Episode 71 │ Biking & Better PR (TORONTO/TOKYO)
Updated: Jan 16
"All the baggage that the U.S. has, I think Canada has too... I feel like Canada and the U.S. are part of the same family." (Sho, Episode 71)
(Note: This episode is being released on January 12th, which also happens to be the 56th anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry's passing. She was a major inspiration to me in creating and naming this podcast, so abundant thanks and honor to her. Also, I recently made a trailer for Young, Gifted Abroad! Check it out here.)
Happy New Year! Young, Gifted and Abroad's first guest of 2021 is a close friend of mine named Sho Nakashima. My other friend Irene (episode 4) put me in touch with Sho some years ago when she realized that Sho and I were coincidentally planning to attend the same Lianne La Havas concert. That's where I first became acquainted with Sho (and with Nenna from episode 41, who was there too!). When I first started this podcast in 2018, Sho was among the first handful of people I invited to be a guest, and although they declined at the time, they've been incredibly supportive and have even sent at least one guest my way (Alec from episode 57). Sho recently decided they wanted to be on the show, and so now I've finally gotten the chance to speak with them about their experience interning in Canada and later moving to Japan!
Sho was the first person in their Japanese-American family to be born in the States, and with the exception of a few early childhood years spent in Hiroshima, they've lived most of their life in the Metro Detroit area. A personal interest in understanding mental health issues led Sho to study neuroscience at Michigan State University. At some point in their studies they realized that, "Science wasn't enough for me", so they double-majored in social policy in addition to pursuing minors in global public health and Portuguese. After a disconcerting experience with a one-week public health service trip to Honduras, and after an unsuccessful attempt to study tropical medicine in Brazil (the program got cancelled), for summer 2016 Sho applied to do an internship in Toronto, Canada. This internship would fulfill the field experience requirement for their major in social policy.
Through the organization that Sho's department used to match students with internship opportunities (Academic Internship Council or AIC, now a part of CIEE), Sho was at first placed with a mental health advocacy group. They got to communicate with said group, and even though the people were nice and the work seemed interesting, it wasn't exactly what Sho was looking to do. So they did their own research instead, selecting a handful of places they wanted to intern at and asking if AIC could make a match. Fortunately, AIC was receptive to Sho's initiative, and placed Sho with the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP, now known as the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation or CDPE). At ICSDP, Sho spent the summer doing research-focused work related to drug policies in United Nations member states and how such policies were impacting the people of those countries. Their tasks included analyzing literature about drug-related issues (including decriminalization and harm reduction), updating a document database that the centre shared with Human Rights Watch, and volunteering at the 2nd National Conference on Charting the Future of Drug Policy in Canada.
Outside of work, Sho hung out with local friends in areas like Koreatown and the Annex, and visited a number of green spaces including High Park. Having lived most of their life in the suburbs, Sho relished the opportunity of living in a big city for the first time, often going to work and exploring the city by bike. In fact, that summer in Toronto was when they developed a profound appreciation for biking as a form of transportation, finally understanding what all the fuss was about. They also took trips to other parts of Ontario, including Thunder Bay and Elora Gorge. And because they were still within a drivable distance from the Metro Detroit area, Sho also enjoyed visits from friends and even made a brief trip home to see family.
Of course, not everything about Toronto was positive. One of the reasons Sho was initially reluctant to be a guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad was because they were still coming to terms with the disappointments of both Honduras and Canada. On the Honduras trip, they felt that American interventionalism marred whatever valuable work was being done to form relationships with local communities and implement public health practices. And in Toronto, Sho encountered multiple sobering reminders that many of the ills prevalent in the States are just as prevalent in its supposedly polite and friendly northern neighbor. In particular, being called a racial slur a few times and closely following events surrounding Toronto Pride—where Black Lives Matter demonstrators stalled the parade to call attention to anti-Blackness in the LGBTQ community—made Sho realize that Canada has its own baggage, including racism and homophobia. Added to this were Sho's personal experience of exhaustion from sometimes feeling out of place and like they had to perform in mostly-white spaces. Spaces including their workplace, the University of Toronto dorm they lived in, and some of the social activities organized by AIC.
"I felt like I lost something. I wanted to get it back."
After graduating from MSU and working in tech in San Francisco for a while before returning to Michigan, Sho moved to Japan in the autumn of 2019. They were able to relocate through their job, which transferred them from its Michigan office to its Tokyo office. Sho had previously applied to do a biotech internship in Japan while in undergrad but wasn't accepted, so they were glad to have found another way to live and work in Japan. Though it's taken a while for them to get adjusted, the move has been a welcome change of scenery, as well as a chance to learn more about their culture and live mostly among people who look like them. As a Japanese-American, living in Japan is part of Sho's attempt to explore and reclaim their identity, "I think I really felt like I had lost something, in some ways, I felt like I lost something. I wanted to get it back." Living in Japan may also be an opportunity to dig more into their complex family history, which includes a grandfather from South Korea who assimilated upon arriving in Japan. As Sho engages more with Japanese society and history (especially where Japan intersects with the U.S. and South Korea), they hope to examine questions that they feel have gone unaddressed in previous generations of their family.
Since moving to Tokyo, Sho has also been to Hokkaido, Okinawa, and Osaka. Eventually they would like to go to Hiroshima to visit relatives, Jeju Island to learn more about their grandfather, and Brazil to reconnect with some acquaintances. In the meantime, Sho hopes to make more friends and find affirming queer spaces in Tokyo. They also have many creative ideas that they want to put into action, including translation projects (bridging an information gap between Japan and the States) and video production. Sho can be reached on Instagram (@mecha.bb) or at email@example.com.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Biking & Better PR (TORONTO/TOKYO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
MSU Social Relations and Policy (James Madison College)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.