Social Media Slave: Broadcasting My Adventures in Japan

1936173_1030535853683717_2874735555590670291_n

One of the million photos I took while traveling Kyoto and Osaka.

“Social media: It’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here. Perform everything to each other. All the time. For no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. […] If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” – Bo Burnham, Make Happy

~

When it comes to social media, I am always late to the party. I joined Facebook my last year of high school, years after it gained world-wide popularity (and I lived in Colorado Springs, where people were already usually behind the times). I then joined Twitter and Snapchat more or less than a year ago, although I use each infrequently. And I joined WordPress last September to begin this travel blog. Although I joined Instagram about a year ago, I didn’t start using it until recently. In fact, I had a little over 70 followers and had only posted two pictures (my friends are so supportive…or unaware).

Compared to your average middle-aged person, I’m quite social media-savvy. I was a marketing intern; I’m open-minded and understand the spoken and unspoken rules of each medium. However, I’m always hesitant to add another social media platform to my life because it can become a burden. I dread being at the beck and call of smartphone notifications and find it easy to get sucked into scrolling through post after post after post, reliving moments I was a part of just moments ago, as well as moments in people’s lives who I haven’t talked to in ten years. But as soon as I’m sucked in, I admit I enjoy it, for better or worse.

During my trip to Japan in May, I decided to experiment with my use of social media. Usually when traveling, I will take a few poorly-lit pictures (when I can be bothered to) and then upload them later (when I can be bothered to) on Facebook, after my mom has requested I do so through multiple messenger apps (because she, however, isn’t as social-media savvy). That about sums up my travel cataloging. I had joked about live tweeting my trip to my friend Shelby, and she said, “DO IT!” I’m happy to entertain, so I decided to live tweet my trip with two girls I work with at the English Village. I guess I also have Shelby to thank for my decision to Instagram my trip, too. When we took a tour around a few spots in Korea together, she would snap a picture of the destination and then go sit in a coffee shop the rest of the time, because she was just “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram.” I wanted to do it for the ‘Gram, too (but also explore each destination beyond the nearest coffee shop).

The following sections address what I learned by becoming a slave to social media during my week-long trip to Japan:

~

THE PROS

Online Scrapbooking

One benefit of using social media whenever you go on adventures, big or small, is that it allows you space to reflect on significant moments, to consider the best parts and comment on them. You share them with people and are able to recall them later. It’s like a scrapbook, but, well, broadcasted for anyone in the world to see. Our obsession with cataloguing our lives is fascinating, but maybe a topic for another time.

Updating My Loved Ones, Who Are Invested in Me

My parents are terrified that I’m going to be Taken, so they like to know my whereabouts. Also, they just want to see what I’m seeing and know about my adventures. The obligation to social media benefits my family and friends who actually care about what I’m up to. Coincidentally, that’s what I’ve accepted about my WordPress blog: it’s really just for my own personal reflection, my mom, and the few people who stumble upon it and care enough to give it a “like” (thanks, guys *tiny finger hearts*).

I really don’t have a significant number of followers on any platform, so I’m not “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram” because my followers don’t really care if my posts are few (see above 70 (friend) followers for my two, whole pictures). Even on Twitter, my audience is mainly the people I interact with in real life. I live-tweeted not because I’m a comedian or well-known travel blogger; I live tweeted because four of my friends thought my commentary was funny. It’s the same reason for why I’m currently writing a series of Walking Dead fan-fiction episodes centered around my co-workers. They enjoy it, but who else cares? My audiences are very specific, and they’re the only ones I really care to impress.

I think you could argue, then, that social media allows us more intimacy with people; I get to share so many moments and experiences in my life that I wouldn’t be able to if I wasn’t connected with friends and family on the Internet. However, social media isn’t very honest. It’s not truly intimate because we’re just taking the best parts of everything and throwing it in each other’s faces with no warning. Even though I feel like I use social media for myself and for my loved ones to keep up with my life outside of our Skype chats, I admit I also really do just love the attention. The notifications to my phone may be annoying, but they’re also gratifying, pathetic as it is to say so. And sharing our lives just for attention isn’t real intimacy or honesty.

~

THE CONS

Wifi Is Key

It took me all of a day of exploring Kyoto to accept that the wifi there is undependable. Unlike in Korea, the many wifi spots in Kyoto were impossible to connect to or tried to lure me in and get my money. Korea seems to be a lot more upfront and simplistic with wifi spots. And since I wasn’t willing to pay for pricey data for the week, everything qualified as a #LaterGram or #NotActuallyLiveTweet.

Eating Up Time

Social media is such a great distraction from the world, but when you actually want to be in the world, experiencing what’s around you, a one-time experience, it’s all just such a burden. Using social media to catalogue and broadcast your adventure is like having to check up on something all the time, like caring for a child. I had to pause everywhere to take pictures, and then sort through the photos later for the best one to put on the ‘Gram. I had to hold back the impulse to eat my food like a normal person when it arrived at the table, because I had to get the perfect shot of it. Every adventure is a photo shoot. It’s a bummer if the lighting is bad or my pictures were more blurry than I realized. And after I posted it, the notifications of ‘likes’ are like someone tapping on your shoulder every ten minutes or so. “Hey! Hey….Nice post. *thumbs up*” I don’t mean to sound like I don’t appreciate people’s appreciation of my posts, but the notifications got me like, “Thanks, but I’m trying to answer these Japanese school children’s English questions so they can finish their assignment, and also I need to concentrate on finding green tea ice cream, because that stuff rocks.”

~

So, basically: I like to reflect on moments of adventure and I like to connect with friends and family, but social media is a time-waster and demands a lot of energy. Why do we need to broadcast everything? Why not make an actual scrapbook and share it with my family when I return home? Do I actually use these mediums because I want to prove to the world that I’m not boring? That I’m worth paying attention to? That I’m not the shy, quiet girl I was in high school?

I’m actually a little bit terrified that I’m attention-starved. That we’re all attention-starved, despite the constant attention that is drawn to the life we project on the Internet. On social media, we have a voice; people listen to and validate us. You feel like your life matters, that you have value that should be appreciated. And that’s a scary way to feed our insecurities, constantly begging to be loved superficially. I can dig all the way down to the root of social media culture and admit that my dedication to social media is keeping me from seeking validation and fulfillment from God; instead of one big dose of perfect, lasting love, I keep shooting myself up with tiny doses of likes and comments whenever I feel alone. Or left out. Or insecure. Or bored.

I like one of my favorite comedians, Bo Burnham’s, challenge: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” How would our lives change if we became social media hermits, instead of slaves? Maybe that will be my next experiment. But, first, let me take a selfie.

Advertisements

On The Truman Show and Exiting to Enter

If you’ve seen The Truman Show, you know the final scene where Truman (Jim Carrey) at last escapes the place he’s called home his entire life. When the tip of his boat crashes through the wall of the dome encircling the small city which, until now, had been his whole world, he gets this look of realization in his eyes: his life-long hope arrives with the crunch of a boat through plaster and a door that opens onto darkness.

Leaving for Korea feels like facing that exit door. It would be dramatic to compare my life exactly to Truman’s (e.g. I know I’m not in a reality show, and I’m at least pretty sure my family and friends are not hired actors). However, it’s easy for me to identify with that sense of resolution and tension as I prepare to leave my home country for the first time.

Truman’s dream was to go to Fiji: “You can’t go any further without coming right back.” I chose Korea not because it was the farthest from home, but because I fell in love with the language watching K-Dramas, I wanted to continue to work with ELL students, and I wanted to live somewhere no one else I knew had been. (Retrospective reality check: everyone and their mothers have been to South Korea. Oops.) Two years ago, when I started the search for international work opportunities, I was impatient to just GO. As a Christian, I’ve discovered how hard it is to trust God to deliver my greatest wishes when I want them so immediately. By the time I started college, I wanted to travel so badly, I felt like I could pack up and leave at any time.

I had also not yet seen the ocean until recently. I wanted to travel, even just a few states away, but circumstances, like the lack of financial and practical opportunity to take off, have always kept me from going. The first failed California road trip I planned was the mechanical issues as Truman sat on the bus, ready to leave, the driver shrugging and apologizing that the engine wouldn’t start. My second failed road trip was the people in Hazmat suits, knocking Truman to the ground and forcing him home. No matter how I tried to plan a trip to the ocean, I felt like it would never happen.

When I decided to pursue teaching abroad, I prepared my parents for my imminent departure by telling them of my plans to apply to programs halfway across the world. They were both sad to think that I’d be gone from their lives, even if just for a year, but my dad was additionally confused as to why I felt this need to travel. Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer, and she replies, “Oh, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.” This was not too far off from my dad’s response. He questioned my reasons for wanting to travel. I had trouble expressing it then. He wondered if I felt discontent, if I was seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

The reality show director, Christof (Ed Harris), speaks to Truman, disembodied, like the voice of God, and tries to persuade him to stay: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies. The same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.” It’s true that if I were to stay, if I were to give up on my dreams of traveling, I could learn to be content. God can use us wherever we are, and if He’s who I’m truly seeking, then I’ll find Him anywhere, even in the same city I’ve lived in for 12 years. I can still eat, pray, love in my backyard, right?

It strikes me that Truman doesn’t know that what’s through that exit door is any better than the suffocating reality he’s lived in; he only has the hope that whatever is but a few steps away will bring change. But we can discover ourselves when we step out of our familiar element. We grow the more our comfort zones are prodded. Truman and I are okay with uncertainty. We’re both willing to take one step forward, to ignore every whisper of “You can’t leave. You belong here.” That’s the trouble of being an especially curious person; I want to learn about whatever is outside my current realm of experience. I want to see what the unknown can tell me about myself and the world around me. It’s the same reason I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle, see the ocean, play a violin, jump the fences in my backyard.

My parents, though they tease me sometimes about them forcing me to stay, are accepting of my choice to leave home. I have the benefit of supportive friends and family, something that Truman didn’t have. And as much as I love my family and friends, and will miss them terribly while I’m having my long-awaited adventures, I know when I board the plane to Korea, my head will be swimming with “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”

A Swollen Suitcase

The first time I traveled by plane, I was 20 years-old and couldn’t take my eyes from the window. The earth passed underneath, a landscape of black ink blots and dark-brown, dotted lines, like a scarred face or a child’s scribbles.

From my seat, I saw the shadows of clouds. You sit outside and the passing of clouds subtly turns the sky dark, veiling the brightness of the sun like a fraction of night is returning. But from a plane, you can see the full shadow of a cloud stretching out; the darkness is happening to someone else now, and you watch. I realized that I could, for the first time, see from a different point of view. I was above the clouds, instead of the clouds above me. The strikes of lightning that came later when the sky grew dark on that plane ride looked like cloud-islands bursting from the inside.

I couldn’t wait to be in Memphis. Crossing the United States, I thought I might find rest for my wanderlust, which I carted around like a swollen suitcase.

*

I grew up locked in land. Nebraska is bordered on all sides by cornfields shooting deep in the soil, prairies bending in the wind, and big cities that outsiders fail to acknowledge: “You’re from Nebraska? So what was it like growing up on a farm?”

My home was in the suburbs. The creek that ran at the edge of our dead-end street and a long field that stretched from our house to a neighborhood adjacent are misrepresentative. Our neighborhood was also bordered by car dealerships, endless rows of houses, and city parks. The creek itself was strewn with gardens of misplaced clothes, vines of graffiti on the concrete tunnel that ran beneath our street, and a harvest of twisted pop cans.

My adventures didn’t often go beyond Pinkney Street, my homeschool friends’ houses, and the public library. We came up with our own ways of traveling, using the imagination that our parents and PBS Kids fostered in us.

My oldest brother, Aaron, wrote an elaborate story on a yellow legal pad—a sort of Chronicles of Narnia meets Lord of the Rings that described children entering into a new world through a gate and meeting strange creatures from bordering lands who battled each other for some underdeveloped plot reasons. Aaron made my other two brothers and I act these adventures out, our own personal book-to-movie adaptation.

We unlatched the metal gate that led from our backyard to the fenced-out wilderness of the tangled trees that led to the creek. I remember there were Ghost People and there were Fire People. And, most of all, I remember wandering away from the game (probably bored with my character’s lack of development and dialogue) to seek out my own story, talking to the trees like friends and unburying secrets from the trash-strewn dirt.

Though much of the storyline evades me now, entering through the portal-gate is what intrigued my childhood self, equipped in a purple and turquoise windbreaker and shoes caked in mud. It was from there that I could enter the brush on the other side of the fence and create my own space around what already existed there. Because I could enter through the gate, duck under a branch bent in an arc and twisted into another tree, and open onto a space that was continually changing and adapting in my mind, that space was all I needed.

In the realer world, I usually only traveled two places: my grandparents’ house in Wheatland, Wyoming and some close family friends in Florissant, Colorado (okay, there were a few other places we visited, sprinkled throughout my life—Mount Rushmore, the very edge of Iowa, the farther reaches of Wyoming, a road trip through Missouri). It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized a road trip to visit relatives didn’t “qualify” as a “vacation.”

As a middle-schooler, I saw a picture of my friend stretched out on a boat deck, her hair blowing in the breeze. I saw my aunt’s two sons smiling at Disneyland. I saw my best friend posing with her grandma at the Grand Canyon. My brother’s digital footage of museums in Germany. The missions trip photos of so many people I graduated with, holding African children in their arms.

Suddenly my grandma’s tiny town in Wheatland seemed so much smaller. Suddenly the minivan we drove from state to state seemed suffocating.

*

My childhood best friend flew nearly every summer to the Grand Canyon with her dad. I was continually impressed that she had this opportunity—how can her parents afford that? She just goes and sits and reads a book while flying millions of miles in the air?

I became used to people finding out I’d never ridden a plane and exclaiming, “What?! You’ve never been on a plane?! Okay. We’re going this summer. My parents will pay for it.”

As a kid, I never realized how much money we didn’t have. We were wealthy enough—I had food and clothes and an education. But, the times we ate out were often because we earned free coupons from the library reading program, much of my clothes were handed down from me by family friends who had daughters, and I was blessed to be homeschooled by my mother who was a teacher before she started to have kids. We were definitely not poor. But a plane ride for a family of six was beyond my imagination.

Before my first plane ride, one of my biggest claims to adventure was moving from Omaha to Colorado Springs when I was eleven. I wandered the house aimlessly, trying to process having to leave everything I’d ever known—the one house I’d ever lived in. The one town I knew well enough to get to the necessities—the library, the swimming pool, school. I wouldn’t get to see my best friend anymore. Tears flamed behind my eyes. I sobbed at my mother.

“You can call her whenever you want,” she tried to reassure me. I was terrified of having to make new friends—of knowing I wouldn’t continue to grow up with them. It was like losing siblings.

The rope tying me to the doorstep of my home frayed and snapped with every mile our car drove away, and the city passed by in a blur through my tears.

Our first summer in Colorado, my brothers and I explored the mountains in Florissant, shimmying up boulders and peering over steep ledges onto the tops of pine trees. The air was thin and the everyday weather contained all four seasons. There were no fireflies. But the moments I experienced on the edges of rocky cliffs, in caves, underneath towering trees that smelled like Christmas made me fall in love with a changing environment. Sun, rain, snow. Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado.

*

About nine years later, my uncle invited us to visit him in Tennessee. We would fly on a plane. We didn’t have that kind of money. Dad said no. Uncle Steve offered to pay for our tickets; he was a surgeon and a saint. My parents discussed it. My father hesitantly, but appreciatively, said, “Yes.”

I tried not to get too excited (but I was electric with excitement). Soon we were mentally preparing:

“Sarah, research how much shampoo we’re allowed to take on the plane.”

What time do we have to get up in the morning?”

“How loud do I have to say ‘bomb’ before they do a strip search?”

No one is going to say the word ‘bomb’ while we’re at the airport. Just don’t.”

My family’s excitement about getting on a plane might have been adorable. To other passengers, it was probably like we were telling them, “I’m so excited to ride in an automobile! I’ve never ridden in one before. Only biked. In fact, I usually just roller skate everywhere.”

In Tennessee, I didn’t want to leave. It was hot and muggy and there were fireflies. I loved that there was more ethnic diversity. I loved that we could set off fireworks and not get fined. This all felt like Nebraska, like home. Beautiful and comforting. But it was also like being in a wilderness so unfamiliar I wanted to reach out and tangle myself in the impenetrable forests draped in the thick nettings of vines we drove by on the highway. I wanted to bring the color green back with me to Colorado Springs.

*

As the plane picked up speed and I braced myself against its accelerating kick and rush, it felt like an elevator lifting to the next floor. We were quiet, listening to the hum and creaks of the plane. Outside the fields rushed past.

Right when I thought it couldn’t possibly lift off the ground, the plane rose into the air.