My fellow Americans: America is already pretty great

We don’t need to make America great again because America never stopped being great.

We can’t live in the past or move backwards out of a flawed sense of nostalgia for an America that can only be seen through rose-colored glasses.

“We, the people” must move ever forward as we strive to become a “more perfect union.”

America is the undisputed leader of the world in many areas, but a follower in other areas – and that’s okay.

The United States of America is not perfect
. No nation is, was, or will ever be perfect.

We can’t allow ourselves to be defined by fear, anger or hate.

Humility, accurate self-reflection, good-faith intent and measured self-confidence are the hallmarks of mature, stable people – and nations.

A great nation isn’t a bully and isn’t run by bullies. 

A great nation isn’t motivated by fear, anger or hate.

A great nation doesn’t intentionally seek profit at the expense of weaker, poorer nations.

America faces two roads that diverge – two roads that lead to very different futures.

History is a quiet, patient teacher that will let us learn a lesson the hard way.

Before we willingly chose a path of anger or populism, we should look at the history of the many failed nations and empires that made similar choices for similar reasons.

We should never forget that ideas have consequences.

We must not forget how we earned our current place in the world – by standing up for our best principles, by fighting hate at home and abroad, by welcoming huddled masses who yearn to be free and by valuing the inalienable equality of all humanity.

Many of us are understandably frustrated and angry with the political shenanigans that have plagued our system in recent years, but we can’t succumb to our baser instincts in the moment to support a cure that will very likely be worse than the disease.

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Which is more difficult, life in Asia or Europe?

Comparing the experience of adjusting to different cultures for an American living abroad


I have a pretty cool job.

Well, I suppose the job itself isn’t all that interesting or special, but the opportunities it affords me are pretty cool, at least.

You see, I work for an organization with offices all over the world and what I do is in demand at basically every location; so, I have had the chance to move around and experience living in a few different places around the world. I spent a couple of years living in Seoul, Korea, a couple of years living near Tokyo, Japan, and I moved to Stuttgart, Germany with my family in the early autumn of 2013.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we moved to Germany from Japan.  It’s difficult to articulate. On one hand, because my native U.S. culture has so much more in common historically with European culture than it does with Asian culture, I expected that adjusting to Germany would be much easier than adjusting to Northeast Asia. On the other hand, having experienced fairly significant culture shock in both Korea and Japan almost immediately after arrival, I was expecting at least some level of culture shock when I arrived in Germany.

Since it is difficult to describe the difference in magnitude of culture shock experienced by an American in Asia vs. Europe, here is an attempt to provide a visual example:


Japanese sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right?  Even after studying written Japanese for two years, I can only read parts of this sign.  It says, "Please don't throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanazawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office."
Japanese sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right? Even after studying written Japanese for years, I can only read parts of this sign. It says something like, “Please don’t throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanagawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office.”
German sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone.  You'd probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn't get the entire meaning.  This sign says "Playground for children under 12 years-old.  Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor."
German sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone. You’d probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn’t get the entire meaning. This sign says “Playground for children under 12 years-old. Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor.”

See what I mean?
When you get off of the plane in Asia as a native English-speaker (assuming you haven’t first learned to read and write the local language), you are immediately smacked in the face with the reality that you are essentially illiterate.  You can’t read anything unless there is a translation made available to you.  You can take a guess at what something means if you’ve got some sort of visual aid, but forget about even trying to read the text without years of study.

In continental western Europe everything is written using Roman characters and there are usually some word similarities (e.g., für/for, unter/under, und/and, etc.), which makes getting around a little bit easier, even when you’ve just arrived in the country and can’t really read or speak the language.

The difference in difficulty decoding the meaning of the signs above is a good analogy for the difference in difficulty adjusting to the overall cultural differences.  European culture is much closer to American culture than is Japanese or Korean culture, but each present significant challenges for someone with little study or background.

The ways that Northeast Asia differs from the United States are numerous and obvious, but in some ways I found life in Japan and Korea to be much more like America than Europe. For example, in Korea and Japan many businesses are open 7 days per week and many businesses (e.g., convenience stores and restaurants) operate 24 hours per day. The pace of life is generally fast and access to goods and services is fairly consistent.

This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

In continental western Europe almost nothing ever really stays open late and pretty much everything is closed on Sundays (except some bars and restaurants). You can pretty much forget about easily finding late night munchies anywhere in Germany and you can forget about doing pretty much anything even remotely consumer-oriented on Sundays.

Oh, by the way, I would not recommend sharing that observation with your European acquaintances, unless you enjoy experiencing the condescension of others. Many Europeans are very proud that everything is closed on Sundays.  They will often quite happily (and smugly) let you know that Europeans have life all figured out and anyone wanting to do anything consumer-oriented on Sundays, or late at night, is pitiful and misled. In my experience, most Europeans believe that Sundays should be exclusively reserved for enjoying nature, dining alfresco, drinking to excess and/or chatting endlessly about how culturally deficient those poor, ignorant Americans can be.

Love of Nature
Don’t get me wrong, in my experience both Japanese and Korean people love nature and do a pretty good job preserving nice green spaces, but I’m not sure anybody protects green spaces to the same extent as they do in Germany.

In Asia housing density is high and private land spaces are small out of necessity.  There is limited space for housing because of the population density per square meter, so sprawl is kept to a minimum.  In Germany, housing density is also high and private land spaces are also small, but not for the same reasons.  Population density is not nearly as high as in Asia, but Germans love their public green spaces and go to great lengths to protect them.

This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.
This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.

I could prattle on for many hundred more words on this subject, but I’ll save more for another post. It is probably obvious, but I have found that living for a year or two in a place with a different language and different customs than your native culture can be wonderful at times and terrible at others. Adjusting to a new culture can be challenging, but it is also rewarding.

So, which is more difficult (for a dumb American), adjusting to life in Asia or Europe?  In my opinion, they’re about equal.  For me, adjusting to life in Asia was difficult because it is was so different from my native culture, but adjusting to life in Europe has also been difficult because the similarities have  had a way of masking the differences right up until I do something really dumb and embarrassing.

 

Iconic monks: German beer label design, part 2

MonkBeers - 1 (2)It seems that one of the most popular and frequently chosen icons of good, German brewing is a happy monk. On a quest to learn as much as I can about the many, many different German beers available while living in Germany, I have noticed that the image of a friendly, smiling monk — usually hoisting aloft some type of beer-filled container — adorns a surprisingly large percentage of the German beer labels I have seen while wandering through numerous German Getränkemärkte (beverage markets). A little bit of Internet research helped me gain an understanding of why Germans often equate monks with good beer.

According to the Drunken History web site, the earliest beer brewing in Europe was done in individual homes, which allowed for a huge variance in the style and quality of home brews.  Monasteries started brewing as a way to pay taxes, remain self-sufficient and serve their communities. Monks dedicated time and effort to learn how to brew and were able to significantly increase the quality of beer.  Monasteries across Europe were supplying good beer to their communities during the middle ages and beyond.

That long history and reputation of monks as brewers of good beer has definitely contributed to the iconography used on many German beer labels. Below is a gallery with scans of the beer labels I have collected that feature monks.

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Looking back on my totally insane school bus project

skewlysite-headergraphic

In early 2005 I was surfing the web when I stumbled upon a random website about a guy who converted an old, yellow school bus into a motorhome. I was intrigued. The project was cheap, creative and a little bit crazy — all words that could be used to describe me.

Later, while driving near my neighborhood in the Nashville, TN area, I noticed a used school bus for sale at a very reasonable price.  After a quick mechanical check and test drive, I was the proud owner of an old, yellow school bus of my own.  I immediately began the process of converting the bus into a recreational vehicle.

IMG_3156
This shot was taken the day I got the bus, March 15, 2005. I couldn’t wait to start removing some of the junk that I hated. The old, rusty school bus mirrors and windows were the first of many things to come off.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who have converted school busses into all sorts of things. School bus conversions are collectively called “Skoolies” around the Internet. I liked the name, but wanted to personalize the idea a bit, so I decided to call ours the Skewly. To complete my conversion project I creatively “borrowed” ideas from lots of people and even came up with a few ideas of my own.

The main reason I wanted to do this little project was to have a hotel room on wheels that would allow my family to travel across the continent in style, for as little money as possible.

I bought the bus from a church and it looked as if it had been waiting to be purchased for quite a while since it had a nice coat of rust and mildew over every square inch. I wasn’t sure on first glance if the bus was going to be a keeper, but I jumped in, turned the key and the motor instantly started.  The engine and chassis were in good shape, so I overlooked some of the more glaring body problems.

I spent several months prepping the bus and removing anything I didn’t think I would need. I only wanted the empty shell of the bus, the engine and the drivetrain — everything else had to go.

I probably should have taken more pictures of this process, but I was having way too much “fun” doing it. What a pain! I estimated it would take me about a day to get all of the seats and other junk out of the beast. Three days later I was finished. Rusty bolts, creative aftermarket engineering and other interesting time wasters were a large part of the process.

I can tell you one thing, though. I don’t think any RV out there is built as tough as a school bus. This thing is steel EVERYWHERE. It is built like a tank. I pity the standard fiberglass and wood motorhome that tries to go head to head with this baby.

beuatyshot
I used professional automotive paint and techniques to paint the bus and it actually looked pretty much like a factory paint job. With air conditioners, an auto-tracking direct broadcast TV satellite dish, an awning and tour bus mirrors, the bus looked quite different than the average old, yellow school bus. This photo was taken Sept. 3, 2005.

After months of engineering and tinkering, the final bus was ready to take on the road. For our first trip we had traveled through 5 states: Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Washington D.C. We traveled nearly 2500 miles.

We had the bus for a few years, but I decided to sell it to another bus conversion hobbyist after taking a job overseas.  It was an incredible project that I will always look back on with fondness.

The finished interior
The finished interior
The driver's seat
The driver’s seat

Driving in Japan

On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside
On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside

I lived in Japan for a total of four years; twice for two years each (2006-2008 and 2011-2013). I have said this before, and I’m sure in this blog I’ll say it many more times, living in a place really gives you the opportunity to see the little differences and come to appreciate them in a way that visiting a place doesn’t (warning: the “little differences” link does not go to G-rated content).

Foreign visitors to Japan don’t often get the opportunity to drive because the public transportation system is so good and urban areas are so dense that it is usually unnecessary to drive. Many Japanese citizens living in urban areas don’t even drive, but I think driving in Japan provides a perfect opportunity for foreign residents to see the little differences that abound there.

Driving in Japan can be pretty expensive when you consider gas, insurance, road taxes, maintenance, parking fees and other seemingly endless expenses. However, when you live in Japan with a family, driving is often the best way to see the countryside and experience a true slice of daily Japanese life. In my experience, driving a family of 5 isn’t much more expensive than regular public transportation fees for the whole family to go to the same places.

In this post I’ll just share a gallery of candid photos snapped when something interesting or unique to Japan presented itself.  Click the photos to read the full captions:

Remembering Nashville, 10 years later

The Nashville Skyline back in 2004, taken with my first DSLR camera, a Canon Digital Rebel using a 30 second exposure.  It was taken from near the Titans football stadium across the river
The Nashville Skyline back in 2004, taken with my first DSLR camera, a Canon Digital Rebel using a 30 second exposure. It was taken from near the Titans football stadium across the river

I lived in Nashville, Tennessee for nearly 10 years (1996 – 2005).  It was the first time my wife and I had ever moved relatively far away from our core family and friends to set out on a new adventure.  Two of my three daughters were born in Nashville (all three were conceived there … wink, wink).

I just realized that it has now been 10 years since I lived there.  I look back on our time there with fond memories, but I am also keenly aware that you can never go back because things change.  The world just keeps on spinning.  Life must go on.  We all move forward in time, whether we like it or not.

Since leaving Nashville I have taken my family with me all around the world. I’m happy and fulfilled by the experiences we have gained and wouldn’t change a thing, but sometimes I look back on Nashville with fondness and a strange longing for something that I know I can never get back.

You know what I mean?

Nashville

For example, we had a really nice house that was kind of out in the country, but still relatively close to civilization.  For most of our time there, the view from our front yard (pictured above) was a bucolic scene of cattle grazing on the rolling, green hills. The closest structure was a barn off in the distance.

In 2004 the land owner sold the property to a developer and within a few years that bucolic scene became a picture of dense suburban sprawl. We could see roofs, fences, people’s porches and gas grills within 10 feet of our front fence.  We still had 5 acres out back, but the beauty, peace and serenity were just gone somehow.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against progress, I’m totally in support of the American dream. I’m not mad, just disappointed that the reality of the universe is that nothing good comes without some bad.  There are always pros and cons to any progress or change. The people in those McMansions are probably thrilled to live on those beautiful, rolling hills and are benefitting from the rich soil that keeps their lawns so green (from all of the years of cow poop).  It was just a shame that our little slice of paradise was gone … so we sold out and moved on.

Here are a few photos depicting our life in our little house in the country a decade ago:

NashvilleNashvilleNashvilleNashville

Texas-shaped things

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this ever since I noticed the Texas-shaped thing phenomenon here in San Antonio. As a new resident of Texas, I wasn’t aware that many household items and other common things come in two forms: the normally shaped version and the obviously improved Texas-shaped version.

Texas-shaped Snack Platter
A Texas-shaped snack platter in the local grocery store
Texas-sized jelly beans in a Texas-shaped container
Here are more Texas-sized jelly beans in a Texas-shaped container.

It seems that Texans are intensely proud of their state — apparently, even the shape of it. I’ve lived in several states, but I’ve never been in a place where the people seem so intensely interested in the geometry of the geography.

Below are some examples of Texas-shaped items I’ve seen since I started living here in San Antonio:

A suede, Texas-shaped pot holder
A suede, Texas-shaped pot holder.
Texas-themed shapes are everywhere
Don’t even get me started on the longhorn-shaped things everywhere. Remember the Alamo!
Texas-shaped cookie cutter/biscuit form?
I’m guessing you can make Texas-shaped cookies or biscuits with this.
Texas-shaped waffle iron
I even found a Texas-shaped waffle iron at a hotel where I stayed while I was looking for a house.
Texas-shaped waffle batter
You pour in a lake of Texas-shaped waffle batter and…
Texas-shaped waffle
…end up with a Texas-shaped waffle. I have seen these Texas-shaped waffle irons in every Texas hotel with complimentary breakfast.
A Texas-shaped peanut confection.
Even candy is Texas-shaped.
Texas-shaped birthday cake
Of course, our family felt it was only fitting to participate in this Texas-shaped madness. My daughter baked and decorated this Texas-shaped birthday cake for a friend’s birthday.
Texas-shaped, cowboy-hat-shaped and cowboy-boot-shaped cookies
I forgot to mention all of the cowboy hat and cowboy boot shaped things.
Texas-sized Jelly Beans
These jelly beans aren’t Texas-shaped, they’re Texas-sized.

I guess I should get back to blogging…

Well, it’s been almost a year since I last posted to this blog.  Quite a few interesting things have happened since then.  I moved from Seoul, Republic of Korea to San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.  Let me tell you, there is quite a difference between the two places. I have also started a daily (or almost daily) video blog using my iPhone.  It is called Slade’s 365 iPhone Video Project and you can find it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/sladewalters. Basically, I post a silly video every day using only the built in camera on my iPhone and the iPhone iMovie app.  I’ve posted a few interesting videos IMHO, but lots of pretty dumb ones.  When I look back over the past 234 video posts, I realize how much I’ve actually done in such a short time.  Life is amazing.  I can’t wait to look back at these videos in 20 or 30 years with my kids and grandkids.  I’m sure there will be lots of clothing and haircut jokes. I think I’m going to look back over the videos I have posted so far and post some behind-the-scenes comments here, so that in the future I can remember what I was thinking about and doing in more detail. Speaking of the differences between Seoul and San Antonio, here are some photos I took in both places.  Maybe you’ll see the contrast too.

The Alamo in downtown San Antonio, Texas
Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul, Republic of Korea
Gyeongbokgung – Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul, Republic of Korea

Dongdaemun Pet Market in Seoul

One of the interesting things about Seoul is that there are many areas of town where vendors who sell similar types of items gather in close proximity. As an American, the idea of setting up shop right next door to fifty competitors seems counterintuitive, but it seems to work well for vendors here in Seoul. There is a large pet market in Seoul near the site of the city’s old east gate, Dongdaemun, where many different types of vendors set up shop. One of the most colorful and interesting to me is the Dongdaemun pet market area. In the space of about one city block there are 20 or more vendors selling pets of all kinds. They have many of the same kinds of fish, birds, dogs, cats and other small animals that you would find in any U.S. pet store. They also have pets that I haven’t often seen in the U.S. This weekend I saw chickens, roosters, pea fowl (peacocks and pea hens), hedgehogs, snapping turtles and the most rare and exotic pet of them all… chipmunks.