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Month: May 2012

Leftovers

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What a great trip it was! Over the weeks I have accumulated a great number of thoughts that don’t constitute enough content for a full post, but I didn’t want to leave anything out, so I’ll combine them into one. Let’s ‘a go!

Things the Japanese don’t believe in

  • trash cans
  • napkins
  • soap in public restrooms
  • towels in public restrooms
  • eating while walking
  • keeping your key when you leave a hotel each morning

Things the Japanese believe in

  • cleanliness
  • the same 4 notes over and over in traditional music
  • fish for breakfast
  • fish for lunch
  • fish for dinner
  • convenience

Top things America could learn from Japan

  • convenience is awesome. There should be more vending machines and convenience stores around America
  • embrace cleanliness. We’ve been to some cramped places in Japan (Sakura Hostel) but I’d much prefer them to dirty American motels (I’m looking at you, Travelodge.)
  • ticket ordering systems. Eliminate tips, eliminate cashiers. Have vending machines that print tickets with your order on them, give them to any waiter, get your food without the hassle. Pay the waiters more also.

Top things Japan could learn from America

  • trash cans are good
  • credit cards are also good. accept them everywhere
  • portions. I ordered a large soda, gimme a large soda

Most helpless moment: Ordering a meal at McDonald’s. It sucks to know exactly what you want, but not how to put it into words. I want 1 meal and 1 extra sandwich, not 2 full meals!

Most awkward moment: Visiting a few of the shops in Akihabara. Strange, strange things to be seen.

Best experience of the trip: Making new friends and getting to know old ones better.

See you next time! さよなら!(^_^)/~

San’ya Grays

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Before sunrise each morning, business is already being conducted in San’ya. The daily job auction determines who will work, and who will go hungry over the next 24 hours. One of the members of our group wanted to go to the auction, but since it starts at 5AM, it was hard to muster enough energy to rouse oneself to catch the 04:15 JR train. Instead, we decided to head out at 09:30 with a professor who knew a bit about the area. It started out as a nice sunny day, but the sky got increasingly dark as day went on. By the time we were leaving, a rainstorm was brewing, which struck later when I was at Akihabara.

Walking around San’ya, we first arrived at a free clinic / support center for people without insurance. It was quite awkward being there, as we were just standing around listening to one of the support workers talking while workers sat behind us and chowed down on free food. We were given a very strange warning before we arrived in San’ya: “remember that these are people, and this isn’t a zoo. Be respectful and don’t take their pictures without asking.” It made sense once we got there, as it probably looked like we were rich college students on a trip to the zoo to the workers. Sad, really. I’m glad we went in groups.

After going down a few streets in San’ya, I started to notice that not many bikes were locked up. I asked about this, and found out that even though most bikes are left unlocked, there’s not much of a problem with theft. The crime rate is surprisingly low everywhere in Tokyo, and San’ya is no exception. Remembering New York and the “Bicycle Bermuda,” I must say that it’s quite impressive.

We also passed by a few government-run apartment buildings for welfare recipients. You are required to have an address to collect welfare, so it’s a good thing these apartments exist. There are some apartments for students and those with jobs in other parts of Tokyo in San’ya, but the students and the workers don’t associate with each other. The average age of San’ya residents is approaching 60, so its nice to see some students living there. In 40 years when the current generation has passed, I wonder if San’ya will still be the construction-oriented community it is today. I don’t think so.

Posters promoting the JCP were posted all over San’ya. I didn’t know what the JCP was until someone pointed out to me that it stood for the Japan Communist Party. She was quick to point out that it was a propaganda poster and that it was pretty strategic placement, a movement promoting worker unions in a neighborhood consisting of lots of workers. I agree. I’ve seen the posters all over, including in Okinawa, and even saw a car with megaphones on the sides shouting about joining the party. Hopefully a message that won’t catch on.

Overall, I’m glad that we left San’ya without diving too far into it. I’m sure it was pretty safe, but I’m not sure I’d like to be there alone, knowing what I read in San’ya Blues.

So eight guys walk into a room…

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No, it’s not the start of some silly bar joke, it’s the Sakura Hotel in Ikebukuro! All I can say is that it’s neat, clean, and would be an absolute blast if I were on a backpacking trip and not carrying 15 days worth of clothes and souvenirs. Guess which situation applies.

Today we met with students from Waseda University. The group consisted of only a few Japanese people, with many being exchange students from China, Korea, and even the United States. One of the students in particular was a Korean native who is coming to Furman next year as part of an exchange program Furman has with Waseda. She spoke to me briefly during a pizza powered reception, and told me that she was learning Japanese just as I was, though I’m guessing she’s quite a lot better at it thus far.

After introductions, we headed over to the Waseda bookstore to get some t-shirts and other swag. Since the shirts were around $40, I’m still only thinking about getting one. Seems like a nice souvenir, though a bit expensive. After that, the whole group split off into interest groups. Some people went to a soccer game, others went back to the hotel, and as for myself, to Akihabara I went.

The Waseda students I went with were quite knowledgeable of the area, and were able to lead our group of 2 guys and 3 girls to all sorts of weird spots in Akihabara. Starting out as a hobby and electronics neighborhood where people would go to buy computer parts, the area has morphed into a video game and “Otaku” style area, but we were lead to a few model airplane shops and a 9-story electronics mall. One of the students commented on technology in Japan and repeated what Dr. Jenkins had stated: Japan used to be the center of technology in the 60s, with Sony being the top-of-the-line in electronics, but over the years they’ve lost their top engineers to Samsung and other companies in Taiwan and such that will pay twice as much and allow the engineers to research whatever they want, unlike the Japanese. I wonder if it coincides with Dr. Jenkins’ argument that the Japanese aren’t as creative as other countries, and aren’t innovating but rather refining.

We visited quite a few arcades while in Akihabara, and as they pointed out, Sega is one of the leading names in the arcade business. We saw a few rows of Gundam piloting simulators, and it would seem that the whole display is similar to an E-Sports layout, in that there are scheduled events and prizes for those who do well. Very competitive arcade gaming.

We went to a few weird shops as well, all ones that the students knew about and presumably had been to before. There was one store that resembled an American flea market, but people could rent out glass boxes, stock their own merchandise and name their own price. When a sale was made, they would get the profit but the store would sell it and take a commission. A bit more organized than in America, but all over Japan there seems to be organized chaos.

For lunch, we had fried octopus. It tasted… interesting. Not very much taste to it, in fact. Mostly tasted like barbeque sauce with a strange texture. I left the students with gifts: Jelly Belly’s. They’re only sold in America, so I figured it’d be pretty exotic. Overall, it was a very fun day!

Tour the world, meet exotic people

Today we went to the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau, AKA the OCVB, or as I like to call it, the tourism bureau. Upon arrival, we were presented with slide show and some interesting facts about Okinawa. There are only 1.38 million citizens in Okinawa, but 5.52 million tourists visit each year. Looking on the street or on the monorail, you would think that’d mean on average 1 of every 6 people would be a tourist, but it doesn’t look that way to me. In fact, almost everyone I’ve seen appears to be Japanese! Where are these 5 million tourists hiding?

Surprisingly, the answer is that 95% of tourists are from mainland Japan. 5.22 million tourists are domestic compared to 301,000 international visitors. The number of domestic tourists has been declining this year though, and that’s why the bureau is trying to attract more foreign tourists. They’ve had some great successes so far in terms of media publicity and their own in-house advertisements and brochures, and have been pitching Okinawa to airline and cruise companies (China Airlines and Holland America to name a few) as great ports of call and flight destinations.

Apparently most of the Okinawa’s tourists are repeat customers, as 79% of survey respondents indicated they’ve visited previously. The bureau staff explained that a big challenge for Okinawa is to create more reasons to keep people coming back. Indeed, many people in our group indicated to me that since the nightlife isn’t very big they may not want to come back, as they felt they had done everything already. In the video that we were shown on Okinawa’s tourist attractions, it felt a bit like a debriefing video on the sights we had already visited during the week. Almost every attraction highlighted in the video was something that we had seen already, though the beaches pictures were a lot nicer than the one that our bus dropped us off at days earlier. Personally, I’d like to come back and see what’s up in Okinawa in the future, but when asked on the questionnaire we were given about when I’m planning to return, I couldn’t give them a straight answer. I feel like maybe in the next few years, but what would I do? The group says nightlife, and we were given a complimentary copy of the nightlife guide in Okinawa for our enthusiasm. I wish the theatre didn’t close at 22:00, but the whole society seems to close down at night. There are only a few stores I’ve seen that are open 24/7, and 90% of them were McDonalds. It goes back to a point the group identified about Okinawa’s citizens: they seem to be very laid back. I haven’t seen a lot of people darting across the street or dashing up escalators to catch trains. The monorail isn’t extremely crowded, even at 17:00, and it was even 30 seconds late once.

Overall, I think that the OCVB has it right in what they’re doing. They mentioned their presence at several international travel conferences, and the fact that they’ve had so strong media presence in the last few years is also a good way to attract people to the island. It’s true what they said about Okinawa being close to everywhere in the east, and I’m sure if they keep on the path that the are they could probably create a travel hub between mainland Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines. The island is really a very scenic area, and they’re able to collect healthy fees when Okinawa is used in movies. Since there are so many tourists, it sounds like more entertainment is a good way of generating interest in the island, but it also seems that a lot of people vacation in Okinawa to get away from it all as well and simply relax.

Just 3000 low payments!

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Today we had quite an interesting visit to the Okinawa Prefectural Archives. The collection is similar to a public library, in that there are a lot of freely available materials, and it houses a lot of government documents from the USCAR period of US rule and more recent documents, as well as over 2500 motion pictures and 3,000 still pictures. Lots of the materials were purchased from the United States archives. Dr. Sakamoto of the University of Maryland showed us around the archives, and told us that the photographs cost on average $50 per photo, and that the prefecture itself has spent over $1.5 million on the pictures alone. The budget hasn’t been as good in recent years, however, and that’s why they haven’t been able to get more photos. The first thing that I noticed about the collection indeed was that it was smaller than I imagined. Only 2 main rooms held archives and one smaller room for videos. When looking at pictures of the US national archives and at the high price they charged for copies, however, I can see that money is probably part of the reason it isn’t larger.

We watched a film produced during the war by the US military about their various war strategies against Okinawa. It was very US biased and portrayed very strongly the idea of idea of us against “the enemy,” who was also referred to as a single “him.”

Later on in the night we listened to a great presentation by Dr. Jenkins of the Okinawa Prefecture University of Arts on Bernard Bettelheim, a Jew-turned-Christian missionary on a mission to bring western medicine and Christianity to Okinawa. A naturally gifted linguist, he knew over 16 languages and thought of Okinawa as the place to spread his religion because in Isaiah there was talk of “far away lands” and Bettelheim decided that meant Japan. He wasn’t extremely successful during his time, in part due to the harsh penalties for paying attention to his evangelizing. He published a journal, however, which has come to be quite famous, and Dr. Jenkins has transcribed it in 2 volumes. Part of his lecture discussed his practice of editing and how to be a good editor, and it was interesting to see inside the profession. I never knew what [SIC] or meant in editing, but I know now.

Overall, a very good and informative day.

Obligatory Beach House Episode

OI! I thought I was good with technology, but nobody is safe from stupid mistakes. I had easily hundreds of words written here, but they all went away because I didn’t press SAVE.

Anyway, we left the hotel and went to ECOPAR, a park and campsite. Upon arriving, we went kayaking in a lake. There were some beautiful sights to be seen, but I didn’t have a camera. Thankfully, Nicky was my kayaking partner and she was also the only one with a waterproof camera!

Stating overnight in a Japanese cabin was quite the experience. I’m not sure if big empty rooms are the norm in Japanese architecture, but big empty room were what we found. Tatami mats were there for us to sleep on, and though they weren’t very comfortable when trying to fall asleep, they were Tempur Pedic quality at 07:15 when we had to awake for a 30 minute breakfast at 07:30.

Back on the road right now and headed to a beach island resort! We passed the most photogenic spot in Okinawa, but the rain is cruel to cameras, and the fog covered the rest of the area.

We passed a military base and saw lots of “AMERICAN AUTO” lots, as well as some pizza places. Guessing it’s a bit like ports in Mexico where Americans tend to gather, though a bit more practical.

Anyway, after arriving at the beach resort we saw quite a few sights. For starters, the aquarium. It featured all varieties of ocean life, most prominently the whale shark. I liked the coconut crab myself, partially for the name alone. I actually ran out of space on my phone with all the picture taking I was doing.

Afterward, we went to a planetarium and a dolphin show. The dolphins were really smart!
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Shaking hands with an amputated arm

After reading the grim recollections from student nurses in the Battle of Okinawa, I got pretty depressed. All of the reading we’ve read so far is depressing. It’s unfortunate that the battle had to end the way it did, I wish the Japanese had just surrendered. Of course, if they had, would this carnage have been avoided? Would a worse fate have befallen them if they had? It’s impossible to say.

The testimonials included some terribly vivid images. One that particularly stuck with me was the account about soldiers being incredibly hungry and their only food when in the hospital was other soldiers’ amputated arms and legs. The mass suicide orders reinforced the idea for me that the soldiers were horribly low on food. Lighten the load? Barbaric. As the nurse said, however, “that’s war.”

When the nurses were disbanded, they shouldn’t have been forced to leave the caves. Over 200 dead from the 216 that went in, and the loss could have been completely prevented. The morale was low, though, and in the War Memorial museum that we went to today, I saw in an exhibit that the Japanese military would murder soldiers who were too weak to recover by giving them milk laced with cyanide. That isn’t following the Hippocratic Oath. The Japanese suicide tradition is one that I hope died with the end of the war.

On top of being caught in the middle of a warzone and being denied basic water and food, the student nurses weren’t really treated all that well by the Japanese soldiers. In the student nurse museum I read a few quotes about the soldiers being ungrateful for the help that was being offered, probably due to the pain that they were in. There weren’t enough pain-killing drugs to go around, and thus the soldiers suffered unnecessarily during procedures. The descriptions of the soldiers in testimonials described that they were covered in lice, and one nurse was described to have maggot infested wounds of her own. The American soldier who captured her was cutting away all her clothes and behaving as if he enjoyed torturing her. No matter what side of the battlefield you were on, it seems that monsters existed.

I’m glad that the war memorial includes the names of all who died, not just the Japanese. It has been called by some authors the decisive battle that helped to end not only the war, but the entire style of high-casualty warfare, but its terrible that it had to end like this. At least respects can be paid at the memorial and at the various museums. If we arm ourselves with knowledge, it should help to stop history from repeating.

All over the city (Okinawa day 1)

The day began early. At 06:45 I was up and enjoying a Japanese breakfast. Alright, I think I might have eaten a bowl of unflavored yogurt that may have been cream cheese by how it tasted, but I’m a tourist, I guess I don’t know everything yet.

We took the monorail everywhere and went to a スーパー and got some food. There were other departments but they weren’t open.
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We saw the snake snakes in the sake bottles as well. You can’t make this stuff up, but here’s a photo in case you think I did.

Next we went to lunch. Had とんこつ、a pork dish. It was pretty healthy and cheap.

We visited Shuri Castle later in the day, and got ラメン for dinner. Jet lag started to catch up with me, so I decided I’m going to bed early. Until next time!

I’m through talking the talk…

… it’s time to live it. (Starting out a blog post with lyrics from a Blackalicious song, yep.)

Passenger’s log:

Stardate: 2012年5月14日

5/14, 02:00:
おはよございます!(ーー;)zZz

Find out more, keep on reading! (alert: looooooong)

04:21
At the airport. Nobody is here. Aight.

04:50
On my way to security. Passport, photo ID and boarding pass in hand.

06:48
This flight is supposed to land at 6:53 AM… Why are they serving drinks? Oh wait, time zones.

5/14, 06:00 (-1):
Right-o. Every time a time change occurs I’ll include the date (and time difference if I remember.)

11:36
Boarding! I can’t wait for those in-seat TVs!

12:00
Apparently that’s a first class only feature. Looks like movies will still be played, though we don’t get to choose. Not like I got time to watch TV, gotta sleep. ‘night.

14:48
My first meal is arriving soon. I got 3 choices, though they say it’s limited by what the other passengers chose. Hope it tastes like chicken!

15:11
Nope, outta chicken, but instead I got treated to vegetarian! Quite delicious. They got the rice and the lettuce and the carrots and the strongest, bitterest tea you could imagine. Just how I like it!

15:13
Before you ask me when 15 o’clock is, I’m on 24-hour time. (its standard in some countries too) We haven’t crossed over the international date line yet so I’m sticking with Chicago time since I don’t know where we are right now. I was hoping this plane would have TVs in the back of each seat, but it turns out the 747 is an older model, despite being one of the largest in the fleet. They’ve updated this one with flat-screens, but I was expecting a bit more from a 12 hour flight. Eh, guess I don’t need anything more than a seat and a tray table. And a phone to take notes.

15:25
All the windows in the plane closed in the 2 minutes I was in the lavatory. Guess everyone decided it was time for bed. I wish it felt like bedtime.

15:26
My passport is in my backpack. I saw my passport in my backpack. My passport was verified to be in my backpack. Wait up, I’m going to check once more.

15:27
Yep, everything is here. Can’t check too many times though.

17:00
Well, it’s still light as heck outside. I’d better get used to the idea that today will be the longest “day” I’ve ever physically experienced. Not bad actually. I decided to read “The Stand” for the last hour or so. Glad I’m not the main characters. Also, filled out the customs form.

17:04
It’s been a good flight, and I bet we’ll be landing anytime soon. Any time in the next 8 or 9 hours.

17:06
Any time now.

17:07
I think I’ll go to bed. Nighty night.

17:24
Still working on that sleep.

18:56
Guess I got that sleep. The flight attendant woke me up, and it would have driven me bananas except that she gave me a banana! Snack time! It’s still sunny outside, as it should be.

19:07
Ginger ale is pretty darn good. Good for you, good for your health. At least that’s what the old rumors say. I’m having my third can. They’re pretty good about offering beverages every hour.

19:13
Gotta drink it quick else you’ll be stuck with it until they come around for trash again. 12oz of soda is meant to be enjoyed, not chugged (-。-;

5/15, 09:58 (-10):
Alright, I don’t know where we are, but I’ll assume we’re pretty close to changing time-zones. I know we’ve changed a few, so I’ll go on Tokyo time from now on. It’s now freaking morning. Rise and shine, and I got a full day’s worth of travel ahead of me. Aren’t I lucky! Still on the same plane. To be honest, this is all pretty exciting so I’m not really peeved about it, I’m just getting tired! I got a layover in Narita, then by late at night we’ll be getting into the hotel! I can’t wait. No jet lag yet. Bring it on! (We’ll see if I end up eating those words later.)

10:12
They’ve stopped displaying the airship’s voyage over the telescreen. I may never know where we are unless the captain announces it over the PA or if these in-flight commercials ever cease. How’s that for a different writing style? Meh, back to rambling.

10:16
This is why Twitter is better for microblogging. I guess this is more of a live blog without many photos. A dog is eating a slipper on the inflight entertainment right now.

10:35
Countdown to touchdown: 04:35
Well now, the video monitor is showing GPS data again. Finally! Now I now how long it’ll take. We’re well past Alaska and almost there on the map. Guess “almost there” just means we’re 8 hours in. Least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s saying that it’s the middle of the day rather than 9:38 PM Eastern time. -57 degrees Fahrenheit out there, I’m glad I’m in here (^ ^)

14:32
I awake from a nap to the thought “Are we THERE yet?” also, to a delicious turkey sandwich. Mine eyes be itching with the sting of no sleep in nearly 24 hours, but it’s still sunny out there. Is this day going to end?

14:45
Countdown to touchdown: 1 hour
The captain says they’re experiencing some turbulence and will be turning on the seatbelt sign in 5 minutes. I think he’s being nice in that regard since half the plane is standing up in preparation for landing.

14:53
Countdown to landing: 52 minutes
Eyes are burning, ears are starting to feel the pressure of a 30,000 foot descent, customs form is fully completed, it’s sunny outside. Feels like I’ve got a cold. I’m not as anxious to disembark the plane as I thought I’d be though. My phone has been holding up miraculously through all of this at just under 50% right now. (49% if you must know) Hopefully we’ll be on the ground soon. From how my eyes feel I probably shouldn’t try to take any more easily interrupted naps.

15:03
Starting to sneeze. It’s also time to land. G’bye for now…

16:00
Landed at Narita! Got my bags and went through customs. Their system was down and they had to reboot it. Windows XP, classy. I’m recalling from Chicago like it was a day ago. I guess it really was, though it feels like not. I’m actually pretty energetic right now. Don’t feel tired in the least.

18:32
Went through the Narita Airport and got $80 exchanged to ¥. The exchange rate is better for them than for us.

22:30
No wifi anywhere! I wish I knew if calling voicemail was charged per minute, but I can’t look it up! Am I useless without this phone? I gotta to to bed.

San’ya Blues Impressions and Reaction

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The chronicles of Edward Fowler’s experience in Japan during the 80s and 90s were so interesting that I hardly wanted to put the book down. San’ya Blues makes a lot of important points through the stories within its pages, but the one that stuck with me the most is the trouble with abusing alcohol. The book focuses on poor construction workers (Yama men) who live in the San’ya district of Tokyo, a rundown district that is heavily controlled by gangs, and is known for its less prosperous population. Most of San’ya’s residents are men (many who have left their wives and families or have been disowned by their parents) and are down on their luck. The main source of employment for residents (and transients) in the town is a large gathering, every morning, in which gang-approved recruiters will hire the men for various construction jobs around the city. Work for the young and able-bodied residents is easily found, and pay is relatively high, though wages tend to be spent mostly on alcohol. There is one bank, the Welfare Credit Union, that residents frequent, but many walk around with their life savings in their pocket.

Of all the people Fowler described, a few stories stuck with me the most. In one of them, a man speaks of his childhood. This man grew up with his grandmother, and told of how boys were a lot more valued than girls back in the day, and how his sister died of starvation at age 8 since she wasn’t fed as much or as well as he was, and how she would always be denied requests for food from the grandmother because the grandmother didn’t think she was important. Quite a sad tale, and it sounds a lot like what’s been going on in China over the last few years, where girls are left to die on the streets. The BBC did a report on gender discrimination in China in 2007 and found that as many as 100 million girls are aborted due to gender alone. Japan may have been discriminating against women in the past, but are they still doing it today? Unfortunately, it seems that they’re actually getting worse. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Japan was ranked 101st place in a 2010 gender discrimination report. I wasn’t able to find any instances of malnutrition reported in the last few years, so it sounds like at least the worker’s story won’t repeat itself anytime soon.

A large number of the stories caught my eye due to a common theme: alcohol abuse. Nearly all of the workers were drinking during their interview, and some of them had trouble standing, walking, or doing work due to their addictions. As Fowler noted, there is a lot of money being made in the area, but due to the workers’ love of gambling and drinking, most of it goes to waste. The yakuza run many resturants and control the gambling, and appear to make the most money in the end. When Fowler was visiting with some activists who he met during a city-run workshop about how to improve San’ya, one of them was always unruly and kept interjecting comments and interrupting the conversation. He was so impaired by alcohol that he couldn’t complete simple tasks such as dialing a phone. Another of the men in the room couldn’t stand up due to intoxication and passed out. He didn’t even wake up when a lit cigarette was pressed into his nose. Ouch. If you take away anything from these examples, it would seem that the worst thing you can do if you’re down on your luck is to take to drinking in excess.

The most significant aspect of the stories showcased was how… non-foreign they sounded. It’s easy to stereotype foreigners as all being one way or as having some crazy cultural differences from us, and these stereotypes make it harder to empathize or relate to them. What is shown in these stories is a very large variety of people who all have different upbringings and different stories to tell. If you didn’t know these stories were translated from Japanese, you’d think it was any average American describing his/her troubles, which is exactly the point: we Americans aren’t so unique ourselves. The Japanese people interviewed were just as excited about a foreigner speaking Japanese as we’d be about a Japanese tourist speaking English over here. Some stereotyped Americans just as Americans stereotype them, but the stereotypes aren’t entirely accurate. Once you get past the language barrier, people are quite similar.

Overall, I only wish I had had more time to study the book in-depth, and am planning on re-reading it when I have time to take in any details I might have missed. I highly recommend it.