Blog Pile

Slow Blogging on the Fast Train

In person, in reading, I’ve long been enamored ofBarbara Ganley‘s concept of “slow blogging” — rather than dashing off quarter-baked, unstructured stream of consciousness blogging, she suggests taking time to reflect, to actually re-read and revise in the blogging process. Barbara’s own lyrical writings, flowing like one of her tranquil Vermont creeks through red maple trees, thoughtfully illustrated with her own metaphorically rich photos, have long been inspirational to me and was capped even more by the chance to meet her in person at the May 2007 UMW Faculty Academy.

I love the concept.

I have never done such a crazy thing.

My method might be termed “fast sloppy” blogging, writing at one end and not sure always where the end goes. I blog often directly from flickr based on a relevant (or not) photo. I do not spell well nor use words like “epistemology” without snickering at myself. No, I never use that word.

Yet as one great philosopher said, “Never say never” (was that Babe Ruth? I am sans Google to check my sources).

At this moment I am sitting on the Shinkansen, the Japanese “Bullet” train, riding smoothly, like floating, at more than a 100 miles per hour, headed to Tokyo. The cities, hills, houses, rice paddies, factories, green draped mountains, gold laced temples of Japan are flying by like a never ending film strip.

I lack internet on the train. Yet, like often it does, a blog post idea germinates somewhere inside the grey matter, and festers there, yearning to get out.

This is the third leg of the CogDogBlog three week tour of Asia. Being my first trip to the continent, I had the cracked notion to see as much of it is as possible, by combining the reason I got here (to present at Learning 2.008 in Shanghai), with taking the opportunity to visit and see countries in the companies of long time friends/colleagues, people I have gotten to know firstly via the internet, and secondly at professional meetings, and now thirdly by crashing on their homes. Leg 2 was a week in Honk Kong with Nick Noakes, and the third leg tour in Japan is by the grace of Bert Kimura.

So this slow blogging on the fast train ought to lend itself to some high level waxing about the impact of this trip and the grand sweeping conclusions I return home with. Or some profound conclusion on the future of technology.

Not likely.

I have more of a mashup of scenes, places, events (and like 1500 photos on flickr), but these do not seem to “capture” the experience. I cannot say I know China for a week in Shanghai; I can not even say I know Shanghai. I have these collections of “micro-experiences” and wish to avoid the all too common human act (ahh, this is another festering blog post) of extending our singular experiences to much wider conclusions. It’s not even acknowledging a touch of an elephant part; it is more a sampling of a small number of skin cells from multiple elephants.

Do I make it a mosaic? A connected series of dots? A test pattern? A rainbow of molecules? I am stuck on the metaphor.

But there is something else, a parallel of some of my talks where I try to say the internet is on a scale larger than humans can really grasp beyond the obvious statement that “the internet is big” — the real world itself, as I sample but only morsels, is so vast, complex, and multi-faceted it calls for something other than generalizations. And it is this world beyond my microcosm of a world in the USA that is peeling my persepectives just open a bit mroe. Yes I know the world is full of different people and cultures and customs and beliefs and ways of being, yet I am fixed with my own western set of eyes to observe it. I find it embarassing to be in world full of languages yet only speak one, and am thinking more about the implications of my own country being a place where the norm for young people is NOT going out and exploring the world… while they can and are free.

And so the norms I know may be crumbling (or not) under economic morass, the consequences of being a primary influencer of the planet, a primary consumer of the planet, and a primary source of ignorance about what lies outside the USA… has me worried.

But what can I do?

I don’t know.

So instead, I ruminate, and letting this experience of just being in a place where I am a minority, an almost useless alien unable to speak or read, to just linger with me.

So in no particular order, some samplings from this trip (which is not even over yet)…

* I cannot generalize something at a scale of “Asia” beyond perhaps some physical characteristics of land and continental fragments. At the NMC we had discussed perhaps doing a Horizon.Asia version as we are currently in the process of writing up for Australia/New Zealand — that was enough of a challenge to get Australia / New Zealand under one umbrella, it would be so in appropriate for the different cultures, society drivers, living conditions for just the 3 places I have been. I’ve often mentioned about an early lesson from my favorite undergrad Geology professor (Hello Doc Thomson, where-ever you are) who remarked as an off-hand remark in petrology class, that in Geology, a discipline rife with classification schemes, that among people in the field, there are “lumpers and splitters”.

* I am a bit worried that when I return to the US from Japan, I will end up bowing a lot to say thanks and saying, “Hai!”

More Old and New
* The contrasts of Shanghai still stagger my mind, the mashup (is it, or some sort of yet mix of liquids of different densities) of Communism and capitalism, of small alley shops specializing in selling just hinges one block away from neon department stores and Best Buy/McDonalds/Porsche dealers. There is the forest of glass walled skyscrapers sprouting like weeds in what must be fertile Pudong, looming over the tree-line streets of the French Concession or the twisty tenements of Old Shanghai (which may not even be tat old). At the same time, looking at vast urban creations that did not even exist 10 years ago, a lot of the infrastructure (high rise residential towers, highway bridges) like rather worn and tired.

* I got a kick out of seeing people on their vacation, do the picture of a person standing in front of a temple/landmark/river view, but wow, some of them here adopted such stuff rigid poses. No smile. What kind of photo / memory does that make? Is that just my projection?

* When you are in the mens room line waiting for a toilet, and the door that swings open is not the one in the room labeled “Western Toilet” … be adventurous (photos not needed).

* The Hong Kong subway system is among the most best designed for being able to find your way as a lost Westerner. The real deal, though, is the magical Octopus card, that you fill with money at an ATM-like machine, put in your wallet, and then just wave the wallet over readers at subways, convenience stores, even small snack stands at the local parks.

* I was mesmerized by some sort of chaotic symphony of the flow of bicycles and scooters flowing in, about, around the auto traffic in Shanghai (which itself was a near contact sport among aggressive taxi drivers).

* In all places, pedestrians really are not so special. Taxis, buses will barral into you if you step in their path. Those electric scooters in Shanghai make no sound. Maybe it helps keep the population explosion in check.

* Watching news of American elections on Chinese and Japanese television is both surreal and embarrassing. What a circus it looks like– “Hockey Moms for McCain-Paulin”? yet it is so serious. I more enjoyed watching “The Sting” with Japanese sub-titles

* On the other hand, watching the first few innings of the Tampa Bay – Chicago White Sox baseball games in Tokyo with Japanese announcers was kind of fun. Big cheers for deep double by Akinori Iwamura.

* A cultural buffet might be watching the Chinese rocket blast off in real time from a Korean restaurant in Hong Kong drinking beer out of a pull-top tab. Weirder was this photo appeared the next day on the Discovery blog site.

* The orderliness and cooperation among Japanese people is such a cultural disconnect from an American point of view, and it is too tempting to mock it. From a 15 page illustrated manual on how to organize your trash, carefully marked places to stand to board a train, un-stated agreements not to disrupt neighbors by showering after 11:00pm (oops, I broke that one)– it all seems like a hive mind mentality (Westerners get a ot of breaks, but I recall from reading Shogun that we are really just barbarians), but you then have to look at the large numbers of people living in a small area, of how clean and neat every place seems to be; it is not strange, odd, or wrong, just… different.

* In Tokyo I watched a play on the streets. A woman was on the phone, chattering away rather seriously. She started to sound frustrated, than looked up and laughed as she saw the person she was talking to was just 10 feet behind her. How many times have you had to meet someone and have done the same thing? Soime experiences are universal, but then again, others, like eating chicken feet, maybe should not be.

* I did enjoy curry flavored fish balls in Hong Kong, sushi and octopus in Japan, street made dumplings in Shanghai– its been a gastronomic extravaganza. I managed some sort of grille chicken organ (liver? heart?) in Kyoto but could not manage the chicken feet in Hong Kong (do you smile and say it “tastes like chicken”?)

* Major mystery- the lack of any way to dry your hands in Japan public restrooms… air dry? Use the tissues they pass out everywhere? Is it to reduce litter? Save paper?

* It has been three weeks spent mostly in very densely populated cities, and now believe that there are long terms social and health affects of living in such a press of human activity. I am relishing and appreciating the wide open spaces I have in my little place in Strawberry– no, the amount of open-ness we have in America is astounding and barely noticed. It is more than what you see in open space, there is a calmness in not been pressed against people and exposed to a constant drone of machine noise.

* It is utterly fascinating to observe young people in Japan- the expressiveness of their clothing and “decorations” (mobile phone straps, bags adorned with stuffed animals) yet contrasted with the blank looks they carry when alone in public.

My Watch Better than Yours

* Most aggressive were the street peddlers in Shanghai in the touristy areas- pushing fake Rolexes in your face, all of them carrying the same piece of plastic coated paper with diagrams of products like shoes, designer bags, watches, “Only Y$1300 for you today!” yet ready to chase you down for 50. I really dislike the haggling process, and wavered between being annoyed to amused. There was this one widely smiled gent on Nanjing Street in Shanghia who wanted to show us his store, that I tried brushing off by saying, “We are looking for lunch, how about after we eat?” thinking we would walk back a different route. I completely forgot, yet two hours, there he was, tossing an arm around me saying, “NOW you see my store!” Oh we all laughed a lot at that persistence. I saw very little of this in Hong Kong, and it is un heard of I would guess in Japan. I was saddened that people would find this a viable (or perhaps the best) opportunity to earn a living.

* In Japan the cars drive on the left side of the road. On going up and down the escalators, there is an unsaid protocol that says if you are standing, to move to one side, and let people who want to walk move more quickly up the other. But whether it is the left side or the right side or standers varies from city to city. Who makes these rules? Who enforces?

* I can find nourishment by pointing and gesturing.

* How do I reconcile the sophistication of structures like Nijo Castle in Kyoto, dating back to the 1600s while in America, settlers were living in squalid shacks? It’s easy. We were not very advanced at all.

* Watching the use of mobile technology has been most fascinating. Everywhere people are face pressed into mobile phones or Nintendo DES like devices. Laptops seem more of a businessman thing here in Japan. I had a chance to speak to a group of young college students in Japan and asked them about what kinds of technology they use outside of school- all looked puzzled when I mentioned a computer. All they use is mobile; and see no use or value of a computer. It is a net generation, not a computer one.

* Away from the crowded urban jungles of glass and steel in Hong Kong, the islands there are lush green with vast amounts of open park land.

* I did experience some very jam packed subway cars in Tokyo. I did not see the staff that packs and shoves people in, and was told that as a Westerner, I was given more room, like a bubble of kindness (or maybe they were just freaked out). How are such rules formed? They are unstated, just start of some mass consciousness here.

* As Brian Crosby observed, where are all the birds in Shagnhai? The parks are green, but there seem to be nary a bird. And hey, what lond of meat was in that stir fry we ate last night?

* It is even harder to get an appropriate understanding of the educational systems here. On the surface, things look the same- there are campuses, libraries, classrooms, teachers, students… Here in Japan, the university system seems like a quasi fun house mirror version of whatever we have in the USA. This is by no means a complete (in fact it is totally incomplete) analysis. Japan has a major problem in small growth of young population, essentially not enough to fill capacities of universities. It makes for an interesting speculation of what happens to a nation who may grow short on skilled people in the future. But more interesting, is that Japanese students work extremely hard in Junior high and high school to get the qualifications for university, not experience as much social activity, which in some places is seen more as a time to have “fun”, “live it up” at the Uni. Students in some places rarely show up to classes, but get passing grades, or assignments to pass that would make an educator shriek. Faculty have no incentives for good teaching or publishing, and can pretty much do the status quo if they choose- which means they often see little use for technology.

Laughter is Worldwide

* No matter where you are, kids are just a joy to watch as they run, laugh, smile, just express, just be. I want to know where that goes and why.

These are not even complete or coherent and I am not even trying to summarize or suggest anything from this. It may seem plainly obvious, but to see our country, our world, yu have to go to some place like the Moon or Shanghai to look at it from afar. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity, yet find it a bit skin deep. At the same time, I yearn for my own place, my one home, the place where I touch the dirt with my hands, where I feel more a sense of peace than anywhere. There is so much to be said about having a home, even if you don’t go there much. I want to taste more of this complex world and I want to go home to think about it. I want it all, and I want it all to be more than it is.

And I think more about what I get complacent about.

If this kind of stuff has value, please support me by tossing a one time PayPal kibble or monthly on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!
Profile Picture for cogdog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. nice travel summary, much appreciated.

    (i really need to find some reason to be in a train for a long time with no internet, as a writing environment; I miss those extended periods of travel and non-connectivity as a way to connect with some part of yourself that’s not the net.)

  2. I am going to live vicariously through your slow churned blogs. They are delicious. I can’t wait to learn about Iceland.

  3. Thanks for sharing your impressions, Alan. This summer I had a tiny glimpse of higher ed in Japan because some faculty from Kyushu University came to UC Davis to learn about active learning. We’re going to be helping folks at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology as well. These faculty were excited about including more interactivity in their classes, and they absorbed Western ideas about pedagogy very quickly and were hungry for more. They hope to become ambassadors at their universities for more interactive ways of learning, but they also talked about the great resistance they may face.

    Part of the reason faculty at both institutions are interested in incorporating more active learning is because they are expecting an influx of students from elsewhere in Asia. That means not only teaching more classes in English, but also adapting their teaching to students who aren’t Japanese and who may expect more than old-school lectures.

  4. Ah, Alan, you have stepped into the complex delights of slow-blogging. Fabulous!

    I love this post, and feel for a moment that I have left my hotel room in Vancouver and instead am there with you on that train, seeing the passing landscape as a filmstrip, and then the cities you have visited, and your still forming, so fresh responses. You create a kaleidescope of experience for us, and in doing so, invite us into some of the whirl of the wild sensory ride. We get to know you better through this journey, too, and how you see things and what you feel. But you do more than that, even–you remind us to pull out of our own small, myopic viewpoints, our own petty singular concerns and look around at the wondrous world, and to think about our times and our place and our path. To dare do something.

    Thank you for such a beautiful post–I think I like your words as much as I like your photos. And having them together? Wow.

  5. Wow, Alan – what a tremendous stream of consciousness flow of your experience there. It sounds like that is the only way to describe your trip – a collage of vignettes of different places and people.

    18 years ago (wow – how time flies. I remember it like it was last week) I spent 4 months in Great Britain, traveling around from one end of the island to the other. Even that relatively minor change of culture made me aware that there are other ways of understanding the world and one’s place in it. That helped me to know a bit more about myself and how I am shaped by my culture. And I understand what you mean about appreciating where you come from. Flat, wide open prairie never looked so good as when I made it back to Canada.

    They don’t serve chicken feet in Britain, as far as I know. For this I am grateful.

  6. It is amazing to read about your experiences in Japan and China. In the 70s my husband and I traveled in several countries in Asia, later spent 3 months in Japan, and then in the late 80s spent the summer in Cebu, Philippines. Things haven’t changed much, it seems, except to get even more crowded.

    Now I am the teacher librarian at a high achieving high school in southern California where 67% of our students are Asian, mostly Chinese from Taiwan and mainland China. Experiences similar to yours certainly help me to understand my students and the extreme pressure their parents and peers put on them the succeed and get into a major US university.

    It has also been our experience that some students we met while in Japan have come to a US college to study and they don’t succeed. There is no one pressuring them to get their work done or even attend class, after all of the structure they had back home in Japan in high school.

    I too was thrilled to get home to the “wide open spaces” of my small ranch house with a lawn in a suburb of LA. Ah travel!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *