This blog chronicles my travels as a 2016-2017 Thomas J. Watson Fellow exploring cultural attitudes towards health technology around the world. Starting from and returning to New York City, USA, I am traveling to Sweden, Qatar, India, Singapore, Japan, and Botswana over the course of one year.
I arrived in Sweden on July 19th, 2016, which means that yesterday – June 19th, 2017 – I began my very last month of the Watson year. At the beginning of the year, I noticed the 19th of each passing month, these milestones that seemed enormous at the time: 1 month in! Two months in! Somewhere along the way, I stopped counting like that. Then yesterday, it hit me again: the 19th. One month left.
My first month on the Watson was long and difficult. After the first week, I thought to myself that this would be the longest year of my life. I had a large, unmeasurable swath of unknown ahead of me, which was scary and exciting and overwhelming. I wondered if I would ever feel like I was on my way home. Within the first month, I stayed alone in an apartment without wifi after four years of the intensely social college experience; I felt myself undergoing various changes as I learned how to be alone and love it; I lived in two different Swedish cities; I lost two of my grandparents, and heard the news over Skype; and I began my project, meeting with strangers kind enough to give me some insight into their medical device work.
Once I hit the one month mark, 1/12 of the way through the Watson, I felt like I had hardly made a dent in the year despite having already experienced so much. Now, at 11/12 of the way through, having one month left feels like nothing. It’s hard knowing that so much of the adventure is done, that the vast unknown has become something very known, measurable by photo albums and ticket stubs and friends left behind; but also thrilling knowing that this seemingly insurmountable year has been easier and far less lonely than I expected.
It’s weird how your perception of time changes so easily – how a month can go from being so long to being so short. Time flies by faster the older you get, and somehow the Watson has magnified that phenomenon.
The distance between NYC and Singapore is nearly 10,000 miles. That’s the farthest away from home I’ve been this year. But Tennessee Williams said that “time is the longest distance between two places,” and that feels far more accurate to me. I just want to make sure I make the most of the time I have left, but I’m not too worried about it – I think Botswana is a lovely place to be for the next month.
The Batswana – the people of Botswana – refer to the country as “Bots,” and I love that. Gaborone is pronounced Ha-borone-y, but this city has a nickname too: Gabs. I’ve already been here for ten days, and I can’t believe it. Time flies by faster as the Watson goes on, I’m sure.
Botswana is a huge change from Japan. The population here is about 2 million people; 10% of them, 200,000, live in Gabs. Japan has 127 million people with 13 million living in Tokyo alone. I knew that Gabs wouldn’t be nearly as urban or pedestrian-friendly as Tokyo, nor as safe. I even read a mildly alarming email from the US Government suggesting that visitors avoid walking around solo at all.
Luckily that email was over-cautionary (though I still won’t be walking around in the nighttime), and after a couple days in Botswana, I started to feel at home. The transition from Japan was quicker and easier than I expected. I don’t know if that’s because I’m used to transitions now, and better at adapting quickly to new and foreign places, or because the people here are so friendly and easy to talk to in English – probably both!
The surrealism of the Watson is often lost on me these days, though I frequently marveled at the lovely strangeness of it all in my first few months. It’s become an odd routine – of traveling, landing someplace new, figuring out how to get a local number, taking a couple days to figure things out and feel safe – that I’ve learned to repeat in each new country or even city. Each new destination gets easier to manage, and each unexpected interaction or step along the way seems less like a snag. That in itself is exciting and surreal, though, knowing that I now feel comfortable walking into pretty much any situation and making it feel like home.
Of course, this is the end of the proverbial road, and I won’t be traveling to another new country after Botswana. But that’s not to say the U.S. will feel exactly like the place I left, and maybe this new-country-routine is something I can apply, on a much smaller scale, to my return back home and whatever “reverse culture shock” awaits me there.
Speaking of home, I just extended my stay at an Airbnb here by an additional 7 weeks – the remainder of my time in Botswana. Though I might travel out of Gaborone over the next couple months (in fact, I just did yesterday), it’s always nice to have a home base. I can leave for a night or a few and come back while leaving some of my stuff in a place that I know is safe.
Anyway, this is a big milestone for me because it means that I’ve figured out a place to stay for every single night of the Watson year. Just before I left for Sweden, I only had a few weeks of housing figured out, and it scared me. I had to set up all my own accommodation for 365 distinct nights, and I didn’t know where I was going to be – and at the same time, my friends were moving into apartments with yearlong leases. I knew that I would be okay figuring things out day-to-day on the Watson year once I got over the hurdle of where to stay night-to-night. Now that I’ve booked these last 7 weeks, that’s it. I’ve done it – I found a safe place to stay every night of the Watson and stayed in budget while doing so. I’m tempted to say that it was easier than I expected, but maybe that’s just in hindsight.
Finally, the stars here are just beautiful – Gaborone must have the least light pollution of any city or town I’ve been in this year. (If I could capture them on my camera, I would certainly post a photo). I keep getting distracted by them at night. I don’t think most of the Batswana notice.
A friend of mine in Japan told me about the Tokyo Jissha, the ten shrines of Tokyo, a couple weeks before I left. In 1868, at the time of the Meiji Restoration when Tokyo became Japan’s capital, Emperor Meiji chose ten Shinto shrines scattered throughout the city to be the sanctuaries for the new capital. Every shrine and temple has a unique stamp (goshuin) that can be written in a special stamp book (a goshuin-cho), and my friend had decided collect the stamps of the Tokyo Jissha in her goshuin-cho. I decided to get a book of my own, and traveling to these 10 shrines during my last days in Japan to collect goshuin felt like a pilgrimage to say goodbye.
Just because I keep leaving doesn’t mean that it gets easier to let go. I left Japan a few days ago and I’m still wrapping it up, cleaning it away. I feel like I have to do this spring cleaning every time I leave – change my number, close the tabs of “medtech companies in Japan,” tell my friends I arrived safely, and then drift out of regular contact with them. Is it easier to leave, or to stay? I’ve become someone who leaves and I don’t know how I feel about that.
The thing is, as much as I live in these places and learn to love them and get to know their people, I don’t really belong. I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that no matter how long I spend abroad, I won’t become Indian or Japanese or Singaporean. I need to take all that I’ve done this year and bring it back with me to places I do belong. I want to know what my project would be like in the US – what impact I could have on medical technology there, where I can invest the time.
But I’ve gotten used to leaving everything behind every few months, and I wonder how that will manifest when I’m back home and trying to build something more permanent. Perhaps I’ll find that it’s easier to keep seeing new things, rather than to try finding new aspects of old things.
I was worried that my fleeting presence in various places this year would make people feel distant, but it hasn’t. Especially in Japan, where I was worried about the formality of the polite language, I learned that so much warmth can be imbued between the words of formal speech. It’s still hard to know, without speaking the language, if you’re doing things right or just the recipient of excessive politeness, but I’ve gotten closer to people than I expected to.
Still, I’m getting tired of saying goodbye. I’ve arrived in Botswana now – my last project country – and that feels right. I’m used to leaving places, but I don’t want to be; it’s actually comforting to know that this cycle of coming and going, goodbyes every few months, is ending soon. I’m excited to spend two months here and explore one more new place. Also, on a lighter note, it’s lovely to be in a country with fluent English speakers!
I spent last weekend in Fukuoka, a small city in the southwest of Japan. While I was there, I did a big day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, two relatively nearby destinations via the shinkansen bullet train. I didn’t think I would be able to go to Hiroshima while in Japan, but as the end of my time here got closer, the more ridiculous it seemed that I would miss it – I think its importance demands making the effort to go there. As I planned the day, reading online about day trips to Hiroshima, I decided it would be possible to spend the morning in the city and then take a ferry in the afternoon to the nearby island of Miyajima – the site of the Itsukushima shrine and famous floating torii. It was a packed day, but I am so glad I did it.
After arriving in Hiroshima, I went straight to the Peace Memorial Park, which is exactly where the atomic bomb was dropped – in the center of the city – on August 6th, 1945. The Peace Memorial Park has the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on one end and the Atomic Bomb Dome on the other. I started at the Atomic Bomb Dome, the only ruin left from the war. The bomb exploded almost directly over this structure, which actually minimized its impact – as you can see, the frame of what was a dome in the center of the building was left standing. The building is preserved exactly as it was after the bomb hit. But as for the rest of the city’s buildings, Hiroshima is completely rebuilt and thriving with no evidence of the bomb.
On my way to the museum from the Dome, I saw this flame. My mom, who has been to Hiroshima before, told me to “look out for the eternal flame.” As I spotted it and walked towards it, my eyes teared up at the idea of a flame that’s been burning since it was placed there to honor the victims of Hiroshima. How much work to keep the flame burning for so long! As I read the plaque, I realized that the idea of the flame wasn’t exactly to be eternal. It reads: “Symbolizing the universal desire for a world free from nuclear weapons, the flame will burn until the day when all such weapons shall have disappeared from the earth.” A beautiful sentiment. Thus the idea of it being eternal – burning forever because we will never rid this planet of nuclear weapons – is all the more depressing.
I arrived at museum, which was already packed with tourists at 9am, and I spent 2 long hours there reading every detail. It was difficult and depressing, but its focus was peace. The museum was all about the horrors of the bomb itself, sadness about war and destruction, and the desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons. There was very little anger against America or the other countries involved in the war.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum taught me details of the war that made it even more depressing than I had realized. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to delve into these tragedies with me – but do keep scrolling for the photos). The first detail that struck me was about the demolition crews. These were groups of people who worked to safely demolish various buildings in Hiroshima’s more concentrated areas in order to minimize the effects of fires that might result from air raids during the war. That is, if there were fewer buildings all stacked up against each other, one catching fire from an air raid would not cause so much damage to the rest of them. I’d never heard of this tactic, but that’s what they were doing in Hiroshima. Most of these crews included young schoolchildren; innocent civilians as young as 8 years old. Maybe they lived far from the center of the city or came from surrounding neighborhoods, but they came to work in the center of the city where the buildings were densely packed. That means that when the bomb exploded that Monday morning, there were far more young children in the center of the city – right where the bomb hit – than there should have been. That was heartbreaking.
The museum displayed many pieces of clothing of the children who died as a result of the bomb while working in those demolition crews. Their parents had to search for them, and they were lucky if they found any clothes or belongings (bodies were far rarer). I find it much sadder that parents had to look for their children rather than the other way around, though of course both are horrible. With each item or clothing scrap, the museum included as much detail (including a name) about the previous owner as possible to give you a full picture of the people that died in the bombing. This went on and on. But in one glass box, the museum had put clothing from 3 different children onto one mannequin. It was as though all these individual scraps of things and clothing, all with unique identities attached to them, had fused into one image: the child who died because of the bomb.
Another fact I learned was that there were American prisoners of war in Hiroshima when we dropped the bomb. I can’t imagine there were that many, but it still surprised me. I never knew that. Also, there was a replica of the bomb in the museum. It was called “Little Boy” due to its fairly small, lanky shape. It was smaller than I imagined compared to the amount of damage it was able to inflict – 10 feet long. Of course, it only takes a tiny bit of uranium to cause mass destruction, but it was still unnerving to see a full-sized replica of the bomb, just sitting there like something harmless.
Lastly, it was stunning to realize just how much damage the bomb had done, and in which various indirect ways. Of course, I knew that the force of the bomb itself leveled the city and that the resulting radiation affected people for many years later. But there were other things, too. For example, the intense heat of the bomb burned people to death. Some people who weren’t killed by the bomb’s force, or heat, or radiation, were injured instead by glass – the bomb exploded so many glass objects and surfaces that it sent shards flying all over, into buildings and people’s clothes and into the people themselves. Some survivors had pieces of glass surgically removed from their bodies 20, 30, and even 40 years after the bomb. There were so many ways that the bomb hurt people.
One way that was particularly depressing was that some of the people who died as a result of the bomb were those who came to the city the next day as rescue. No one in Hiroshima was capable of leading or organizing a rescue effort, so any help had to come from outside the city, and it did. But the radiation levels were still so high the day after the bomb exploded that many of the people that came to help suffered as a result.
Okay – that is all I will say about the Peace Memorial Museum and the bombing. That museum is now a small part of the big, lively, healthy city that Hiroshima is known for today. After I left the museum, I had Hiroshima’s local specialty for lunch (a type of okonomi-yaki made with noodles) and visited a beautiful garden – though of course what I saw at the museum stayed with me.
On the island of Miyajima that afternoon, I saw just as much beauty as the sadness I had seen in Hiroshima. The famous “floating torii” is the torii gate of the island’s Itsukushima shrine. Built on a beach, it stands in the sand at low tide, and it appears to “float” on the water in high tide, when the water submerges its base. Of course, all the pictures I had seen of the torii were taken at high tide in perfect lighting, so it looked magical. When I was on the ferry approaching the island, not only was it evident that the tide was low, but also the torii looked tiny from the boat! I prepared myself to be disappointed by a small, non-floating sight.
Luckily there is more to do on Miyajima island than see this torii, and first I explored the rest of Itsukushima shrine. It was enormous and beautiful, and I couldn’t get enough of the bright red vermillion structure, all built on stilts over the sand. On the rest of the island, there are hikes to do, Buddhist temples to visit, village shops to see, and a surprising amount of deer to avoid.
I spent about three hours on the island, and as the day inched closer to sunset, the tide started coming in. The island’s visitors that day started to gather at a stone wall facing the torii, many of them sitting in silence sipping beers. I quietly joined them, and as we watched the sun disappear into the clouds behind the torii, the water level rose enough to truly make the torii appear to float. I have to say that it was one of the most magical moments I’ve experienced so far on the Watson, and the sight was extraordinary.
I’m thrilled that I was able to see the torii at both tides – I had the opportunity to walk up to it and touch it, and I also got to see it “float.” And that was really something.
I arrived in Osaka on Easter Sunday, though of course no one celebrates it here. Wandering around Osaka that evening was my first time really being alone in Japan, and I wasn’t used to that, so it felt a bit odd and lonely. But soon I relaxed into the feeling, and enjoyed it. I remembered how it felt when I arrived in Sweden by myself so many months ago, or when I was off on my own in Kerala.
I was reminded that the only thing that connects all these random places, besides my project, is myself. I like being off on my own, and in those moments, sometimes I think I could quietly disappear into the Watson. I don’t know how else to describe that feeling, except maybe that’s my way of keeping this going forever.
I’ve been listening to the podcast S-Town as I travel around (it’s currently #1 on iTunes and I highly recommend it!). The podcast centers around the life of an “antiquarian horologist,” a restorer of antique clocks, and, appropriately, one of the podcast’s themes is time. The profession of antiquarian horology, as I’ve learned from S-Town, is dying because time is so accessible now on smartphones and watches.
It got me thinking – what does that say about the relationship between humans and time? Now that it is so easy to check, at any moment, what the exact time is down to the nanosecond, do we relate to time differently then we did before? Does this hyper-awareness of the passage of time at all affect the way we approach life? I realize these are ridiculous exaggerated questions, certainly the product of traveling solo and having too much time to think (heh). But what I’m saying is that what’s important here (to me, anyway) is not the measurement of time itself but the way people relate to it.
I don’t think it’s enough just to talk about medical devices, or embedded systems, or the topics of space and time; what’s interesting is how do people relate to these things, and why, and how can we make them in a way so that people have the most positive reaction? How is a medical device interesting if you’re not thinking about how people will use it and how it will impact their health? None of these things matter without that framing (and of course none of it would exist without the people to make it; even time would be a moot point without people to experience it, frame it, and measure it). I’m sure this all sounds obvious – my project has been about the “human response to medical technology” since I designed it over a year ago – but it’s still fun to think about, especially extending that thinking to other disciplines.
Anyway, that’s all, and if you celebrate Easter, I hope you had a lovely weekend!
Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, has always been at the top of my Watson to-do list. Comprised of one main island and many smaller islands, it’s considered one of the healthiest places in the world – even healthier than the rest of Japan. It’s called a “Blue Zone” for being one of six regions in the world where people have extra-high life expectancies (https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/). Japan’s overall life expectancy is 80/87 male/female, already quite high, but in Okinawa those numbers reportedly stretch to 84/90. Of course, I’ve been curious for months to go there and see what, if anything, makes it feel remarkably healthy.
Also, as an American, I felt that it was important to go to Okinawa due to its complicated history with the US. For the 27 years following the end of World War II, Okinawa was under the occupation and rule of the US Military Government. Even though the US “returned” Okinawa to Japan in 1972, there are still many bases in the prefecture and thousands of US military personnel stationed there. When our plane landed in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, this became an immediate reality – though the little oval window, I saw military aircraft using the same airport as the commercial planes like ours.
So, when my host mom suggested a trip to Okinawa in the spring, of course I said yes! She said that she likes to go there for vacation. It was reassuring that Okinawa was her choice of destination – it confirmed the idea that this place is considered a rejuvenating, or even particularly healthy, area in Japan. I was thrilled to be able to tag along with my host family on their vacation to a spot I had learned about because of my project – and hopefully see it through that lens while I was there.
Many people, when answering my question of what makes Japan so healthy, say that it’s the diet. Okinawan food is Japanese food with an even healthier spin. At meals, my host mom pointed out “no calorie” and “no sugar” foods every so often. The food in Okinawa is all about fresh vegetables and fruits from the area, as well as seaweed and particularly protein-heavy tofu. In Tokyo, the fruit is imported and crazy expensive; the colder climate leads to a heavier reliance on meat, fish, rice, and potatoes.
My host mom described Okinawa as “practically a different country from Japan,” and it’s easy to see why – Okinawa is geographically distant from the rest of Japan and has also been politically separate from the country for most of its history. There’s even an Okinawan language (in addition to, and different from, the “Okinawan Japanese” dialect spoken in the prefecture).
In addition to the food, I’m sure that the relaxing lifestyle in Okinawa contributes to its health standard. In terms of what makes Japan unhealthy, I often hear people speak negatively about the work culture. Especially in Tokyo, people tend to work very long hours, and it seems like their main source of exercise is going up and down the metro stairs (which, to be fair, often involve multiple flights both ways). In Okinawa, and especially in Ishigaki, I saw none of that stressful urban work culture.
Okinawa seemed to have a lot in common with Hawaii, being the geographically distant island paradise state of its country (of course, there’s also the WWII connection). But Okinawa is supposed to be the epitome of health, whereas I never thought of Hawaii as being so healthy. I decided to check out where Hawaii falls on a list of all 50 states ranked by health. To my surprise, Hawaii wasn’t only in the top ten, but it was ranked #1! It’s held that ranking for the past 5 consecutive years, apparently the healthiest state in the US due to a number of different factors (with MA and CT following as 2nd and 3rd in 2016; from America’s Health Rankings 2016 report). So maybe there is something to island life in the Pacific. Certainly this longevity is not due to medical technology.
Early yesterday morning I said goodbye to the friends who came to visit me, and tomorrow morning I fly to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, with my new host family. These are certainly busy times, and I’m glad to be seeing more of the country than just Tokyo.
I’m incredibly lucky that two of my best friends in the world were able to come visit me in Japan, all the way from NYC, while I’m on the Watson (as I was when my parents came to India for Christmas – though this is the end of visits for me!). I showed them around Tokyo for a few days, which was a blast since I’ve been here for a month now, and then we went to Kyoto with a half day trip to Osaka. We saw a ton and took literally thousands of photos and videos, so what I’m sharing now is only a quick summary of the highlights, but it’s something.
Kyoto and Osaka were not as different from Tokyo as any of us were expecting. We were all picturing these non-Tokyo cities as far smaller and less urban than they were, and we expected Kyoto to be mostly old architecture, shrines, and populated by far more kimono-clad women. Well, Osaka is Japan’s 3rd-largest city and Kyoto its 7th-largest, so we had the wrong idea!
As for Osaka, we only spent an afternoon there, but we had dinner on the Dotonbori “food street” – and it was hilarious. This area of Osaka has packed pedestrian streets, huge funky illuminated signs, loads of casinos, and cigarette butts lining the sidewalk gutters (a very unusual sight in Tokyo and Kyoto, where smoking on the street is generally prohibited and the sidewalks are impeccably clean).
It wasn’t until that evening in Dotonbori that I finally saw what I had imagined of Tokyo. My image of Japan was always two-faced: I would think of tradition, politeness, and organization, but also of bright lights, dark urban underbellies, and various futuristic sci-fi movies. More than Shinjuku or Akihabara in Tokyo – the typical ‘bright lights’ areas – Dotonbori in Osaka fit that latter idea.
You may be wondering: what about that core part of the Watson, the project? I’ve been in Japan for over a month now and written only one project post, though there are a few meetings and events I haven’t written about. It’s tough to do my project with so much group travel, constantly moving around (that is, more than I already do solo on the Watson), and getting wrapped up in the family scheduling and “cultural immersion” that naturally accompanies homestay life. Luckily, I was able to have a project interview last week while my friends were here in Tokyo. Though I was bummed that the timing meant that I had to leave them for an afternoon, I was ultimately very glad to have a chance to interview someone (especially after 2 weeks of staying busy with my Japanese class rather than project) while giving my friends a chance to explore Tokyo themselves.
In other news, I feel like I’ve been talking with a twinge of sadness lately – in Skype calls to my parents, letters to my friends, and certainly my last blog post – and I wanted to address that briefly. Of course, it was sad to say goodbye to my host family last week, and I think the reason that blog post came out in such a sad tone was because the difficulty of leaving them surprised me. Even now, I’m at my new homestay, typing in a house in the same neighborhood I left a week ago.
But overall, I think it’s just that I’m a bit tired. There’s been a lot going on, and in the past week and a half, I’ve finished Japanese class, traveled around with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, moved to a new homestay, and started packing for another weeklong trip. I had an amazing time last week, and I’ve been excited about Okinawa since I picked Japan as a project country, but it still gets tiring sometimes. It’s also a lot of traveling with people, and while I enjoy that immensely, I’ve gotten used to solo travel on the Watson, and I think there’s something very refreshing about it. Also, like I’ve mentioned, the solo nature of the Watson makes it sound like you won’t be saying goodbye to people, and as I’ve said, goodbyes are hard and exhausting – but I would always rather have the goodbyes along with everything else, the hellos and the being together, than no goodbyes at all.
I suppose what I’m saying is yes, the Watson is tiring, perhaps especially once it’s been going on for 8 months. But that’s okay, and that’s expected, and I love it. I’m so happy to be able to do these things, to have my best friends visit and to travel with a Japanese family (and it’ll be interesting to experience those juxtapositions). I really wouldn’t have it any other way.