12 Months. 12 Cities. 1 Project. — 2015 in review.
This is the story about me, who spent the year of 2015 going around the world, living in 12 different cities for approximately one month each. It is the story about how things turned out completely unexpected, both personally, and through the project I conducted in each city. And it is the story about how in many ways I didn’t change, I hadn’t become an internet sensation, but nonetheless discovered one important value. Something for myself, and what I hope will be for everyone I met (and even didn’t meet!) in the world.
As I’m writing this in a cafe in Bangkok, my final location, on the last day of 2015, I never could have imagined 364 days earlier on my flight from Tokyo to San Francisco, how I’d be feeling this day. The feeling is best expressed by the word “calm”. Or “ordinary”. After being in five continents, and spending an extended period of time in 12 incredible cities around the world, I’m not excited to have finished this project, nor do I feel satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment. Around this time last year, I thought that I would be in some sort of exuberant state at the end, or at least give myself an emotional pat-on-the-back. Say to myself, “You did it”. Nope. Nothing whatsoever. So as I sip my overly sweet Thai tea, I wonder to myself, why?
Had I really not changed at all? I realized that after 12 months in 12 different cities, that I’m still not crazy about “travelling”. By travelling, I mean going away from home, and checking out famous sites. One of the “WTF?” reactions that I received the most when meeting people during the year, was when I told them that I had never really travelled, nor had the desire to do so. In the past, if I had an extended period of time off, travelling was something that never crossed my mind. And looking back at this year, this hasn’t changed one bit. Other than the 12 cities for my project, every place except for one (Nice, where I stayed with my girlfriend for one day), I visited because I knew people there — I wanted to meet friends or family. I realized in the final stages of my project that I was still me, the same as back in Portland or Tokyo, who enjoys visiting friends. The only difference was location. Gotland, Sweden. Barbaresco, Italy, Doha, Qatar. The names certainly sound more exotic.
Had my project ended up becoming something completely unexpected? I was planning on doing 12 smaller common projects in each city, and I had completely underestimated the amount of work needed to accomplish this task. I had also completely underestimated the difficulty of keeping myself motivated while being alone, working alone, and living alone in a new city or country, starting out not knowing anyone. The project’s Facebook page ended with a stunningly unremarkable “Like” count of 294. I was originally hoping for 1000 by June, and five to ten times that by the end of the year. If this were a job performance assessment, I would be fired.
Had I been more enthusiastic about internet technology and it’s effects, would I have had a bigger impact, and felt a greater sense of accomplishment? Many of the other world travellers I encountered either in person or through the internet seemed to be able to do this — to engage seamlessly in the self-marketing, constant updating, posting heavily filtered exotic pictures, tweeting and Instagram-ing proof of “my amazing year”. Near the end of my project I realized this, and I looked back at my updates. I had almost no photographs of myself at all, other than the first picture in my blog, where I made a point in including myself in the picture. Where I could have had a picture of myself with the Sagrada Familia in the background, I instead posted a picture of trash bags on the street in the Gothic Quarter, explaining Barcelona’s incredibly efficient garbage disposal system. Not the best case of self branding, I guess.
I thought after this year I might be a changed man. I would become this adventure seeking traveller type, with a backpack and sleeping bag, who would head into the lagoons of the Amazon up from Rio, or glide down small rivers in Laos on a weekend trip from Bangkok. I thought I would take pictures of myself in the world, post them without hesitation, use social networking to its full potential, all which would lead to creating a following, generating hits, attracting likes, and even if on a smaller scale, turn my project into one of those internet phenomena. None of this happened.
And yet, I can say this with confidence. This year doing my project was absolutely the most amazing year of my life. Period.
As a high schooler, I hated life and its cycles. Where everyday would pretty much be the same as the last; where tomorrow will be the same unmemorable grey blurriness that was yesterday. I thought adulthood would be the escape from this, but I was wrong. Working a day job in a big company in Japan was no different — often it was worst.
That’s why this past year was a dream. Every single day I learned something new. Every single day I encountered the unexpected. Every single day I was forced to re-question my stereotypes, and what I considered “normal”. I was able to meet hundreds of people because of my project, all of them unique in their nationalities, occupations, religions, genders, and values. Each and every person opened a new world for me. I never tired of listening to their experiences, ideas, and insights. My brain was stimulated, my values were challenged, and my knowledge grew. Every single day.
The answer to my first question of “why” was actually embedded in this fact, and in the extra questions I posed to myself in the following paragraphs. I don’t feel a sense of jubilation, accomplishment, or completion because I am still who I am. I’m not a traveller, and my project is not a product of “social network”-worthy pictures. In fact, this project is not about me at all. It’s first and foremost about the people I met.
None of the cities I lived in ever came to an end for me. When I conceived this project, I believed that a city is comprised of its people, and I still believe that today. Tourist landmarks, fancy hotels, and shopping districts are a very small, (and IMO an uninteresting) part of the city. The people are what make the city fascinating, and ultimately create its true identity. That’s why as I boarded my plane in each city, heading off to the next destination, I never felt I was leaving. Or that this was the end. As cliche as it sounds, it was more a beginning — everything that I had experienced would evolve with me, and the friendships I had made would continue.
And in fact, the project is by no means over. I am preparing for an exhibition showcasing the project, opening in mid-March. I still have 50+ more interviews to upload. I don’t even want to think about all the translations that have to get done. I want to conduct the “World in Twelve“ in more cities, maybe even starting in 2016. I want to collaborate in various projects with many of the amazing people I met this year. I don’t feel accomplishment or satisfaction because, as of right now, December 31st, 2015, I’m not looking back at my year. I’m looking ahead, into the future.
So a million thank you’s to all who made this year possible. Everyone I spent an afternoon, lunch, tea, dinner, or drinks with. Everyone who took me out, showed me around, taught me something new, listened to me babble. You guys are what made my year unforgettable, made me fall in love with each city, and made me excited, more than ever, for things to come.
Made me excited for the future. Hope to see you there.