2019 Goals

Happy New Year! Should I still be saying this, seeing as it is already mid January?

Drifting at sea. Image, courtesy

Drifting at sea. Image, courtesy

I like making to do lists and although I don’t want my life to be a checklist, I can’t help it. If life life were an adventure at sea, some people are happy just drifting with the wind, going wherever it takes them. While I like to drift, I want to know that I’m drifting towards a particular destination. So that’s why I’ve made a list of my goals this year. I want to live every day as an unknown adventure but in reality my days are predictably mundane (yawn). Anyway, by the time it’s Christmas this year, I  hope I will experience adventures undreamed of and in addition, I will have achieved the following:

  1. Move to Tokyo
Tokyo

Tokyo

Since I moved to Japan in October of 2014, I have been living in a rural town called Nomi in Ishikawa Prefecture. Life is quiet and idyllic, perfect for doing a PhD or raising a kid, for example. But from April this year, I will start a new job in Tokyo (which I hope to excel at) and while I have visited the city several times for days at a time, I have never actually lived there. I need to find an affordable apartment in a good neighbourhood not far from work, a school for Jeremy as he will be starting elementary school and an after school program for him (because I’m not going to be back from work by 3 or 4 p.m. when school ends).

2. Make a travel calendar and hopefully stick to it

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#sunnyDay

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I really want to travel abroad (out of Japan I mean) this year and I have a somewhat flexible schedule at the moment, but I don’t have any money for travel. From April when I start working, I hope to make some money, but I am not sure I will have the time. However, I still hope to travel abroad 4 times this year:

  • Golden Week – there is an entire week of public holidays this year because in addition to the golden week holidays starting in the first week of May, there is also 2 public holidays for the new emperor’s coronation. The current emperor is stepping down and his son will take over from May, 2019. The Heisei era is over. The only problem is that flights at this time are at their most expensive as literally everyone in Japan will be on the road. So I think we (J and I or should I say I and J?) can only afford to go somewhere nearby, like Taiwan.
  • Summer Break – kids have like a 2 month summer break and I hope we can travel abroad with J if I can take 5 days of leave from work. I’m hoping to go to London or Paris.
  • Autumn Break – if I take 2 days of leave and combine it with a long weekend, I can travel somewhere in East Asia, like Vietnam or Thailand, for 4 or 5 days.
  • Christmas and New Year Break – I hope to spend this period in Kenya meeting up with my family and catching up with my friends.

3. Take the JLPT N1 in December

While I have mastered most of the grammar, I need to learn like 1,000 new Kanjis and the corresponding vocabulary in order to pass the JLPT N1. I have about 10 months to study if I can put in the effort.

Japanese grammar

Japanese grammar

4. Writing Goals

I’ve always had this dream of becoming a creative fiction writer. I know I have it in me but I am either lacking in inspiration, discipline, time or all three. Anyway I hope by the end of the year I will have done the following when it comes to writing:

  • 1 blogpost a week for this blog
  • Start on my first novel, I haven’t decided what it will be about¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Write 2 short stories and submit to short story competitions. I have 2 ideas for the stories.

I also want to submit a journal paper that I am working on during this postdoc period.

5. Reading Goals

Read 13 books, 12 in English, 1 in Japanese.

Thus far I have read “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

6. Sort out my finances

personal financial planning

personal financial planning

I am no longer a student and no longer in my 20s. It’s finally time I started thinking of my personal finances in terms of:

  • savings and pension – I should have savings for emergency cases and I should have a solid pension plan, not just what the company will recommend/offer.
  • Investment – I should have an investment plan. It’s not enough to just have money in the bank, you need to grow the money by investing it.
  • J’s future – while Japanese schools are free until high school, there are a lot of costs unrelated to tuition that keep on increasing. I should also save for his university tuition. I am not even sure how much longer we will be in Japan, but I should still save for his future schooling expenses.

7. Take Care of J

Although these 2019 goals are numbered, they are not exactly in order of importance. Taking care of Jeremy is the first priority in my life. He’s growing up quite fast. He’s fluent in Japanese but I do need to teach him reading and writing English, and Swahili too hopefully.

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Merry Christmas from me and mine!

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8. Take care of myself

You know, eat healthy,  exercise, read, and buy myself  a Kindle for my birthday. I am tired of lugging around my books. This year, I want to be more kind to others, help others as much as I can.

Love thyself

Love thyself

What do you hope for in 2019?

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2018 in Review

When I am older, maybe around 70, and my earlier years are a soft fuzzy memory, and someone happens to ask me what I remember from 2018, these will be the memories that will stand out.

2018 is the year that first of all, I got my PhD. My parents and brothers, and my friend Walter, came to Japan for the first time to attend my graduation ceremony.

2018 is the year I turned 30 and Jeremy turned 5.

In 2018, I went to Las Vegas for the first time (with my friend Bee) and had a fabulous time that included seeing Mariah Carey in concert from 2nd row seats, a trip to the grand canyon and some mandatory night-time fun 😉

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Best travelling buddy ever!

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2018 is the year that I finally cleared my HELB loan and I even got a certificate to prove it. To be honest, I don’t know if this will be an important memory in 40 years’ time, but at the time of receiving the certificate, I felt great!

2018 is also the year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for the first time and I passed the N2 Level. I also won 3rd place in a speech contest early in the year.

In the summer of 2018, I climbed Mt. Haku with 3 of my friends, hiking uphill (upmountain?) for 7 hours, sleeping in a large dorm room with like 30 other people, waking up at 4am the following day to catch the sunrise at the peak (which we didn’t get to see because we couldn’t stand the cold any longer), having breakfast and trekking downhill for another 6 hours.

I also went paragliding (tandem) for the first time.

My Japanese friend Akiko got married in June this year and Jeremy was a train boy at the wedding, although he thinks he is the one who married Akiko. Another friend called Siddhant got married this year too!

My best friend Phyll also got married in December this year (although I was unfortunately, unable to attend the wedding.) The bachelorette party that I helped organize was great fun though! And we did do a photoshoot at the Nairobi Arboretum. On that day, it seems that literally everyone had come to the gardens not to enjoy nature, but to have their photos taken. A tourist asked us if it there was some kind of photography event, and my friend replied yeah, it was photography day in Nairobi!

When I went back to Kenya in late October, I was joined by my Japanese parents, Mr. and Mrs. N. and their daughter. It was their first time in Kenya (and Africa in general). Overall, they had a great time (I think). They were only around for 4 days so the highlights were the Nairobi National Park, the Bomas of Kenya and the Masai Market.

If  2018 was marked by my finally completing formal learning, then it also marked my transition back into the working world. I also made the decision to remain in Japan after my graduation, which means I will only get to see my family in Kenya about once or twice a year. 😦

The transition wasn’t as smooth as I thought, because being in the real world is expensive you guys! Try working a part-time (postdoc) job while paying rent and utilities (in winter, the heating costs can be quite high), while at the same time saving for a move to Tokyo. Rent in the student housing was quite subsidized so my costs rose exponentially post graduation and I wasn’t prepared. I had to request to move in with my Japanese parents so I can save for the big move ahead in March next year (I shall do a blogpost on what it costs to move to Tokyo). They are literally angels walking on this Earth. I know I will never be able to pay them back for their kindness and I can only hope to pass along the acts of kindness whenever I am in a position to do so for others. I should probably do a post on what it’s like to live in a Japanese household, but Mr. and Mrs. N are far from a typical Japanese couple. For starters, they just turned 70 and made a trip to Africa! for the first time this year. If you have ever been to Japan,  you will realize that to many Japanese people, Africa (yes, not many people have any idea of the specific countries) is a hot continent far, far away from Japan. It might as well be a continent on Mars. So that should tell you something about Mr. and Mrs.N., or just Otoosan and Okaasan as I call them.

I am optimistic that 2019 will offer new adventures and milestones, and I can’t wait to share those with you. There is the move to Tokyo and all the exciting possibilities the city promises (bottomless Tinder swiping lol), the new job that I will talk about once I start working there, Jeremy starting elementary school, not forgetting traveling adventures whenever time and budget will allow.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas!

Here’s to 2019!

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Want to do a PhD? Here’s my Advice.

Several years ago, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree (first class honours, sorry that will never get old) in computer science from JKUAT, I wrote an A to Z guide for campus students that I think is still relevant today. If you are just about to join university, be sure to check out the link.

The other day, someone asked me if I had any advice for her, she is a prospective PhD student. She is not the only one, a few other people ask me for general advice about doing a PhD. So I thought long and hard, as recent PhD graduates are wont to do. I finally decided to do a blogpost because there is so much to say. This might also apply anyone planning to do a master’s degree as well.

A PhD is a dedicated, long term project. Some master’s programs are taught and are only a year long so I would encourage anyone planning to do a master’s degree to go ahead. But a PhD? You should definitely take time to think about dedicating at the very least 4 years of your life to just focusing on one goal at the expense of all others. Even if the official PhD time takes 3 years, like in my case, you might still spend a year preparing for the PhD and some transition time post PhD. Here are 10 things you should consider:

  1. Goal: Why Are You doing a PhD?

You really need to know why you are doing your PhD, otherwise when the nights are long and the going is tough, you might lose sight of that goal. In my case, I wanted to change my career. A PhD can be an end goal in itself, or it could be a stepping stone to a career in academia or industry. There were days when I asked myself why I was subjecting myself to a PhD but then I would keep reminding myself of my goal. I was working at a global consulting company but I knew I wanted to join the science side of things. I wanted to be where the technology is developed, not just the point of sale part. So I knew I wanted to get the PhD and then join a global IT company in research. It would have been hard to make the move from the business side to a job in RnD so the PhD was necessary. I also wanted to do AI or at least its application and a PhD was a way to acquire the knowledge necessary to make the move.

If you are doing it for the money, don’t even bother. For 4 years, my stipend was the same (and is now less as a postdoc as I am working part time!).  While my friends still in the working world got raises or changed jobs and increased their wages, mine remained stagnant. There might be inflation or not but your scholarship/salary/allowance will generally remain the same as long as you are a  student. Studies have shown that a PhD is only marginally more valuable than a master’s degree in earnings. “A PhD is more of a pride thing as it only rarely make you more money than a master’s degree.”

2. Adviser

Your PhD adviser/supervisor is the most important decision you will have to make when you decide to do a PhD, besides choosing the topic of your research. A good supervisor will guide you towards your graduation and be available for consultation throughout the PhD. A great supervisor will understand your situation e.g. if you have a family with young kids. It can be hard to know what kind of person your supervisor will be, but you can try to figure it out from their prompt response to your emails, tone, etc. If they respond within a reasonable time, that is a good sign. You can also have a talk about your situation and expectations in advance. Some supervisors want to see you in the lab all the time, while others are content with seeing you at the weekly or bi-weekly lab meetings. Some supervisors may be excellent researchers but are verbally abuse to their students (true story about one lab I know of in particular, someone must cry at the progress report meeting); some are physical (I heard of one who slapped his student!), some have no conflict resolution skills, some engage in unethical practices like doctoring the data as long as they can publish the results, etc. Some supervisors have really nice personalities but are clueless when it comes to guiding you on the PhD path, so you may be stuck for years trying to complete your PhD without an experienced guiding hand. It is hard to really know what kind of person your future supervisor will be like, but if you can, it is worth taking the time to contact former/current students and asking them about their experience.

3. Where to do your PhD?

This depends on two factors: availability of funding and the topic of your research. If you are doing a science/engineering/technology degree, I would encourage to do it in Japan, provided you get funding. I got the MEXT scholarship, but there are also other scholarships like Rotary, JSPS, etc . Some supervisors also have private laboratory funds from companies funding research so they can also fund PhD students. Some universities here have state of the art equipment laboratories for research, conferences etc.

The timing for a PhD in Japan is generally structured, so you can actually know your expected graduation way in advance.

This is where Japan is, FYI

This is where Japan is, FYI

4. Your Topic

When you begin your PhD, you may not know exactly what your topic will be. And that’s ok. It might also change over time. You just need to know the general research area and the subtopics you are interested in. Contact the supervisors who are doing those same topics and find the one carrying out research closely related to your interests. You can also google the open questions in your research area or read tons of papers while paying close attention to the “future work” sections of the papers. You need to have a passion for your research topic. I don’t mean passion like  a burning fire in your belly, but an enduring need to see your research through to the very end.

PhD topic

PhD topic

5. Prioritize

Let’s say you’ve finally decided on the university, topic and adviser. So now it’s time to put in the work. There will be many tasks demanding your time, some meaningful and some not. Even now, whenever I look at my list of “projects”, I realize that it is quite long and I don’t think there is enough time in the world to finish all of these projects. So I have to prioritize, every day. During the PhD, my focus was on completing it on time.

6. Mental Health

There are so many studies, news reports, blogs and articles all saying that there is a mental health crisis among graduate students. PhD students suffer from depression and anxiety because of low wages, high pressure to produce results and publish, uncertain future, lack of a social life, etc. When you prioritize, put yourself on top of that list. Even if you have family, you should still take care of yourself first so that you’re able to take care of others. You know what they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup or something of the sort.

You can’t be on all the time, you need time off during the PhD. You probably can’t afford to take a long time off but you can take numerous small breaks. Do something that takes your mind off the PhD. Binge watch Netflix for a weekend. Climb a mountain. Take a weekend trip away. Go on Tinder dates. Read novels. Exercise. Get a hobby. Go out dancing with your friends. Make friends with people doing a PhD under similar circumstances, for instance I am in a group on Facebook for PhD parents/Early Career Researchers. Your friends don’t have to be in the same physical space, even online friends can be helpful.

Get ENOUGH sleep.

7. Maintain your social ties. 

Do not ignore your friends. They ground you. I reached out to my friends whenever I needed encouragement.  We talk about life all the time, the choices we are making and the different paths our lives are taking.

8. Patience

It takes time to do great work. Keep your overall goal in mind.

9. Celebrate small victories.

Break your large goal into smaller goals. Prioritize. And when achieve a small goal, take the time to celebrate. You don’t need to wait until you finally finish the PhD to celebrate (because it will be underwhelming, trust me). Celebrate when your code works. When your data is looking good. When the conference paper is accepted. When your journal paper is published. When you clean your room.

10. Prepare for the post PhD period

There is a ton of blogs out there telling you how to survive the PhD. And one day, you will have the convocation ceremony, and then it will all be over. What next? You might get caught up in post-phd blues (yes, that’s a real thing). Prepare for the post-phd period. Take some time off and travel, or do a part-time job, just do something to give yourself a mental break and transition into the working world. You need time off to recover from the trauma of a PhD.

And just like when you completed your bachelor’s degree, you don’t have to be constrained to careers that are tied to your PhD. You can work in a related area or an in a field that is completely unrelated. The research skills you learned during the PhD should serve you well whatever you decide to do after the PhD is over.

Bonus:

Lastly, don’t let other peoples experiences discourage you, including this post. When I first came to JAIST, someone told me “oh, it’s impossible to finish a PhD in 3 years.” I heard a lot of other discouraging statements in my time here, but do not let anyone deter you from your goal. Remember, people will tell things from their experiences, but your experience will not necessarily be the same as theirs.

Do not forget to subscribe to PhD comics.com

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I got my PhD!

In the news article on the website is a photo of me receiving my PhD from JAIST university president. I finally graduated!

My name is up on the wall! No, Savvy Kenya is not the name on the wall LOL.

Three weeks ago, on the 21st of September, surrounded by my family and friends, I finally received my doctorate in Information Science. It was a culmination of 4 long years of hard work.

My family and friends turned up to help me celebrate this special day!

However, a few days before that, I had gone to Tokyo to receive my parents, brothers and friend at Narita Airport. We spent a day in Tokyo sightseeing at Tokyo Skytree (the tallest tower in the world) and Asakusa.
Family photo outside Tokyo Skytree

Family photo outside Tokyo Skytree

A moment at Asakusa

A candid moment at Asakusa

  We took the shinkansen to Ishikawa, and then a university shuttle bus to JAIST for the graduation ceremony. After graduation, it was no time for rest! We took a road trip along the scenic Hakusan White Road to Gokayama Traditional village. We were lucky to catch some traditional gun performance in action.

At Gokayama

A day after the road trip, we took the express train to Kyoto (thank God for JR train passes, right?). We went to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and Nara Park the following day.
At Fushimi Inari Taisha

At Fushimi Inari Taisha

My family left for Kenya on Sept 25th. They must have spent more times on trains than actually sightseeing, and next time I should definitely have a less intensive schedule. They experienced culture shock of course, and I had forgotten how hard it was at first to adjust to Japanese food. I moved out on the same day my family left. I had to move out of student housing to a new short-term apartment, so it was a really busy time for me. It is now almost 3 weeks since then I feel like I am just coming to terms with the fact that I’ve finally finished the formal education journey (of course actual learning never ends). I’m finally PhinisheD!  
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Tinder in Japan: A Rural Experience

So the blues have passed, and I am really excited because I’m graduating next week on Friday (that’s what the timer on the right side of the blog is counting down to)! My parents and bros are coming over to Japan to celebrate the big day with me and I’m looking forward to spending some time with them and showing them a bit of Japan. I haven’t seen them in over one and a half years so I can’t wait. In the meantime, I remember I promised you guys a post about my experience using Tinder in Japan. You are in for a ride, so get the popcorn ready!

Dating in Kenya

Before coming to Japan, I knew little of Tinder except that it was a smart dating app. I’m very outgoing and I have a lot of friends, so meeting new people was easy. I had no need for online dating. It is possible to meet dateable people at weddings, funerals, in the bus, at the bus stop, at Kenya Cinema, while walking down the street,  at churches, at a club, at a restaurant, at work, at a football or rugby match, hey, the possibilities are endless.

But this post isn’t about dating in Kenya, which I could write a book about. So let’s skip ahead to 4 years ago, when I packed my bags and came to Japan. I assumed it would be the same thing – I would make friends, and through the new friends I would meet their friends, and friends of friends of friends, and so on and so forth, so I would have a wide range of options in the hypothetical dating pool.

Boy, was I wrong.

You know the expression, there are a lot fish in the sea? To mean there are many men in the dating pool. Yes, there is a lot of fish in the sea, but in rural Japan, we (foreign females), are living on LAND! Dry land. A desert of thirst.

The thirst is real.

Making friends with fellow Japanese students in the uni proved harder than I thought. Until now, I only have one Japanese friend my age. The weird thing about Japanese young people (in my experience living in Ishikawa) is that you can meet them and talk today, but tomorrow they will act like they don’t know you. The next time you meet them, you think you will pick up from where you left off and “deepen” the friendship, but no, you start again from zero. Who has the energy to do that, repeatedly? Hey, they will always be nice, polite, but will always maintain this cool distance. So initially, and even until now most of my friends are fellow international students.

Six months after arriving in Japan, I signed up to meet people on Tinder because it wasn’t going to happen IRL. I couldn’t speak Japanese very well and a lot of Japanese guys can’t speak English and even if they can, they are extremely shy about it so perhaps they would be different online? Let’s see what happened, shall we?

The Coffee Date

It didn’t take long to get a few matches.

It is so exciting getting your first match on Tinder!

But most of them never messaged. Somehow it’s like an unwritten rule that girls wait for the guys to message them first. I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t remember who messaged who first.

So we got talking with this guy and we communicated in English. He was a couple of years older and was working in the nearby town. We agreed to meet up for a coffee date on his lunch break. Even if it worked out or not, at  least I would get a much needed break from research and enjoy a Latte and a pastry at a nice coffee shop.

It was a pleasant afternoon when we met. We said hello and that was when I discovered he could hardly speak English. He had been using a translation app the entire time. No matter though, I could hold  a basic conversation in Japanese by then. He then led the way to…… the roadside vending machines!

You know how along the major roads in Japan, they have these rest stops with a couple of benches, vending machines and bathrooms? Yeah. So that’s where we went. So much for a coffee shop atmosphere. But hey, at least he paid for the insipid-vending-machine coffee.

Coffee at a vending machine in Japan

Coffee at a vending machine in Japan. Image, courtesy.

We sat on a bench and soaked in the afternoon sunshine. It was during the ensuing conversation that I realized why he didn’t take me to a coffee shop. Turns out he wasn’t single (!!) and this being rural Japan, I realized he didn’t want to be seen in public on a date with a foreigner because well, it’s a small city. Everyone knows everyone. I can literally count the number of black girls in Ishikawa on one hand!

So yeah, that was that. Unmatched and blocked.

The English Date

No, this isn’t about an Englishman.

The second Japanese guy I met on Tinder was a medical student. He spoke English well enough –  he wasn’t using a translation app. I prefer meeting people face to face instead of endless chatting back and forth, so we set up a  lunch date one Saturday. Time, noon.

Knowing how Japanese people are strict about time keeping – even for casual social events, they will be there 5 minutes early, I turned up 5 minutes early too and sat in my car in the parking lot, waiting for the confirmation message that he was there too. 10 minutes went by. No word. So I texted him asking him what was up. He said he was sorry but was running a bit late. So I said it was ok, I would wait. (By the way it is extremely rude to be late in Japan; if you know you’re going to be late you of course must do the decent thing and let the waiting party know. So was this a sign of disrespect? ) 20 minutes went by. Again, he said he was on the way. I decided to go in and wait at a table. At 12:30 I decided to go ahead and order, he would catch up when he did. He finally arrived a few minutes after 1pm. We said hi, he sat down opposite me, and when the waiter brought the menu, he ordered dessert.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” I asked him.

“Oh, I already had lunch with my friends.”

Wait a minute, he was late because he was having lunch with his friends?

He didn’t even apologize and straight away he started asking me:

“So you speak English in Kenya.”

“Yes.” I mumbled.

“I need English because I’m going to become a medical doctor. From what age do you learn English?”

“Um..” before I could answer.

“Are you like a native in English?”

English this, English that, English X, English Y.

This guy just wanted to use me to improve his English. I told him to an English school. I then updated my Tinder Profile by adding the Line “I am not an English teacher” in Japanese (英語の先生じゃないよ).

So again, that was that. Unmatched and blocked.

The Are-You-Poor Date

A few weeks went by. I was busy in the lab, writing papers for conferences, planning travels and applying for visas, keeping J alive and all that. Then on some days, loneliness or boredom would strike or I would feel the need to take a break from the humdrum of research life. So on those days I would be seen swiping on Tinder. Left.  Left. Left. wait a minute, pause..hmm let’s check profile, no, left. Oh, what do we have have here, right. Left. Left. Right. Right. Left. You know, how swiping works haha.

So another coffee date (at a real coffee shop) was set up with this guy who runs his own business, he was only 28. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur in Japan so I thought that was impressive. I was running late so I texted him to say I would be 5 minutes late. Luckily, I arrived on time. Perfunctory hellos were exchanged. He then walked ahead into the coffee shop and ordered his coffee without checking back to see if I had even followed him into the restaurant. There was no polite “what will you have?” or idle chatter. While he waited for his order, I scanned the menu while the cashier waited patiently. I settled on the usual Latte and opened my wallet to pay. Empty!

I literally was looking into my wallet like that

Listen, Japan is so cash-based. Everywhere you go, it’s cash cash cash. No credit cards, no debit cards. I don’t even have a debit card, so I have to go to the bank every few days to withdraw piles of cash which run out immediately because everything is so expensive. I had money in my account but if I had stopped to withdraw it, I would have been late for the date. So anyway, I took out my coin wallet. It had a solitary 100 yen coin in it. The coffee was 300 yen.

The guy was watching all this and didn’t offer to top up the 200 (~2dollars) yen difference! I am quite happy to pay my bills but come on, it was 200 yen.. so I took out my credit card and had to go to a different terminal that can handle credit card payments and then they printed out long receipts and gave me to sign, so much hustle. By then, the guy had got his coffee and was sitting on the terrace outside. I had already paid for my coffee so might as well enjoy it, right? So I joined him at the table.

He didn’t bother asking me if I was ok with it before lighting a cigarette and I hadn’t even settled properly in my seat before he asked,

So did you come to Japan to make money?

What??

“No, I’m a student,” I answered.

So how are you making money?

“I’m not.”

So how do you live?

“I get a scholarship from the Japanese government.”

“So you do get money from Japan.”

Er.. well.

You are studying so you can make money?

“Well, I am doing a PhD. If I wanted to make money I would have stopped after the first degree.”

I never went to university but I am making money.” he answered. “So do you have money in Africa?

“No, I live in a tree.” I answered sarcastically.

He didn’t get the sarcasm. He honestly thought that we live in trees in Africa. This guy’s image of Africa is what you get when  you type “Africa” into Google Images: an empty expanse of savanna stretching for miles, dotted by wild animals and a few humans with hungry faces looking into the tourists’ cameras. He probably thinks Africa is a country.

This is the first image result for "Africa" on google images

This is the first image result for “Africa” on google images

I couldn’t stand that level of ignorance and Googled images of Nairobi. I told him I had bought my Samsung Note 4 (the hottest thing at the time) in Kenya and he didn’t seem like he believed me. He probably thought those images of Nairobi are fake. Whatever.

The questions he was asking me were just a runaround to the real question he wanted to ask, “are you poor?”. That empty wallet didn’t help the African image.

For those wondering, of course I want to make money. But I came to Japan to study. Can’t a girl get some education?

The Chatting Club

Actually, many of the Japanese guys on Tinder are just content to have an online “foreign” friend to talk to. You’ll be like a therapist that they can chat (or even call you to talk) with at the end of the day. However, every time you suggest a meet up, they’ll give excuses  like, and these I have heard: “I am reading the newspaper” or “I am getting a haircut today.” I am usually too busy to chat anyway and would rather watch a movie or read a book. Plus I hate talking to strangers on the phone.

The Dates That Went Well

Not all is doom and gloom. I have had 2 dates with two Japanese gentlemen that went well. The first one was actually quite nice, but I think he was more curious to know about me as a “foreigner” and less as a “woman” individual. We ended up being friends, well more like friendly acquaintances.

The other date with a Japanese guy that well was a lunch date. He took me to a lovely Italian restaurant, then we went for a drive and coffee.  I had a really nice time. He had a great sense of humour and we were laughing throughout. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel the chemistry. Again, we ended up friendly acquaintances, at least on Facebook.

In Conclusion Cultural Divide

If the culture gap is a crevice/gap that we have to bridge, here is what it looks like for an African woman in Japan:

  • Dating a fellow African – it’s narrow enough that if you reach across, you can shake hands. However, in my area of Japan, out of 100 swipes, there will be 1 black guy (who then must meet the swipe-right criteria), and he’s probably not African.
  • Dating a non-Asian Foreigner who speaks English – the gap is too wide to stretch out and reach, but it’s easy to build a bridge across it, especially if there are some interests you have in common. They will also say exactly what they are looking for. The cards are laid on the table. It’s up to you if you want to play the game.
  • Dating an Asian Foreigner/non-English Speaking Foreigner – the gap is now wide enough to need a team of engineers to build the bridge.
  • Dating a Japanese – the gap is the Grand Canyon. You cannot build a bridge across it, you have to hike down, then hike up to other side. You have to be willing to understand all the non-spoken nuances in their language and culture. In Japanese culture, no one openly states their intentions, all their cards are held close to their chest, and it’s up to you to “read the air.” Who has the time? 🙄🙄🙄

Anyway, below is a picture of my friend and I at the Grand Canyon in July for your reference.

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Gazing upon the #grandcanyon

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Maybe Tokyo will be different? *shrugs.*

What’s your worst Tinder date (in Japan or elsewhere?)

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2018 So Far: Taking Stock and Post PhD Blues

I just want to stay in bed all day!

I have been feeling pensive lately. You would that think finishing my PhD will leave me feeling nothing but ecstasy, every step I take feeling like I’m walking on sunshine. I thought so too. That I would be elated, high on endorphins all day. So the dip in the mood was unexpected. When you work so hard for something, and then you achieve it, it can be hard to move on from what you have held onto for so long. You reach the goal and then realize you forgot to think, what next? It can be terrifying knowing you are approaching the end of one familiar chapter of your life. And you have to open the next chapter, not knowing what it will bring. I have followed a fairly predictable life the last 4 years; but now that it is time to move on, I am a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I am not sure which one I feel more than the other.

Being my own shrink, I always try to find out could be the cause of whatever I am feeling. I talked with my friend Vi who told me it could be because I’ve finished school. After decades of schooling, it’s finally over. This morning, I decided to google “post PhD blues” and I hit jackpot. Post PhD Blues are real so if you are a PhD student, be aware and be prepared. Imagine you are Frodo and you’ve journeyed all these years to destroy the ring, you’ve done it, it’s over. What next, Frodo, what next?

It’s over

It’s been over 3 weeks since I successfully defended my thesis and I am kind of slowly getting out of the funk. There is so much to look forward to, including my graduation next month. My parents and brothers are coming to Japan and I haven’t seen them in almost 2 years! I am also going to change apartments in late September (I hate moving so this is  not really something to look forward to!) and then going to Kenya in late October for a long overdue holiday (I’m coming home!).

In an attempt to get over the blues, I decided to look back at the year so far and reflect on what I have achieved so far. In other words, to take stock. I don’t do new year’s resolutions, I just set goals for the year. Here is what I set for 2018:

1. Take Care of Jeremy

Well, he’s still alive, isn’t he? 😀

Jeremy playing with his friend Joe at Kibagata Park in Komatsu.

He’s a really friendly, energetic and smart boy. I’m not just saying that because I’m his mother. I should  make more of an effort to teach him English though; Japanese has now become his primary language. He even dreams in it. Really can’t be helped because he spends most of his formative time in the kindergarten where everything is in Japanese.

2. Write my thesis, defend it and graduate 

Done, done and almost done!

Exactly

3. Do Japanese Language Proficiency Test (N2 Level)

I did the test in July and passed! There is still so much learning left to do though. It is one thing to pass the JLPT, it is another thing to navigate the real world in Japanese. I still can’t read the newspaper, I have a hard time following the news (whenever I catch a glimpse of it) and the business environment uses a formal level of Japanese that even natives struggle with.

My JLPT N2 Test Result

My JLPT N2 Test Result

4. Go to Las Vegas

I spent a week in Las Vegas in July and I had the time of my life guys! From getting 2nd row seats in a Mariah Carey concert to a bus trip to the grand canyon. Las Vegas for me lived up to its image.

Bathroom selfie in the mirror with my friend Bern before the Mariah Carey concert.

5. Get a job

I got my dream job guys! At a top global company with HQ in Tokyo. In RnD: Cloud computing/IoT Research. I’ll start in April next year. In Japan, it is common for students to get jobs one year before graduation. Japanese companies invest in their new employees and will retrain them if necessary, because you are expected to be employed for life. Until I start at the company, I’ll be a post-doc researcher in the same lab, so I’ll still in JAIST for another 6 months from October.

6. Take care of myself

Haha this post is making me sound like a braggart.

It’s just that I am reporting the results of years and years of hard work. I don’t blog about the tears, the sweat and the blood. I don’t write about the sleepless nights, the cups of coffee, the stress over bills, the hustle of waking up at 4am to catch the bullet train to Tokyo in time for my interview then coming back the same evening to Ishikawa so I can pick Jeremy up from school. I don’t tweet about the anxiety of whether my thesis is good enough. I don’t inform you, dear readers, that the cost of going to Las Vegas was taken care of by my school because of I was mainly going there for a conference. Perhaps I haven’t let it slip that I have worked several part time jobs just to make ends meet and to save a little on the side. For sure, I haven’t mentioned that there are days when I can’t seems to get out of bed, when after I take Jeremy to the school bus stop, I go back to bed for the rest of the day asking myself what’s the point of it all. I’ve probably consumed more caffeine, alcohol and tobacco than’s good for me. So don’t buy all the hype!

It is important to take care of ourselves. Mentally, physically, emotionally. My escape is books, I read a lot whenever I can. I should start exercising again, it’s been months since I was last in the gym, but I swim from time to time.

This summer (on Aug 4th) I finally went paragliding. It was only about 15 minutes long but totally worth it.

Paragliding at Sky Shishiku

Paragliding at Sky Shishiku

Two weeks after that, together with 3 of my friends, we climbed Mount Haku, one of Japan’s 3 holy mountains. (The other being Mt. Tateyama and of course Mt. Fuji). It was tough going. Our legs were jelly by the time we came down from the mountain the following day. But it was definitely worth it and I would do it again.

The sunset was nothing short of stunning.

The sunset was nothing short of stunning.

In the weeks since the final defense I have kept busy attending several festivals that are common in summer in Japan. I’ve even been to a 3-day kids camp with Jeremy, and we’ve been to an amusement park, the pool, the beach… Now I feel like I need a day off to just do nothing. To think about my future and what I plan to do in my 30s. It’s like I had put my life on hold during the PhD but now it’s time to live again.

Bonus
(Read 12 books. A book a month.)

That was my goal for 2018 and so far I am on track.  If you are interested in what I’m reading you can check out my goodreads profile. So far I have read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Steadman, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8) by John Tiffany, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro, Freeing Shadows by Lucia Kombe and most recently Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

I am not sure what I will read next, but most likely a compilation of short stories by Roald Dahl.

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Looking for a Husband: On Single Parenthood in Japan

looking.jpg

Looking for my husband. Have you seen him? Image, courtesy.

Alright guys, buckle up. I am going to tell you my single parenthood experience in Japan. I prefer the term “single parent” to “single mother”; semantics, I know, but married or not, a mother is a mother. The parenting bit is the one that is single.

Where is your husband?

Whenever I am with Jeremy and I meet people (mostly old ladies) in my neighbourhood in Japan – the pool, the supermarket etc, the first question out of their mouths after remarking just how cute Jeremy is, is:

やっぱりご主人は先端大学ですね。

Which roughly translates to:

Your husband must be (studying or working) in JAIST.

So JAIST, my uni, is the main ‘source’ of foreigners around; about half the student population is made of international students and maybe 30% of the faculty and researchers. It’s a valid assumption. However, the assumption that it must be my husband studying or working and not me, that I have grown tired of.

“No, I am the one studying there.” I always reply.

This is then inevitably followed by a shocked face because how can you be studying and you are a mother?? This is Japan after all. Everything, even the path that people are supposed to follow in life, has a certain order. As a woman, you work hard, go to good schools so you can meet a husband with potential, and once you get your first kid you must drop out of work to look after your child. (Everyone works to ensure this order is maintained. “Many institutions incentivize this arrangement: Japanese corporations often give husbands whose wives stay home a bonus, and the Japanese tax system punishes couples with two incomes. “ – and recently on the news, it emerged that at a Tokyo medical university lowered scores of female applicants because it didn’t want too many women in the workplace.)You are supposed to finish school, even PhD if you must, before you start a family.

Anyway, back to my conversations. Once the old ladies process the shock of me being the one in school, the next question almost always is:

Your husband is Japanese?”  as they try to catch a second or third glimpse of Jeremy to see if he’s “half”.

“No.”

Your husband is in Japan?

“No.”

Where is your husband?

“I don’t have a husband.”

This usually ends up leaving them so shocked and confused that most of the time, they stop talking to me altogether. Maybe they think I misunderstand the question. Mostly, they will repeat the question in another form.

You mean your husband is in your country?

“No, I mean I am not married.”

Their voices drop to a whisper, as if to ask some embarrassing secret.

Are you divorced?

“No, I never got married in the first place.”

Most single parents in Japan are as a result of divorce. Rarely are any kids born to unwed parents.

To go to a foreign country, live there, study there while bringing up a child, as a single parent… that’s so out of order with the Japanese set way of life that this ends the conversation, because they just can’t comprehend it.

Why Didn’t I Get Married?

Of course, I think that it’s better for a kid to be brought up by both his/her parents. Better yet, by a community, as it used to happen a long time ago – older siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents. But this is the 21st century and it’s nuclear families all the way.

In my case, I couldn’t marry Jeremy’s dad for many reasons including the fact that I wasn’t ready to get married then to him or anyone else, and he was also married at the time anyway. So I knew from the very beginning that I was going to be a single parent. He doesn’t support us in any way and I have no expectations. However, I do want Jeremy to have some kind of relationship with him, because he (Jeremy) is already asking me where his father is. Lines of communication are open and maybe they will meet soon.

On Single Parenthood (in Japan)

So the other day at this part time job I do, a colleague asked me:

Your husband is in Japan?

“No.” So tired of the question by now, lol.

Your husband is in Kenya?

“No. I’m a single parent.”

Heeee… taihen! taihen! taihen!” she exclaimed. That’s like saying “oh, terrible, terrible! terrible!

WTF?

I know a lot of married women with kids. Are they living in heavenly bliss?

Do they put their feet up, sipping tea and enjoying massages while their husbands do everything?

(Most of) the married women I know have to do even more housework than I do, in addition to school/work. They have to do an extra set of laundry, dishes, have to plan meals for one extra person. They have to provide emotional, psychological, etc support for more people (including husband’s side of the family maybe).

They do not have it easy just because they are married. I have nothing against marriage and in fact, I look forward to someday enjoying some nuptial bliss myself, but I enjoy my life as it is right now, with the freedom and responsibilities alike that it embodies.

I guess there is one important difference between being a single parent in Japan and in Kenya: income disparity. The economic gap between married mothers and single mothers  is huge here. (Please see this article on why Japan is the worst place to be a single mother, aside from Islamic countries I guess). I read somewhere (can’t find the link now) that the average savings for a married household is 10,000,000 yen, while for single mothers(most single parents are women so I am back to using “singe mothers”) is 500,000 yen. Imagine that, 10million vs 500k!

This is because Japan is very discriminatory towards women in the workplace. People work reaaaaallly late hours here. For example, my neighbour in JAIST stays in the lab until 3am every single fucking day; because of pressure to get results from his supervisor. People stay in the workplace until 8 or 9pm, then leave for drinking parties with business partners where they bond etc until past midnight. As a mother, you have to leave work at 5pm or earlier, so how can you keep up with the overtime or networking?. Taking maternity leave could also hurt your career as it’s hard to rejoin the workplace. Single mothers are left with no choice but minimum wage/part time jobs, and these jobs not only pay very low wages but they have no benefits like health insurance, pension, housing allowance, etc.

Unlike in Kenya where we can hire nannies for cheap (because the unemployment  and poverty rates are really high), here ordinary people cannot afford nannies full time to take of their kids while they work. In Kenya, being a single mother will not harm your career as you can have a full-time nanny so you can even travel for work. In Japan, even finding a babysitter is impossible. I have never found a babysitter I could pay in rural Japan – I mostly rely on my network of friends.

This obviously puts the single mother in Japan at a disadvantage. If a woman is married, the husband can work all the long hours, and his salary will go to his wife’s account (yes, this is true in most cases) who will then budget it and give the husband a daily allowance for the train etc. The wife stays at home and looks after the kids. Everyone is happy, right? The husband is basically a walking ATM who never sees his family. I think the Japanese housewife enjoys this life more, no?

I wouldn’t enjoy being a housewife though. But I can understand why someone would make the choice.

The Japanese government tries to support single parents by for example, providing full cover for health insurance. We of course pay a monthly contribution depending on our income , where in the usual case the national health insurance covers 70% of the cost. For single parents, it will cover 100% of the cost. There is also a discount on the cost of nursery school. And a monthly welfare cheque. However, these are peanuts compared to the cost of living in the real world in Japan, especially if you are forced to do min.wage hourly or part time jobs.

However, I think that my case is different.

I am a PhD student living in a remote campus. Rent here is quite low. I don’t spend anything on the commute as I live within the campus itself. I have a scholarship that is just enough to keep a single person on the poverty line, but with the little welfare from city hall, Jeremy and I can stay afloat and even afford traveling sometimes.

Yes,I have spent long hours working on my PhD, but unlike my colleagues in physics and chemistry, I don’t have to be physically in the lab to do my work.  I can work on my laptop even when at home. I usually go to the lab from 9am to 4pm, pick J up and spend time with him till his bedtime at 9pm; then I can go on working till late in the night. I am very lucky that I have a very understanding supervisor who even changes meeting times to accommodate my schedule, and also gives me jobs like RA or TA so I can earn some extra income.

Some time next year, I may join a major company for a professional career, where I hope to make (more than) enough money. However, I don’t know how life as a single mother in the industry in Tokyo will be like, even as Jeremy will be joining elementary school. I can only say that am cautiously optimistic.

Social Life? What’s That?

Because of my busy schedule – PhDing and single parenting, I don’t have any semblance of a social life. There are no babysitters here, so Jeremy and I spend all evenings and weekends in each other’s company.  My social life wouldn’t be better anyway even if I were married (a social life in rural Japan while doing a PhD, haha), but at least I wouldn’t be swiping Tinder at 3am on nights when I can’t sleep. Should I blog about the horror stories from the Tinder dates I have had with Japanese guys? (Update: I did the post).

Anyway, my busy schedule is soon coming to an end as the PhD is almost over (I defended my thesis yesterday). I will soon move to Tokyo and I hear social life there is vibrant.

Looking for a Husband

But wait a minute, could my colleague who said it is “taihen” to be single be right? Is marital bliss so good? Perhaps it is time I found a husband so I can finally continue the conversations with the Japanese ladies whom I left frozen in time, “unable to process”. A husband’s companionship  and support – financial, physical, emotional, etc. – would be welcome. I don’t want to get cats just yet.

When I googled for an image to accompany this post, I found out I am not the only woman looking for a husband on the internet. I am seriously considering it though :P.  Any interested candidates (men) should send me an email through the contact page.

I suppose I should list some requirements.

Age– as I am not an ageist, 21+ ~  ∞ lol, Dracula is welcome to apply. Must be smart. At least taller than me. Spiritual maybe ok, but not religious. Must be willing to share household duties. Should love traveling, it is the one thing we can do together. Enjoy the occasional drink. And some dancing, doesn’t have to be good at it because I’m not either.

Must be willing to relocate to Tokyo for now, because otherwise being in a long distance marriage is like being a single mother all over again.

On a serious note though, it is very easy to enjoy single parenting when you have financial security (or the promise of it based on your career). I am happy single, I don’t think I would be any happier married, but it would be nice to have companionship.

To my fellow single parents(mothers), remember you are the one who turned up and took responsibility. Single mothers are not the problem, absent fathers are.

P.S. If you are going to leave a comment on this post, please leave your religious dogma at the door first.

P.P.S Questions are welcome 🙂

Posted in Blog, Japan, Life in Japan, Motherhood, Relationships | 38 Comments