These are just some quick observations from my first trip to Canada’s most populous city.
I was amazed at how many different cultural groups call Toronto home. As I visited the city I was frequently reminded of places I lived in Europe and Asia.
My first night in Toronto, I went to a place called WVRST near the corner of King Street West and Portland Street in the fashion district.
Based on the name, I assumed I might be able to score a German-style sausage and maybe even a German beer. I was not disappointed. They had German beer on tap and lots of different sausages to choose from.
The beer was a real-deal, imported German wheat beer (Weiss bier or Hefeweizen) that I often drank when I lived in Germany.
The sausage, on the other hand, wasn’t really true to my experience with sausage in Germany, but it was still pretty tasty. They had lots of different kinds of sausages to choose from, including wild game and exotic meats.
I was with my family, so we sampled three different sausages. We tried the Oktoberfest sausage, the duck sausage and the rabbit sausage. My favorite was the rabbit. We also tried their pretzels (not half bad, but not really shaped like pretzels) and their French fries cooked in duck fat (pretty darn good).
The restaurant had communal bench seating like lots of causal eateries in Germany, which was fun. I did notice that I was a couple of decades older, with less facial hair and fewer tattoos, than the average patron or staff member.
The second night in Toronto, I found a Japanese ramen shop with probably the best ramen I have had outside of Japan.
I tried the tonkotsu ramen, which has a broth made by simmering pork bones for hours. I produced a video about ramen when I lived in Japan (about 10 years ago) that gives a glimpse into the process of making tonkotsu ramen (skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds if you just want to see the tonkotsu ramen part). The ramen at Sansotei was pretty close to what I remember from Japan.
I also got a chance to visit Toronto’s Chinatown.
I visited a shopping center, Chinatown Centre, that housed almost exclusively Chinese-speaking businesses with imported products. Walking through the building, I had to keep reminding myself I was in North America and not somewhere in Asia. There was a food court in the basement with an incredible variety of East and Southeast Asian food options, but I held out for dim sum at the Sky Dragon restaurant on the third floor. I have eaten dim sum in mainland China and Taiwan and these were pretty legit.
There weren’t enough meals in the day to sample all of the different food options available. In addition to Chinese/Taiwanese and Japanese businesses, I noticed lots of Vietnamese and Korean restaurants and stores. I didn’t even get a chance to visit the parts of town known for Indian cuisine and culture, so I guess I’ll need to take another trip to Toronto soon.
Speaking of street art…
Toronto has some of the best street art I have seen. They even have an entire alley dedicated to it:
Here’s a gallery with some of the great street art I saw in Graffiti Alley and throughout the city:
Toronto is an amazing city with an amazing mix of culture. It is worth a visit.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Fairytale mushrooms actually exist
Germans love green space and wild flowers
This is one of the biggest, most colorful slugs I have ever seen
There are lots of different and colorful mollusks in Germany
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
This sign shows all available parking on the way to the fifth station on Mount Fuji. The fifth station is the highest station you can drive to and park before embarking on a hike to the top of the volcano.
This truck has the image of a kabuto mushi (兜虫, rhinoceros beetle) on its side. These beetles can easily be found across Japan and are often kept as pets.
Earthquake routes in Tokyo are marked with this nifty catfish. There is an old Japanese myth that claims earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish trying to wriggle away from a god.
Most of the streets in Japan are much narrower than those in the U.S. or even Europe. This street is actually one of the more spacious streets. Note that this photo shows three lanes (two way traffic plus a turn lane), not just two lanes. Note all of the power lines and signs that make the road almost a visual stimulation overload.
Many highways in Japan are quite narrow and have tall walls on both sides to keep in traffic noise. If there is an accident or break down, there are only a few ways people can get out on foot, so they are clearly marked.
In Japan, preschools for young children are called yochien (幼稚園). Each yochien has a specially painted school bus that drives through the neighborhood to pick up children.
This is another yochien bus spotted on the road.
This is what a Japanese route sign looks like.
To give you an idea of the density and driving conditions in the city, this photo was shot from the observation deck of the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan
This is a blurry shot of the satellite navigation system in our Toyota Estima minivan showing Mount Fuji. Green terrain is high, dark brown is higher and black is crazy high.
This is a rice vending machine that is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. It vends 7 different 10kg (20+ pound) bags of rice.
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.