that might just be marriage in general. Yes, she usually wins…
What sort of feelings does a crisis like the one that’s going on in Japan bring out for you both?
It is really difficult to express in words the deep feelings and number of emotions that are running through both of us. We are shocked, saddened, hopeful, frustrated, feel like crying at a moment’s notice, and amazed and proud at the response by individuals facing such dire circumstances. It makes it even more difficult knowing that we are both aid workers but other priorities are keeping us from strapping on boots and joining in on the efforts to help physically. We are doing what we can, and we hope that the little bit of influence we have can help.
Todd and his wife have used their expertise to compile a list of local Japanese organisations and NGOs who need help to continue their rescue work. Find out how you can help Japanese rescue efforts here. If you’re a blogger and would like to get involved, check Todd’s Blog for Japan page.
Todd Wassel is a writer and conflict resolution specialist. You can follow more of Todd’s adventures and lifestyle advice at Todd’s Wanderings or follow him on Twitter @toddwassel. He’s working on his first book about walking the 900 mile Japanese Shikoku Pilgrimage, twice, and has a new project on Things to Do in Tokyo. No, I don’t sleep much.