Best of 2020

I reflected on the year using Pat Kua’s End of Year Retrospective Template. I won’t share all my results here, just a bit of a roundup below, but the questions from that document I really appreciated were:

  • What brought you joy this year?
  • What made you sad this year?
  • What are you grateful for this year?

These three questions sure help in building out goals for next year. If you are looking for a handy framework for reflection, I think Pat’s is a great place to start.

The Last Year

2020 was an extreme year for all. We moved to Japan during a pandemic and my wife lost her mother. My kids endured Japanese elementary school and we evacuated during a typhoon. There was lots to overcome (some of it still going on!). I am certainly grateful for the financial stability to do so. This foundation, and a stable family life, allows me to pursue my joy of reading, writing, and engaging with ideas. Looking at the numbers below you can see how much I put out into the world this year, a marked increase on years past. 2019 was a year of figuring what I wanted to do with my life, and 2020 was actually going out and doing it.

Being outside the rat race of corporate life also gave me more room to engage with art. I spent time assessing how writers put together words, rather than just examining their arguments (cue Bruce Lee’s “don’t think, feel!”). I discovered André Alexis and still think about This Is How You Lose the Time War. Books, film, music, performance, ceramics… even sunrises and sunsets, puffy clouds crossing the sky. Maybe recognizing beauty everywhere is a feature of getting older? This year I definitely spent more time appreciating skills and craft. Thinking about the day in and day out of a writer’s craft is probably what made reading How to Take Smart Notes was so radical for me.

Without setting out to do so, I gravitated towards stories about amazing people. I finally read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and watched Ghandi. I gave my daughter a copy of Greta’s book and read more on the Dalai Lama. Even fictional geniuses found their way into my media diet: The Queen’s Gambit inspired a Christmas chessboard (I was about their age when I got my first chessboard, I told myself).

In 2020, since leaving my job, I spent a lot more time with my kids watching them grow and trying to figure out their passions. We are all trying to find out own way. 2020 to me was one of searching and growth a amongst a seemingly chaotic and changing world.

The Numbers for 2020

🖋 40 blog posts

📰 7 pieces published elsewhere

📸 1962 photos and vids on Flickr

📹 13 videos posted to YouTube

🐦 1387+ tweets

📚 49 books read

🎞 45 films watched

The Last Decade

Ten years is a long time. I entered the decade a very different person than when I came out (who hasn’t?). I moved to Canada with Apple in 2010, and spent the next ten years working with startups and tech companies. I had a second child and built up a wonderful new network of friends and community in Kelowna.

Reflecting on this period one the thing I am happy about is all the self-reflection I did during that time. I grew a lot as a human, shifting my thinking on a lot of topics, and even took action by making changes to how I live my life (eg. downsizing, vegetarianism, anti-racism, technology ethics). At the same time, looking back I feel it was sort of a decade of loss. My Japanese language suffered and my knowledge of Japanese politics and history grew stale. That feeling might be due to recency bias. Since moving back to Japan in March I feel so left behind by all my friends who stayed here. No need to compare, I know, but I cannot help thinking I could have kept up a bit better. Now, well into middle age, I have a better sense of myself and what I find truly important. I will take this feeling into the next decade.

For now, goodbye 2020, goodbye 2010s. And goodbye to all you readers! I will see you bright and early next year. May you be happy, healthy, safe, and free-from suffering.


Previous Best Of’s and roundups

New writing elsewhere, by me

The latest edition of the quarterly Kyoto Journal just dropped with a new article by yours truly. travel, revisited is KJ’s 99th issue. The magazine has long been a staple in the English language media on Japan. I was asked to consider the topic of travel writing as it pertains to my book project. While on writing retreat in Kyoto earlier this year, alone in our apartment there, taking daily walks and runs, I reflected on the question of “why I travel.” It turns out, this is a very heavy question, and had me questioning my own being. Anyways, I tried to encapsulate my approach to travel literature in a couple thousand words and some photos taken from around Kyushu. You can see some select pages from my piece titled “on location” below.

Selected pages from my article in Kyoto Journal 99: travel, revisited
Selected pages from my article in Kyoto Journal 99: travel, revisited

I am very honoured to be included in the pages of Kyoto Journal with such famous writers as Natalie Goldberg, Pico Iyer, and others. You can purchase the magazine digitally for about 5 bucks here. Check out some of their other issues. This is a really high quality magazine.


While working on my book this year I thought I would try to keep my skills sharp by writing more essays for various publications. These short pieces for different outlets gives me a chance to work with a variety of editors, something I really appreciate. So far I have been lucky to have had only good experiences. I come away from each with some valuable (and practical) lessons. I feel like I have been improving my writing craft these past few months, and am very hungry for more!

Other than Kyoto Journal, I have been fortunate to contribute again to the Literary Review of Canada. My third piece for them — titled Shifting Gears: Toward a car-free future — is a review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? by James Wilt. In this essay I lean on my experience working on technology ethics, a theme for all of my contributions to the magazine to date.

Cover of the October issue of the LRC
Cover of the October issue of the LRC

This year I have returned to writing more on Asia, especially coastal Asia: from Japan down to Southeast Asia. This reflects my research interests (for the book and beyond) and ties back to my graduate work on shipping lanes through the South China Sea. I read quite a bit in the areas of Japanese Foreign Policy and regional international relations, and thus started contributing reviews to Books On Asia, a site I had been following for a while. Currently I have three pieces up there, reviews of:

BoA reviews are very tight, unlike some of my more (ahem) “expansive” reviews posted here. Doing different kinds of pieces is helping me to grow. Check out Books on Asia, they have lots of fiction and non-fiction recommendations for Japan and all over Asia. You could start with the best books we read on Asia this year.

Speaking of writing different kinds of pieces, I had one other essay go up on an external site this year. Hōjōki is a classic Japanese text written about a hermit and his three-meter square hut. I first read this book a few years ago. This year a new translation was released by Professor Matthew Stavros, an engaging fellow very knowledgeable about Kyoto. Writers in Kyoto, a group I am a member of, asked me for a review. Rather than writing a very technical review, I decided to take a different approach inspired by my recent reading of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott. As I noted in my review of that book:

one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader

So, in the piece A physical space for your inner self — reading a new translation of Hōjōki by Matthew Stavros I spent time exploring the kinds of historical and philosophical connections sparked inside of me while reading Stavros’s translation. One of the challenges I face in my writing is turning down the level of analysis, and putting more of myself into my pieces.

This year was successful in terms of connecting with other writers and editors. I have a couple more pieces in the hands of editors right now which should appear in the first couple months of 2021. I also plan on pitching some more publications in 2021. If you, dear readers, have any suggestions on what stories I should tell or where you think I would be a good fit, I would be grateful for any advice.

A successful move to Ikijima, the Lucky Island

In the last post I described moving to Japan during a pandemic. After all that drama we followed up with an inter-prefectural move within Japan under a State of Emergency! The drama never ends around here…

Golden Week is around the beginning of May when a series of holidays fall in place almost almost one after another (a couple of Emperor’s birthdays, Constitution Day, Children’s Day etc.). Many people take the whole week off and travel around the country — either to visit relatives or for tourism — in the beautiful May weather before the rainy season brings the oppressive heat of summer. Since everyone has the same week off, everywhere is packed. But not in the year of coronovirus: the government asked everyone to stay home on their holidays.

The State of Emergency called on April 7th was to go to the end of Golden Week on May 6th. We considered waiting until the SOE had lifted before moving, but feared another outbreak as the country started up again. Travelling while everyone stayed home seemed like the best way to mitigate the risk. We paid attention to the news, and when the numbers came out that the Bullet Train only had about 6% ridership, we decided to head to the island.

It was a good move. We took the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and there were only a handful of people waiting to get on the train. At most there were 10 people in our car, which had a capacity of 100. Everyone was wearing masks and we disinfected our seating area. It was the plane flight to Japan all over again. By the time we disembarked in Hakata there were only two people other than the four of us in the car.

Shinkansen scenery — shot and edited entirely on my iPhone

The jetfoil to Iki was a similar story. We were the only passengers on the upper deck, which holds about 90 people. Downstairs, I saw maybe another handful of people. Thus, we were able to traverse the 700 kilometers through 7 prefectures safely.

Jetfoil to Iki was pretty empty
All aboard…? An empty jetfoil to Iki.

Staying at Wasabi

We still didn’t have a home to go to though. So we stayed in a local guesthouse we found online called Wasabi. This cool little backpacker’s hostel is situated high up a hill overlooking Ashibe Fishing Port. I took a few photos around the guesthouse and made a little tour video:

[That whole video was shot and edited on my iPad Pro. I was really surprised at the capability!]

We stayed here for a couple of days while we met with the school district to secure our house and finalize the selection of our school. But we took the day after we arrived off to recover from the trip, and the master of Wasabi took us on a quick tour around the island (photos). We only drove around the outer rim of the island and visited a series of white sand beaches, some historical sites, climbed the biggest mountain (212 meters) to take a 360 video, and of course saw the famous Monkey Rock. I plan on going to each of these sites again and taking lots of pics and video, but this was a quick taste test since the weather was really nice (but windy!).

Moving into the house and first day of school

On our second day in Iki, a Thursday, we decided on a house and a school. After two and a half months of basically being homeless, we finally secured a place of our own! Friday was fridge and washing machine shopping, as well as other home stuff, and we picked up the 19 boxes we had sent from Kyoto. On the Saturday we began the move. We were going to take a little more time, but the school district wanted the kids in school for Monday, since school here just started up again after Golden Week and a bit of a hiatus during the State of Emergency (they only had 4 school days during the month of April).

Monday came soon enough as we spent all weekend unpacking boxes and cleaning. During the weekend some neighbourhood kids came over and offered to walk to school with my girls. On Monday morning they came over at 7:05. My kids were up and changed before the alarm went off at 6, and were out the door with big smiles on their faces. A couple of hours later, while cleaning, I came across this note:

To: Mom and Dad. I hope you will have a nice day by yourself. Mom and Dad thank you for letting us go to school.

Since Monday was an auspicious day (金剛峯日) we decided to make that our official move-in day. Thus we waited until then to set up Baba in the butsudan, enshrine the Sun Goddess ofuda we got while in Ise a few months ago, spread some Ise sand around the four corners of our house for purification, then we walked up a nearby hill (which reminded me a lot of that scene from Totoro!) to pay our respects to the local kami who oversees this area.

After planning this for nearly six months, we are finally here, and our island life can finally begin.

On May 4th the Japanese government extended the State of Emergency to the end of May, but already they are letting up restrictions in rural areas where the impact has been limited. Ikijima has not had any infections since the original six people back in early March, and is taking passenger temperatures before they board any ships or planes before heading to the island. There are still many restaurant and hotel closures on the island, and everyone is still wearing masks, but it seems to be pretty much a return to normal life here. We’ve been here for just 1 week and have settled into a house, saw some sites, made some friends, and enjoyed some beautiful weather. So far so good! Now I just need to get my internet and desk sorted, and then I can get down to some serious work.

iMac sitting in empty tokonoma
Current (temporary) workstation

Moving to Japan during a pandemic

We have now spent 1 month in Japan. This post is a bit of a personal update, for friends and family wondering how things are going on the other side of the world, and also to document my experience during the early days of the pandemic in Japan. This is obviously a snapshot, written during the 10th and 11th of April. The situation is constantly changing, so I refrain from adding too many official details.

The first time I moved to Japan, as an exchange student to Ritsumeikan University, it was Y2K. My friend and I had a plan to escape to the small neighnbbourhood grocery store. It was packed full of food, and had a shutter that could be pulled down in a siege. Seemed like a logical place to go…

The second time I moved to Japan was just after 9/11. During the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, I happened to be in Japan for a week visiting my girlfriend (now spouse) before my final semester at university. When all planes were grounded I was stuck here in Kyoto and started looking for a job. I interviewed at my old alma mater, and secured a position in the PR department. The ban on flights lifted, and my new employers let me go back to Canada to finish my degree. I returned on January 2nd, 2002. It was a different world.

The third time I moved to Japan full time was in the aftershock of the financial crisis in 2008. I was just out of grad school, and having a tough time interviewing for jobs in Canada. Luckily, the company I worked for part time in Nagoya (Apple) was willing to give me a full time position.

This is the fourth time I have moved to Japan to stay for an extended period of time. We arrived on March 11th, the 9th anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake Triple Disaster. Again, there is a global crisis happening in the background.

Continue reading “Moving to Japan during a pandemic”

The next chapter

Some personal news:

After more than 3 years at eDynamic Learning, I have chosen to leave to pursue some personal projects. My family and I will be spending a year on a small island off the southern coast of Japan (see previous post) “on exchange” while I research and write a book about Kyushu’s “Asia strategy.” (I will go into more details in future posts, so please sign up for updates via RSS or the Newsletter!)

This decision has been a while in the making. Regrettably I have not been able to be very open about it, so it may come as a shock to some people. Furthermore the timing has not been great what with the pandemic and with my mother-in-law passing away a couple of weeks ago. We were lucky to leave Canada when we did considering all the travel restrictions. Right now I am still in Kyoto, and will be for the next few weeks before making the move to Ikijima (which hopefully doesn’t get further postponed due to the looming lockdown here in Japan).

Despite all the challenges I am so excited to finally pursue my long-held dream of writing a book! I will be recording that journey, as well as our experiences living on the “Lucky Island” in Japan, on this site once things get settled down in the coming weeks. Watch out for it!

Growth

self portrait of Chad with bristly beard and sombre expression

The last time I shaved was 2 weeks ago. It was the last time that I saw my grandmother alive. She was in hospice and I had been driving up to Vernon to visit her. We knew this was the end. (She was 87). So, I decided to stop shaving.

I have done something similar only a couple times before. Like when my wife told me she was pregnant, I stopped shaving for the whole pregnancy. I let my hair grow and everything for nine months and then shaved it once the baby was born.

There must be something deep — evolutionarily speaking — to do this kind of ritual at important life events. Some sort of inner emotional need to externally represent cycles — whether birth or death. I am not sure. I don’t think I learned it, it is just a feeling… a thing that has to be done.

My grandmother — my last living grandparent — is gone. She passed away on her terms, helping people while she went. It was pretty amazing actually. She will be missed.

Her funeral is soon. It has been exactly two weeks, so tonight I will shave the beard.

Let a new cycle begin.

A quick end of year roundup

Last day of 2018. Only wrote 5 posts this year, but it was a big one for me since I took a big step up in my job and even took on a second job. Some highlights:

  • taught 2 semesters of Computer Science as a sessional instructor at University of British Columbia (Okanagan) 👨‍🎓
  • though I didn’t do a lot of writing, I did create over 600 slides for my lectures ✍️
  • paid off 2 of my 3 students loans (the final one will be done in the coming months) 💰
  • a magical trip to Hawaii (review) 🏝️
  • World Cup, which was brilliant, and motivated me to start tracking La Liga, in addition to my beloved Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League ⚽
  • read 50 books, including a lot about Asian history (not just Japan, but China, India, Tibet, Southeast Asia). Really taken an interest in what is happening on continental Asia these days. So interesting! 🌏
  • was even able to re-read a few books, which never happens ♻️
  • discovered Murakami Haruki (read 3 of his books) 📚
  • only watched 30 films (a third were rewatches). My all time favourite of the year: Bao 🥟

Now that my teaching is done, I plan on writing more in 2019. I haven’t set a goal yet, but likely the topic will be on Asia. Kinda think I might be going back to my Coming Anarchy roots. I will be in India next month, and Japan in the summer. So there will be at least 2 travelogues.

2018 was big for me. It feels like a new beginning. Here’s to 2019! 🥂

Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.
Continue reading “Your life-changing books”

A brief pause

It has been a couple of months since I have made an entry here — it is merely due to life keeping me very busy. I am working on some large projects at my day job (at which I was recently promoted to Director, Platforms & Technology), and in late December was offered the opportunity to teach a class at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus.The course is Digital Citizenship, a sort of technology ethics course. It was a last minute emergency appointment, and preparation for three lectures each week has taken all of my spare time. Luckily I am team-teaching with a very talented friend, otherwise there is no way I could do it.

Once things begin to calm down in late March or April, I should like to get back to writing. I certainly want to reflect on my experience teaching, and I still have to write about my new year’s trip to Japan, including my stay on one of Japan’s holiest mountains Koya-san (see pics here). Furthermore, there are a number of book reviews I need to write. See you in spring!