Universal Constants

Chaos in Print

Here it is! The first column I’m writing in Japan! My week of training is over, and I still have one more day before I get into the classroom proper. Some would say that this time should be best spent working; hammering out those first few lesson plans. But it’s just been far too long since I’ve put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as I guess I should start saying). It was such a lovely day, that I didn’t want to be doing this cooped up in my hotel room. So, I packed up the laptop, and this is coming to you from under a tree in park in downtown Kumagaya. I’ve been in Japan for little over a week now, in which I’ve been constantly on the move and the company has been cramming everything that they think there is to know about teaching into my brain. With life being as chaotic as that, I find myself once again craving something simple: constancy.

At the outset, you may think that there are many constants in the universe: the sun will always rise, the speed of light, the mountains will always tower over us, and the fetish for women in schoolgirl uniforms. I was starting to think this, too, as I wandered the streets of Omiya (the suburb of Tokyo where my training took place). I spotted many universal constants: a McDonald’s on every corner, 7-11 open 24 hours, and the smiling face of Colonel Sanders welcoming me into KFC. I mused aloud about these universal constants, but then one of my fellow trainees turned to me and said, “Do you really think they’re constant?” We walked up to KFC, and he said, “Do you really think that these people know who the Colonel is? Do you even think that they know what KFC stands for?” That’s when I started to notice other differences. 7-11s don’t have slurpees over here. McDonald’s serves teriyaki burgers. And that’s not all that was different about the McDonald’s.

As I was leaving home, my sister (who went backpacking across Europe) had only one word of advice for me: “Go into any McDonald’s in the world, order a #1, and you’ll get a Big Mac combo.” Well, guess what? In Japan, McDonald’s doesn’t number their combo meals. Order a #1, and they’ll give you a funny look. (They probably don’t understand what you’re saying, either.) That’s when it occurred to me that many of the things we hold as being constants aren’t that constant at all. The sun always rising? Scientists have calculated that it will only rise for another 5 billion years. The mountains are slowly eroding. The speed of light varies depending on what it travels through. And I’m sorry, but pleated skirts and knee-high socks just don’t do it for me. It seems that these universal constants aren’t so universal.

But, with a little tweaking, some constants can be made to seem universal. True, while that McDonald’s clerk didn’t understand “#1,” he had no trouble whatsoever with “Big Mac.” One universal constant that I’m starting to embrace is a modern spin on an old saying: all roads lead to a convenience store. Wander long enough and far enough, and you’ll eventually find yourself at the front store of a 7-11 or a Mac’s or an am/pm (which seems to be one of the bigger chains here in Japan). Universal constants can be made to seem constant if you’re willing to overlook several factors. You might have to wander for a hell of a long time before you find yourself at a convenience store. The sun will always rise as long as we regard 5 billion years as being too long a time to worry about. The process of erosion is also way to long to cause us any worry. The speed of light is constant as long as we assume it always travels in a vacuum. And as long as porn movies feature women in schoolgirl uniforms….

But that last one is where things start to get tricky for us. It depends on people. Out of all the things we want to remain constant in the universe, we want people to remain constant. We want our friends and family to always be there. We want them to never change, and to always be as we remember them. But that is never the case. People are among the most inconsistent things in this universe, mainly because they are constantly changing. We grow up, grow together, and grow apart. You may not see your best friend in over a year, and when you get together, you’ll find that you just can’t talk about the same things anymore. You may meet someone new, and before you know it, you have new tastes yourself. And let’s not forget that one thing that can drive people apart forever: death. Why o why then do we keep looking for universal constants in the most inconsistent of God’s creations? I don’t know, but I do have a theory.

It’s a theory that I began working on shortly after I set foot in this country. I am completely surrounded by strangers, but for the most part, I feel comfortable. I don’t know why, it’s just that things feel right. I feel that these strangers around me are fundamentally the same as me on some level. It’s one of those leap-of-faith things.

I began developing this theory as I saw a lot of sleepless nights in that training center. Many of my fellow trainees would spend sleepless nights working on their lesson plans. I was spending a sleepless night with someone who was teaching the same lesson as me. The task at hand would was to create a scenario for our students to act out in which they would be speaking English. After about an hour of banging our heads against the wall, she and I came up with, “You and your foreign friend are going to the movies.” Nice. Simple. Elegant. Like a constant. We only ran into trouble when we began to overthink things. So as I resumed developing my theory about human nature, I decided to stop over-thinking things. I took a deep breath, took a step back, and did my best to stop thinking. I then saw these four things that are fundamentally the same about everyone:

1) People want to find a job they love doing.
2) They want to make a lot of money doing it.
3) They want to find that special someone.
4) They want to live happily ever after.

That’s all. The rest is over-thought. My theory is that those are the four fundamental goals of everyone on the planet. That is my one universal constant. Well, four, actually. But, once you strip away the surface to get down to what is constant, that’s what you’ll find. People want to do those four things in their life. Maybe that’s why we all look for consistency in people. Because, on some level, we all know this.

But then, we start to overthink things. When our friends develop a new taste, or we feel that they have no time for us, we doubt these things. So we turn to the universe for constants. We look to McDonald’s and the speed of light and schoolgirl uniforms. But we’re just over-thinking things.

People are the same all over the world. I’m really starting to believe that. As I write this, lunchtime is coming upon us, and this park is starting to get busy as people come out here to have their bagged lunches. It’s a lovely day, and they’re all out here trying to get a little of that happily ever after. It’s not enough to prove my theory yet, but it’s a start. The consistency is there. We just have to stop trying so hard to find it.

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