Life without Words

I think anyone with a creative hobby can relate to this one.

When I finally made my years-long dream come true and moved to Japan, I was still living in the memory of what it had been like to study there. As a student, I’d had the perfect schedule: classes until early afternoon, with the rest of the day, weekends, and holidays free to go wherever I wanted. I had time to explore, time to practice yosakoi, and time to travel anywhere in the country. I’d heard that Japan was not such a great place to work as to be a student, but I thought I’d found a job with enough flexibility to get around that.

Let me first say that I loved my job. Many of my regular clients became my friends. I met all kinds of people and was able to grow a lot as both a teacher and a person. I could literally choose any schedule I wanted, submitting 200 lessons a month or zero lessons a month, closing any that didn’t book any time I wanted. On a day-to-day basis, it was perfect for me.

There was just one caveat: in order to meet the Japanese government’s requirements for visa renewal (as well as to earn enough money for food, rent, and student loan payments), I had to teach about 160 lessons a month. Not submit — teach. That meant that on slow days, I’d have to open extra lessons and hang around until the last minute to see if they’d book. Eventually this resulted in a schedule like this:

5:00-6:30 = wake up, catch the train, get to work
7:00-2:00 = teach (with a 45 minute break at 10, and sometimes I’d go home early)
3:00-5:00 = get home, eat lunner, do anything else that needed to be done that day, then head back to work
5:30-8:30 = teach again
9:00-9:30 = get home, pass out

I felt like I was always in work mode, even at home, because I couldn’t even take my suit off and be comfortable. So I was basically in a state of permanent (albeit low-level) stress. Which translated to “Novel writing? Okay, with effort… Blogging? Ugh, I’ll do it next week.” And social life? That’s funny.

I feel as though I came to understand quite intimately why so many of my working clients listed “hobbies” like listening to music, window shopping, and riding trains. I myself had to drop archery and karate, things I’d been wanting to try since high school, just months after picking them up. But nothing hurt more than losing my words.

One day I got home feeling exhausted and absolutely soulless, and realized I hadn’t written a word in weeks. Every project I’d been working on, every promise I’d made for this blog, had words just hanging in some void where, even if I could find them, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to write them down. I felt like a loser, and worse I felt lost. For me, setting the words in a physical form is only part of the process. Before I can even get to that point, I need the words in my head, and before the words are even formed, I need the images, the emotions, the raw experience that those words become an intermediary for. And I didn’t even have the time or peace of mind to indulge that.

Okay, I’m probably a bit too wordy at the moment, so here’s the point: it’s too easy to get caught up in Important Things and forget why you’re alive. Because yeah, money and rent and not starving are all necessities that should and (for most of us) probably do take priority over simple passions. But I could never see the point of a life consisting entirely of a “work eat sleep” pattern repeating into eternity.

We should work to live, not the other way around.

And it’s easy to say “I’ll do this” and never really act on it. However solemn your vow to yourself, it’s not good enough, and it never will be. That’s why today, I decided to skip over the “I will” and jump straight into the “I am.”

I am now wrapping up this horribly written blog post. :)

The Night that Made Me a Feminist

Disclaimer: This post, contrary to my promise of posting part two of my adventures in Japanese bureaucracy, is about sexism and feminism. I see the topic as being slightly more important than my original intended one. (Though I will get to that one eventually.) This post is long, and probably not interesting to anyone other than me. But I’m writing it, and sharing it, as the first step in my personal journey as a feminist.


I grew up in a really nasty neighborhood. My house was literally right next to an elementary school, and yet on a nightly basis you could find prostitutes (both male and female) on the corner. Sometimes they’d get their customers to park in our driveway while they worked. We’d also get drug dealers, people lurking around our yard to look for anything worth stealing, and at one point a high-profile criminal taking a shortcut through our property to lose the police. Said man, who had been arrested for shooting an eight-year-old, had escaped his handcuffs. He then went on to gun down three officers, steal a car, lead a chase to a highway convenience store, and then shoot himself in the head. He’d been our neighbor for several years.

Okay, so I grew up in a world of crazy. That can be easily agreed on, right?

And yet somehow I remained totally ignorant to a much more common issue. Just because somehow it had never happened to me before.

That’s not to say I didn’t consider myself a feminist. At least once a week I look at posts about everything from subconscious female anti-feminism to blatant male misogyny, in the form of blogs, articles, comics, forum conversations, and Upworthy videos. I knew about things like male entitlement issues, objectification, and women only being “off limits” if they “belonged” to someone else — but I didn’t see it in my own environment. I felt angry, I wanted justice for the women involved. But the experiences I was reading and watching about were all second-hand. Though I didn’t deny that these things happened, I incorrectly assumed that because they had never happened to me, and because none of my female friends had ever confided such experiences to me, that they weren’t nearly so rampant as social media implied.

The Incidents:

Let me reiterate: in my 26 years of life, living in Miami, Korea, and Japan, even visiting places like Cambodia and Thailand, I had never run into any kind of sexism-fueled problem that actually scared me. Sure, I’d gotten looks when wearing anything remotely form-fitting, I’d had guys come up to tell me I was pretty, or to ask me out for drinks. And, okay, I had something like a stalker for a while, who liked to pretend he didn’t get that I wasn’t interested — but though he made me feel uncomfortable to be around, I was never scared of him. Now I see it for what it was, but I guess because the situation developed so differently, it didn’t really feel like objectification back then. For such a persistent person, he had more respect for me than either of the guys I ran into the other night.

I now live in Osaka, if you’re reading this as a first-time visiter. And compared to Miami, I’d always felt that Japan was infinitely safer, and full of people who actually respect others. As for fashion, the girls here always keep their shoulders covered, but love exposing their legs. You see thighs everywhere here, at all hours of the day. Sitting in Starbucks right now, I’m seeing as much girl-thigh as you might see at Miami Beach.

I usually don’t wear short dresses, though. In Miami, tank tops and “booty shorts” are the norm and don’t really get second looks, but I’ve always considered myself a modest dresser, even by Osaka standards.

But, since the night in question was a rare night off from work as well as my friend T’s birthday, I donned something a little longer than the typical Osaka chic and went out. My friend was dressed similarly.

The first incident was really minor in comparison. A Japanese guy came up and tried to invite us out for drinks, among other things. I was smart enough to say that we couldn’t speak Japanese, and T used what I’ve since learned is the ultimate line of defense against such things: “We have to meet our boyfriends now.”

He immediately backed off — can’t mess with another man’s girl, right?

Incident two happened after we’d joined up with two guy friends (neither of whom was actually my boyfriend). T was walking right next to me in a crowded junction, the guys up ahead. A stranger brushed past me — and I felt his hand more or less grab me in a place it had no business being.

I was in shock. I’d always imagined such situations on crowded trains, and pictured myself turning and punching the guy and screaming “Pervert!” But in real life I couldn’t move. In fact I almost laughed in denial that it had happened at all. And even though I could point out exactly who had been the culprit, he was already halfway down the crowded street by the time I turned around. There was no police officer in sight, and even if there had been, I understood right away that there was nothing to do. I was a foreigner (that alone would likely get me waved off) and wearing a dress that, though in line with Japanese standards, was short enough to be considered “asking for it.” Suddenly I understood a lot more of the feminism posts I’d been reading online.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Incident that could have gone seriously wrong:

That same night, I was lucky enough to catch the very last train from Tennouji to my home station. I was feeling really relieved, because while I live in a nice community, the area just around Tennouji has some dangerous territory (by Japanese standards) and I did not feel like trying to navigate through it for the first time at one in the morning. But from my station to my apartment, I had never felt even a twinge of suspicion that something might happen. 

And yet that night, as I climbed the stairs to my room in a building that mostly housed retirees who conked out by 9pm, I knew someone was following me. Every time I paused to look down at the next level, he also paused — sometimes ducking out of sight, sometimes staring back up at me as though trying to convince me he wasn’t anyone suspicious.

When I stopped at my floor, a little out of sight, to catch him, he made his intentions clear by guiltily trying to hurry back downstairs.

In Japanese, I asked, “Do you live here?”

Now, I suppose I could give him points for honesty, because the closest translation of his reply would be, “No, it’s just that you caught my eye.”

But that comment made me angry before I could even understand why. And my friends all know, I don’t anger easily. Even my closest friends have seen me like that only once, and say they were terrified. So when I told this guy to go home, I could tell there was nothing else he’d rather do in that moment. He flashed me a nervous smile and a thumbs up, and then disappeared.

Now, he wasn’t a scrawny guy. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve easily overpowered me. But his personality, if I can judge from that short interaction, seemed to be gentle and even honest. Had we met on the street, I would have taken him for a regular, probably decent person.

So why did he think it was okay to follow me back to my room? Why did he see nothing wrong or even strange about it? What was he even hoping to achieve by doing so?

And his reason — because I caught his eye. Did my wearing a short dress actually make him think he had any right to carry out, or would benefit in any way from, his behavior?

Getting to the point:

When I told this story to a close male friend, the first thing he said was “Please don’t wear short dresses anymore.” He acknowledged that women shouldn’t have to take precautions against men, but also said that that wasn’t the point.

According to him, the point was that this is the kind of world we live in: a world in which men assume that women belong to men, that we dress up solely for the attention of men, and that wearing anything they find attractive is an invitation to do whatever they want, regardless of what we communicate through actual words or other actions.

So I should wear concealing clothes in the middle of summer to avoid looking attractive? I should dye my hair black so I don’t immediately stand out as a foreign woman (considered more “loose” than Asian women)? Should I just give up and start wearing a burka, or should I go so far as to get a sex change so I can stop being the assumed property of men?

I’ve now gone through a night in which a single instance of wearing a certain dress brought on three separate incidents of sexual harassment, which only worsened in scale. And in the aftermath I witnessed one of the most thoughtful and sensitive men I know cater to the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility for making sure she doesn’t get sexually harassed.

But that’s exactly the line of thinking I used to follow: “If you don’t wear revealing clothes, you shouldn’t have any problems. I never did.” After all, by a similar token isn’t it your own fault if you get stabbed walking through a dangerous neighborhood at night? (Red alert: This is a sarcastic question!)

Now I understand that that way of thinking is archaic. In Victorian times, it was considered scandalous for a woman to show ankle. We’ve moved past that, but just because the idea of what’s sexy has changed doesn’t mean that all men’s attitudes towards women have. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to run around in panties and bras and not be “asking for it,” — but not necessarily because that kind of man will be any more respectful; it will be because of a new extreme for them to latch onto. “She was wearing a strapless bra and all the girls around her were wearing straps. She was asking to be felt up!”

It makes me all the more grateful to men (and women) who are feminists — and who were feminists long before I ever saw the need to be one myself.

The First Uprising: Jostein and the Invisible Paperclip

Today the spotlight rests on the visual art and blog of my friend Jostein, of Invisible Paperclip.

Violin Girl - an experiment on watercolor paper, combining inked lines and coffee as a coloring medium

Violin Girl – an experiment on watercolor paper, combining inked lines and coffee as a coloring medium


My initial impression of Jostein’s style was that it was so simple and neat, and yet very elegant at the same time. I also like that, while Japanese animation clearly has had some influence, it is also not the full extent of his style. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint any singular influence — the mark of an artist who has come into his own. I think this is part of the reason why his subject matter can be so versatile.

Mustache - an autobio comic about growing a mustache

Mustache – an autobio comic about growing a mustache

But it’s not just the subject matter. Another thing I find interesting about Jostein’s art is that he doesn’t pigeon-hole himself in terms of medium. Invisible Paperclip includes everything from cartoons and caricatures to web banners, watercolors to pixel animations, sketches to published work. There are traditional works, computer-assisted works, and one-hundred percent digitally made works. Jostein shares cute slice-of-life comics, work/request art, and thoughtful reviews of other artists’ work. Lately, he does cartoons for newspapers and magazines in his homeland of Norway.

Pixelart friends - my girlfriend, some of my closest friends and myself as pixel characters

Pixelart friends – “my girlfriend, some of my closest friends and myself as pixel characters”

The Interview

How did you get into art?

I think it’s been an ongoing process since my childhood. I suppose some of the first things I did was to copy drawings from Donald Duck comics. As a teenager, I found inspiration to draw manga style characters by watching Japanese animation (Pokémon) and playing the Final Fantasy RPGs. Somewhere between junior high and high school, I discovered webcomics, and I’ve been an avid fan of the medium ever since.

In recent years, I’ve become more serious about learning to draw and how to utilize a variety of tools, both traditional and digital. I’m also trying to educate myself by reading books about comics and studying various drawing styles.

What artists have influenced you in the course of your career?

There are quite a few artists that I like and draw inspiration from. Two genres that I really love are journal comics and travelogue comics. Of the artists making awesome stuff in either one or both of these genres, I have to mention Lucy Knisley (French Milk, Relish), Yuko Ota (Johnny Wander) and Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City).

I’m also a big fan of Yotsuba&!, created by Kiyohiko Azuma. His high level art style and storytelling makes me wish that I could create something equally good. Not unrelated to manga, I also really like Mark Crilley’s work. He also does educational and entertaining how to draw-videos on YouTube, in addition to his own graphic novels.

What aspect of your work is the most fun, in your opinion? The most difficult?

Getting something right, like when drawing a pose or choosing a nice color palette for an image. Or simply getting the timing and flow right when drawing a comic. I also like getting “likes” and positive comments on my drawings on Facebook and Instagram. Not to mention positive feedback on my blog. That’s always a lot of fun and really rewarding.

To be brutally honest, I think the hardest thing is getting started. In a worst case scenario, I get stuck in a rut with low self esteem, judging my work in the worst possible way even though I haven’t even made a single pencil line. Luckily, I’m learning to snap out of it and just start creating. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get anything done.

Ultimately, do you see yourself making art your life, or would you consider an alternative career path?

At the time being, I make a decent living by doing freelance and part time work as a graphic designer. It’s a nice job where I get to be creative and use my experience in media production. But I would of course like to be able to work more on my own ideas and projects. I can also see myself doing more commissioned work, like illustrations and comics.

I’m very eager to learn new things and perhaps expand into other creative realms, like animation or photo- and videography. Sadly, time constraints forces me to focus on a limited number of “hobbies” at any given time. I guess time will show. In any case, I don’t plan to stop growing as an artist :)

Please share any work or snippet of a work you would like:

This is a guest comic I made for the webcomic Boumeries. I really like it because it tested my imagination and storytelling abilities. This particular strip also made it into print, in volume 3 of the Boumeries books. I’m pretty stoked about that, so I just wanted to use this chance to brag about it.

Guest comic for Boumeries (

Guest comic for Boomers

Jostein is also responsible for this awesome image featuring the two main characters from my novel Ciphers. He really did capture them perfectly. >^_^< Thank you, Jostein, for the lovely illustration! And of course for being the first Upstart to join The Uprising!

Brid (long-boarding tomboy linguist) and Siph (fire-wielding half-alien grumpmeister)

Brid (long-boarding tomboy linguist) and Siph (fire-wielding half-alien grumpmeister)

The Grand Unveiling!

The Prologue

It has been a month and a half since my last post, mostly due to my grand adventures in  setting up my new apartment and getting used to my new job, which to be honest has taken a serious drain on my energy. I haven’t had to regularly wake up at 5am since high school, and to suddenly jump into that again 5 days a week hasn’t been the most fun part of my new life. Fortunately working morning hours adds a couple hundred yen to my lesson rates, and most days I can be home for a much-needed nap by 4:30. I also happen to enjoy my work and my environment. And let’s face it, being in Japan always makes life better. I still write mental love notes to this country almost every day.

Dear Japan, you are wonderful. Never let me have to leave you and stop eating nikuman.

Dear Japan, conbinis. ‘Nuff said.

The Plan

Anyway, now that I finally have a scrap of weekend, my plan today is to unveil a project that I’ve had on my mind for some time now. It’s intended to be a monthly installment celebrating not just writers, but up-and-coming artists of all mediums from all over the world. So painters, web comickers, photographers, children’s book writers/illustrators, and novelists are all in the line-up already, with others coming as I find them.

One of the most important things to an artist of any medium or genre, outside of their actual craft, is having a supportive network both in real life and online. And as I know quite a few artistic people with more than a modicum of skill, I figured why not brag about them? They get some press, my readers get the option of discovering fresh talent, and my blog gets more traffic than if I just ramble about myself all the time.

The basic idea is a showcase. Each participant receives their own post which includes a blurb from me, some excerpts of their work, and a brief interview. Enough to draw some outside attention, without giving everything away.

In the spirit of adventure (and by suggestion of some awesome Nanoers on Facebook), I’ve decided to title this new segment The Uprising.

The first installment will be along shortly, so stay tuned!

Hello from Osaka!

Well, here’s a boring but obligatory update:

After my end-of-the-schoolyear adventures with Naju friends and coworkers, I went to Daegu for three weeks and took one last stab at studying Korean. It was a lot of fun, and after a whole year of aversion to the language I was able to rediscover my passion for it. :)

On Wednesday, I got on a plane (as well as a taxi, a bus, and a couple trains) and came to Osaka, where I’ll spend the next year teaching at an eikaiwa. For now I’m staying at a guesthouse, but will move to my new apartment on Friday. In the meantime, I go into town almost every weekday in order to register the address, find a cellphone, open a bank account, and various other errands I need to have done by next Tuesday in order to begin working.

I can hardly describe how it feels to be back in Japan for the long haul; in some strange, embarrassing-to-admit way, I feel like I’m coming home. And even though I know my job is going to be neither prestigious nor easy, I’m so glad I have it because that means I’m here where I want to be.

It’s hard to say when I’ll next be able to post about writing (or that new special feature I hinted at before) but I’ll try to have something before long.

Hiking in Jindo

I’d hoped for the next post I wrote to introduce a new, semi-regular feature to my blog. Unfortunately, I climbed a mountain on Saturday.

“May,” you’re thinking, deadpan, “It’s your blog. No one is making you write about the bloody mountain.”

Actually, they are. When I initially got the “request,” I thought my hiking companions were just being fun; that maybe they wanted to see our shared adventure on my blog, so they could practice their English/feel special because this really awesome American woman wrote about them. So I in turn didn’t think much of it, indulged the group photographer who insisted on taking travel magazine-style photos of me at every opportunity, and then went home and forgot all about it.

Until about two hours ago, when I got this text: “Miss May, how are you today? Did you write an essay about mt. climbing? They want to get essay by today.”

At which point I stared at the phone in a mix of confusion and disbelief, realized they actually wanted something publishable, texted back something along the lines of “WTF?!&$X*#” and immediately went into panicked writer mode.

And here is the result.


Jindo is South Korea’s third largest island, known mainly for two things: a special breed of dog that is native to there, and an annual event in which, for about one hour each year, the tides ebb enough to reveal a narrow land bridge. The latter attracts innumerable tourists who want to walk across from Jindo to Modo.

Other than these things, however, Jindo seems to be a quiet, rural place with a wealth of natural beauty. From my experience hiking in Korea, it is difficult to find a mountain not already inundated with casual hikers, where one can simply feel secluded in nature. The Jindo mountain trail allows for this. Though my group was fairly large, we ran into few others during the four-hour trek up, down, and around the mountain. At times I would find myself a little separated from the others; in those moments I heard nothing but wind-rustled leaves, the crash of waves down on the shore, and the occasional birdcall.

Visual charm, too, was not found lacking. Our trail took us first through a vibrant green wood dotted with orange flowers on long, free-standing stems. From almost every vantage point, be it a sunny peak or just a break in the trees, a bright blue ocean reached out toward the horizon. Later, the path took us right down to the water’s edge, allowing us to traverse the tide-carved rock and stare up from the base of the mountain’s impressive cliffs. A natural cave here allowed us to hide from the hot sun while we lunched.

As we delved back into the woods for the final leg of our journey, we found the difficulty level increasing. The dry dirt and rock that had stabilized our footsteps on the other side of the mountain were now wet leaves, mud, and slippery wooden steps. Going upward, I hoisted myself with the guide rope to take some weight off my weary feet. On downward courses I often found my momentum building out of control, and so grabbed hold of every tree small enough to fit in my hands for the sake of balance. Once I slid several feet across the slick detritus, right to the edge of a sheer drop. Fortunately I remained on my feet and was able to stop on time; but this became the most memorable point of the hike for me.

In the city, we can meet with injury in a million different ways: car accidents, bicycle accidents, falling down the stairs, burning ourselves on the stove. Doing any one of countless little tasks. Really, a mountain presents no more danger than we already face every day. And yet the risk, I feel, is more worthwhile for the good that hiking does to your soul.

I would hike in Jindo again. Despite the danger, which really was mild compared to what I experienced climbing Mount Fuji; and despite the sunburn, which I suffer, ironically, only in those places where I swathed on sunblock. In fact, I think that overall my experience was such that this hike, out of all my hikes in Korea, was my favorite.

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