This piece has basically nothing to do with sex and gender. I originally wrote it a while back, pondered trying to get it published, made some desultory attempts at doing so, failed, and then forgot about it for a while. I still like it, though, and I’ve got no idea what else to do with it, so here it is. Maybe I should set aside one post each month for Random Non-Sex, Non-Feminism, Non-Gender Tangents.
My friend Ryo Chijiiwa turned down an offer from Facebook to work at Yahoo, and later moved to Google. Then, in 2009, he bought an isolated plot of land in the northern California woods — 6 hours by car from San Francisco — and built his own small house. His property, which he calls Serenity Valley, is positively covered with gorgeous trees and attractive outlooks onto the mountains. The nearest Internet access is in a town half an hour away, where Ryo occasionally goes for supplies.
Ryo has shoulder-length hair and wide dark eyes, and he wears no-nonsense clothes full of pockets. I first met him in August 2010 at the San Francisco meetup known as Burning Man, but I already knew him by reputation. Our mutual friends spoke admiringly of his intelligence and — unusually — frugality: his apartments had always been Spartan, and he built his own bedframe, even when he was receiving an excellent salary as a software engineer. (Ryo later insisted he’s not actually that frugal: “It’s just that I spent all my money on easy-to-miss things, like travel and guns.”)
Burning Man, in all its chaotic artistic glory, was my reintegration into America. I’d just returned from working in rural southern Africa, and I was a bundle of confused emotions.  I loved the brilliant lights, libertine community, and sheer creative energy of Burning Man — but sometimes it was a bit much to deal with. Sometimes I wanted someplace more peaceful and less self-consciously hedonistic. If I hadn’t been drawn in by Ryo’s good-natured intelligence, then the minute he spoke about living quietly in the woods I would have been hooked. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I thought he was cute.
I’m still not sure how I convinced Ryo to take me to Serenity Valley, but here we are, driving out. Rather, he’s doing most of the driving, and I’m asking questions about his childhood across three countries. Ryo was born in 1980, and his family moved from America to Japan when he was 7. When he was 10, they went to Germany, and there he stayed until age 18. The family always spoke Japanese at home.
I ask him how he feels about all the moving around, and he says that “it’s a blessing and a curse.” He’s never felt like he fit in anywhere, he explains. On the other hand, “fortunately, American culture values alternate perspectives. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities because of my unusual background.” For one thing, Google was destined to hire him partly because of his Japanese heritage.
It emerges that Ryo was an apparently scatterbrained child who had trouble in school. His parents worried that he’d never make it academically, though they allowed him space for engineering projects that showed definite creativity (“they didn’t mind explosions in my room”). When he made it to university age, his parents told Ryo that if he didn’t get into a good school, they’d be happy to apprentice him to a craftsman. “So I didn’t worry,” he says.
As it happens, though, he was admitted to one of the best schools in Japan — Keio University, a law school. This was particularly exciting for his parents, because there’s a “glass ceiling” that kicks in at certain Japanese companies for employees who didn’t go to the best schools. Ryo’s dad hit that very glass ceiling in his own career, because he didn’t attend Keio; to his parents, Ryo’s Keio admittance seemed to indicate that Ryo would be set for life.
So they weren’t pleased when Ryo decided to drop out after a year and return to America. They didn’t cover his costs, so Ryo taught himself the programming language PHP, then worked as a freelancer in order to finance his move to California. He went through a couple of local colleges before transferring to an academic heavyweight, the University of Chicago. Ryo really, really wanted to work on social networking; Facebook and Yahoo were vying to hire him by the time he graduated in 2005.
We find the dirt road into Serenity Valley after dark. It’s cold when we pull in, and too damp to make a fire. My sinus headache is only now dissipating after gaining 4,200 feet in elevation. Ryo notes that he usually goes to bed early, and I assure him that I’m exceptionally familiar with this lifestyle from my time abroad. We commiserate about after-dark activities: “Dinner has become my evening entertainment,” he laughs, and I nod in agreement.
Ryo’s small and half-finished home looms over the landscape; wooden struts shine in the moonlight. There’s an adorable garden off to one side, and I am lost in admiration. I’m always impressed by people who garden, because even my time in rural Africa was not enough to make agriculture interest me. There’s also a small hut, a tent, Ryo’s car, and that’s about it. Widely-spaced evergreen trees frame the scene. The only mechanical sound is a train passing about a mile away.
The next morning, I wake up amazed at the clear pale sunlight. We eat hummus for breakfast and sit in silence for a long moment, watching the endless understated green-brown forest. “Hey, can I show you something?” Ryo asks suddenly.
We walk away from the house and hut and garden, around a rank of solar panels and past a battered shooting target, over a landscape of tan pine needles and grey rocks. A long sweep of mountains opens out before us, and we pause atop an incline. “If I build a big house, I’ll build it here,” he says. “You can’t see anything mechanical unless a car passes along that road, over there.” I can’t even see the road until he points it out again.
“What are the things you like better about America than Japan?” I ask Ryo later. Hastily, I add, “I know that’s probably a big complicated question.”
“No,” he says, “actually, it’s easy. One reason is that this country respects and values individualism.” He relates the story of three Japanese humanitarian aid workers who were taken hostage in Iraq. The humanitarians were extricated by Japanese governmental action; for one of them, “his first action, when he got home to Japan, was to apologize,” says Ryo. “He had to apologize, because the typical Japanese reaction was to censure him: they were like, ‘Why did you create such a stir?’”
As a former humanitarian worker, I’m getting used to the typical American reaction to humanitarian work abroad, and that reaction is rarely censure — especially for volunteers who were attacked or taken hostage. I nod. “What else?”
“Japan is focused on hierarchy,” he says, “and that’s mostly based on age. It’s really built into the culture. Even the language is hierarchical. It forces you to speak to your ‘superiors’ in a certain way.” I can hear the air quotes in the way he says “superiors”.
“A lot of languages have particular forms to indicate respect,” I say. “Spanish. The Bantu languages.”
“German does a little bit of that too,” he says, “but not like Japanese. It permeates the language’s whole structure. Everything.”
I think back to some of my time in Africa. Although I was able to be informal with a number of people, I found certain interactions with elders to be grating. I remember how quickly some labeled me “aggressive”, though I felt like I spent all my time biting my tongue and bowing my head. At the time, I did my best to be open-minded, to understand their perspectives and adapt. I reminded myself that in their view, I sometimes acted like an intemperate child. But now I have no problem admitting that I’m thrilled to be back in a more individualistic culture.
I try to imagine being trapped in such a hierarchical culture during college, which was one of the first open and expansive times in my life. I fail.
“After going to Africa, I love America more than I imagined I could,” I say.
“There’s really no place like it,” Ryo agrees.
Later, Ryo takes me exploring past the edge of his property and onto public land. We find the remains of a squatter camp and a huge white sandpit (“I have no idea why this sandpit is out here in the woods”). We briefly get lost while following some interesting fences, and make our way back to wander along the dirt road. I continue my project of figuring out why he left Google.
The way Ryo talks about it, it sounds like he had like a crisis of faith. “I lost my idealism,” he says. About what? “I thought the Internet would save the world.”
Ryo claims to be shy, but he’s so well-spoken that half the time I don’t believe him. The real evidence comes out during conversations like this: his voice starts getting softer towards the end of his sentences, like he’s not sure I’m interested. I have to strain to hear him. He explains that he loved building social networks at Yahoo so much, his insane work schedule didn’t matter: “I had fun working 90 hours per week.” He won a huge workplace award for his favorite idea, and was showered with staff to make it happen.
It sounds like the project experienced a slow death by committee, but it’s unclear whether that’s the source of Ryo’s disenchantment, or whether it’s more his growing doubts about the world-changing power of the Internet itself. “The Internet is a polarizing force,” he points out: people mainly use the Internet to access what they want to read, what they want to hear. He believes that it’s not broadening perspectives, not bringing people together; rather, it’s moving them apart. He had an iron-clad belief in the Internet as Good, but after a few years he found, in his words, that “I didn’t know if I knew the right thing to be doing anymore.”
Me, I love the Internet. I spent a lot of time abroad assisting projects to increase public computer or Internet access. I absolutely believe in its power to educate, to reach across borders, to put powerful knowledge in the hands of anyone — everyone. I fiercely defend the Internet from ignorant people who claim that it’s evilly “addictive”, or that Internet communities aren’t “real” communities. I become incensed when I read anti-Internet articles in newspapers and magazines. I don’t think I ever had Ryo’s faith, though. (And the more I blog and observe the Internet’s evolution, the more I have also grown concerned about the polarization, not to mention the problems of how social networks filter our perspectives.)
We get around to discussing Ryo’s transition to Google, which happened after three years at Yahoo. After the switch, he quit Google after only five months. He cites a revelatory moment during a camping vacation with his then-girlfriend, during which they hiked across the desert getting lost and dusty and having a fine old time. “I realized,” he says, “that was all I really needed.”
Although I think I understand his feelings, I can’t help but be a little amazed. I mean, I’ve been to the Googleplex. I mean, there’s an allosaurus skeleton next to the guest entrance. Plus all the free arcade games and ginger-carrot-orange smoothies you can imagine. Employees are incentivized to volunteer for good causes, and they get Fridays to spend on their own projects! I point this out to Ryo; he shrugs. “I was already burned out.”
On my third day in Serenity Valley, Ryo works on building the frame of his home for a while. By evening, the local wood has dried enough to build a fire. “Nice Google hoodie,” I say as Ryo pulls branches into the firepit. “It’s cold! I’m not wearing it because it says Google!” he protests. In fairness, I myself am wearing a hoodie from an international charity organization, yet my relationship with American foreign aid is at least as complicated as the Facebook status.
We stay up until 1 A.M. by the fire, and our conversation centers on careers and relationships. Ryo’s running out of money and could freelance as a software engineer, but doesn’t feel inclined to. Still, he has to do something, and speaks vaguely of drastic but interesting changes, such as joining the National Guard. He’s tried a career counselor, he explains, but it didn’t help much. Having already lost interest in one grand passion, it’s hard to find another. “I might never be as excited about anything else,” he acknowledges sadly.
He’s getting into the idea of activism, though — live-in-the-woods activism; survivalist activism; training on how to keep a low-resource home. “People write to me all the time because they’ve read my blog and want to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m starting to think that I could educate about how to do it.” He talks about intentional communities, too, and his thoughts about someday creating one out here. Living with a bunch of interesting people in a woodsy cooperative might be a pipe dream, but hey — it also might not. I like talking to him about activism, because it’s exciting to be able to offer advice.
Our conversation about relationships has unmistakable undertones, at least for me. One striking moment comes as I note the difficulty of initiating relationships with friends, especially as a girl. “Well, if it’s confusing, then you just have to be more explicit,” Ryo says. I wonder if we’re talking to, or past each other. He’s said that he’s shy — is he trying to signal that I should be the one to go for it, if I’m interested?
I’m not bad at being straightforward, but I mentally enumerate the costs of bungling an advance out here: in that case, we’d be stuck in the woods together with — at the absolute minimum — a 6-hour drive back to civilization. And Ryo’s too awesome for me to risk making things so awkward. And I’ve done a lot of signaling already — maybe he’s just not attracted to me. Of course, he could be thinking the same thing.
I’m accustomed to getting crushes on sensitive nerd guys by now. Wouldn’t have it any other way, in fact. Who else can I have a real conversation with? Still, it seems like I’m always getting myself into these “wait, do I know that he knows that I know …” situations, and I can only laugh.
The next day we return to San Francisco. Before we go, Ryo hooks a water pump up to his car battery using jumper cables, and shifts 200 pounds of water into a small water tower. He also breaks his glasses and is forced to search out his spare pair, a surprisingly classy rectangular job with black rims. I compliment them, and he sighs. “Yeah, this is what happens when you end up at boutique eyewear stores. The ladies there made me get these stylish frames.”
I can’t help cracking up. “Yeah,” I say, “I mean, God forbid you wear glasses that suit you.”
On the way back, we talk about the collapse of civilization. I’ve got many unnerving thoughts about potential apocalypses, and a shocking proportion of my peers share them, including Ryo. “This is not crackpot theory anymore,” he says.
“Where would you want to be if the grid collapsed?” I ask, and he swiftly replies, “Not the city. In fact, I’ve thought about keeping enough gas around, when I’m visiting San Francisco, to ensure that I can get to my property at any time.”
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and I was there during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, when a gigantic swath of America’s northeast lost power for days. I remember climbing up to the roof of my parents’ building and standing with my then-boyfriend, gawking stunned at the darkness that should have been New York’s skyline. It was a strange moment, a little scary, freighted and heightened with possibility. It felt like a warning.
In Africa, I often thought about where and how Americans might see omens. And whether we’d even notice them if they came.
I’m no raving patriot, but it hurts to think about how much I love America and how sure I am that it’s on its way out. For all the evil colonialism of our empire, I hope it will decline with a whimper rather than falling in flames, even though I know that so many things about American lives are unsustainable. I try not to think overmuch about the worst that could happen.
I thrive among tall glass buildings, and rust, and absurdly overspecialized subcultures; I love the high art and low culture, the ironic humor and cosmopolitan understanding that seem native to cities. All the things I want to do, concentrated in the places I want to be. Yet I feel half-submerged fear while living in America’s cities — half-submerged, because I think I only admit it half the time, even to myself. Part of me wants to flee abroad: this anxiety was an undeniable aspect of my work in Africa, although that was genuinely more about seeking to make a difference in the world. On the other hand, part of me wants to take advantage of America’s cultural pinnacle while it lasts.
I try to articulate all this to Ryo. “Yeah,” he says, “I remember that a couple of years ago, I was sitting in a San Francisco park listening to opera. And I thought to myself, wow, someday I am going to look back on this, and I will not be able to believe it really happened. Opera in the park? Seriously? That’s just incredible. What kind of society could make that happen?”
I think Ryo and I both are semi-specialized products of a culture that encourages bending and breaking boundaries and pushing ourselves. Granted, he and I both have a lot of class privilege, and the same opportunities would not be open to every American citizen that have been available to us. How much of our mutual evaluation of America as non-hierarchical comes from the fact that we have so much privilege?
Still. Since my return home, it has not yet ceased to amaze me how thoroughly Americans value equality and open discourse; encourage innovation and independence.
I believe this is something unequivocally worth loving about the America I know: our emphasis on individuality and self-expression. But in some ways it weakens us, encourages narcissism and self-indulgence. “Do what you love and the money will follow” is a beautiful saying, but also a horribly selfish and overprivileged one. I often think of things like that, and I often feel like an appalling brat.
There are certain ways that many countries in southern Africa have dealt with its HIV crisis that I’m not sure Americans would do so well. Many African communities have coped shockingly well with an unprecedented number of orphans — not perfectly, but shockingly well — and I wonder if the typical isolated, non-extended American family within more individualist American communities would do so well.
I also wondered, while I was out there, whether it might benefit me to go do an immersion in some of America’s more communalist or rural areas. How many of our current political problems could be analyzed as culture clash, culture shock?
I want to believe that America can find a path through the world-ending visions before us, but it’s clear that will require a lot more from us than we’re doing now. We can’t enable self-expression at the cost of responsibility. We have to separate individuality from unsustainable consumerism. I get anxious sometimes when I think about my own causes, especially sexuality activism … I believe it’s important, so important, and yet it can easily become a sink of self-indulgence. Bread and circuses, my friends. Bread and circuses.
How many of us are trying to take accountability and do the right thing for the world, and how many are seeking to maximize enjoyment of our debauched End Days? How much is it possible to do both (she wonders, then wonders if she’s being selfish)?
I’d love to believe we can preserve this country as the kind of place where a software engineer, gun enthusiast and cross-cultural expert listens to opera in the park one year, and heads out to the woods to build his home the next.
Postscript: I wrote this in late 2010. After the 2011 tsunami, Ryo went to Japan to volunteer. He left in April; here’s a blog post he wrote after his arrival. A couple bits in particular caught my attention. Firstly:
Many of the older people I’ve talked to remember the tsunami triggered by the 1960 Chile earthquake, which killed hundreds here. In general, the Japanese are used to hardship. In fact, I’ve come to realize recently that the culture almost seems to have been defined by hardship. Traits like “endurance”, “resilience”, “self-reliance” are highly valued here, and those qualities help people overcome hardships. We’ve seen old men and women, perhaps over 90 years old, bent over piles of rubble, clearing debris a tiny handful at a time. When asked if they need help, they would smile, and tell us that they’re doing just fine. It’s obvious to everybody that they won’t clear the mountain of rubble that surrounds their home in their life times, but that’s besides the point. If all you can do is move the mountain one handful at a time, then that’s what you do. That’s the attitude people have here.
And if you, like me, have a personal interest in Ryo, this other bit might make your heart smile:
Even before this volunteer opportunity popped up, I was starting to think about how it’d be nice to be and work among people again. After spending months mostly alone, I’d come to see my own limitations; I realized that I’m not good at challenging myself, and that I like having other people around to challenge, inspire, and motivate me. On the other hand, I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t want to go back to work in an office, but I couldn’t think of anything else I was qualified to do. Until, that is, this volunteer project came up. I feel like I was meant to do this, and it just happened to be the perfect “job” at the perfect time.
As a side note, Ryo and I remain Just Friends. But it’s all good.
Ryo Chijiiwa blogs at http://laptopandarifle.wordpress.com.
* Footnote: Although I can’t offer details of my location when I was in Africa, I try to stay aware of Western tendencies to stereotype and dismiss Africa as “one big country”. If this piece backs up that stereotype, please let me know and offer ideas about how to avoid writing that way in the future.