Writer, teacher and sports fan Trevor Kew, 32, pedals and kicks his way through culture shock. He uses sports to help him adapt to unfamiliar cultures or new places when traveling, trusting his bike or a soccer ball to bridge the gap with locals.
Kew’s sports and teaching worlds also neatly connect to his published writing. He has authored four soccer-themed novels for middle school students, combining his love of literature with soccer. “I have daily access to the characters I write about as a teacher, so constructing characters or knowing about teenagers was not a difficult thing.”
Currently teaching high school literature and coaching boys soccer teams at Yokohama International School, Kew also travels frequently to promote his novels in schools around the world or to take part in international conferences on education. He’s been invited to speak with children in classrooms from Egypt to Cambodia, and on all his travels, he carries his soccer kit, a habit that began when the native Canadian lived in England for five years.
“Whenever I go, I always take my boots in my bag, just in case I stumble upon a pickup game.” He has dashed across the sands in Mozambique with a local team and joined a pickup game in Morocco, straight off a bus. He lets his feet lead the learning.
“In Cambodia, I sought out organizations in poor areas, and I learned they use soccer to teach kids to stay away from old land mines,” he said.
Kew admits soccer started him on his way toward adapting to a new culture. “I had a steep learning curve when I moved to England. Just learning how to take a train was culture shock, since I had never even been on a jet plane before moving to England.”
He moved to the small town of Leighton Buzzard, north of London, immediately after graduating with a teaching degree. The move overseas was meant to pursue his childhood dream of playing soccer in England, at whatever level. He joined the local amateur team and eventually played in the early rounds of England’s prestigious FA cup, but more importantly, he learned a lesson on adaptability. “Football obviously gave me a way in, a way to make friends and a way to understand daily life.”
Drawing on those skills when he moved to Japan five years ago, Kew immediately joined a local soccer team composed of foreigners and Japanese. As goalkeeper, he was soon invited to join others and is now a regular on two different corporate teams. He is typically the only foreigner to take the pitch.
He credits the sport for giving him an insider’s view of Japan: “The soccer culture is different, in a way, from England or Canada, but in a way it’s universal. I find the Japanese players are still doing all the same things, still trying to wind each other up, still trying to get the advantage. I think they are cleverer about it, not losing their tempers so much, and that’s helped me to play more calmly, helping my game. I also get to find all these neat neighborhoods, out-of-the-way soccer fields in Tokyo you never knew existed, on top of stations or in between buildings.”
Kew’s soccer boots have taken him to South Africa, where he followed the Japanese national team during the 2010 World Cup, and to London for the Olympic matches. Although he covers soccer for two international online magazines, he really went as a fan.
“I never think of myself as just Canadian. I think wherever you live becomes a part of who you are. When I lived in England, I supported the English National team, and now that I live in Japan, I support Japan.
“I think young people or people in general sometimes become preoccupied with the superstars of sport, but when people ignore their own local stars, there can be a sense of inferiority or a lack of local role models. In South Africa, it was heartening to see that many young people knew all their national team members and worshipped them alongside the big international stars.”
Still, soccer was not enough to completely give culture shock the boot; Kew was also determined to learn Japanese. He decided against formal language courses when he arrived, instead relying on textbooks and his bicycle. In five years, Kew has biked through 43 prefectures to improve his language skills and learn about the country firsthand.
“Japan is a beautiful country to cycle around. The roads are great, there’s lots to see, the nature is beautiful, and you can see everything at your own pace on a bike,” he says. “Definitely it helped me with my language skills, reading signs and of course, in the countryside not many people speak English and you have situations when you have to ask for directions. Whenever I go on one of those trips, my language ability just jumps.”
Kew also believes his bicycle trips give him a wider perspective of Japan: “I think it’s a bit tempting for foreigners who first live in Japan to make broad generalizations, just accepting easy answers about the country. But if you really get out there yourself to see the variety, the wide range of people and places that make up Japan, then that’s a good thing as well.”
Favorite memories from his numerous trips include the Turkish Museum in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, where “one lonely Turkish guy sells carpets,” and Kotohiragu Shrine in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture, which is a seafarer’s shrine but is “nowhere near the sea.” He also says he appreciates the physical challenge of bicycle travel because “you’re always going either up or down a hill” in Japan.
Kew credits growing up in a small town in the countryside for giving him both the will and the skills to explore a bigger world: “My hometown, Rossland in British Columbia, is basically a small town in the middle of nowhere. One stoplight, no ethnic diversity; it is also a beautiful place, where you can do a lot of adventure activities and sports, so as a child, I built up the ability to just get out there.”
Not such a great place, however, to join a soccer team. “I don’t know why I loved soccer,” Kew admits. “No one in my family played it, and there weren’t really teams in Canada to follow.” Soccer gave Kew focus in university as well, playing for the University of British Columbia team and covering sports for the university newspaper.
Kew admits he’s got a lot to learn about Japan, and sees it as a lifelong process of mutual connections: “Learning Japanese is an ongoing battle, of course, especially since I don’t take classes. My ultimate goal is to be able to read novels in Japanese someday, since I love reading novels in English.
“One thing that annoys me is when foreigners assume they have Japan all figured out based on a few superficial observations. The opposite approach also grinds my gears, when a Japanese friend tells me that Japanese language or culture or psychology is unknowable and incomprehensible to a Western mind.”
Kew plans to finish his tour through Japan by visiting Aomori, Akita, Mie and Miyazaki prefectures some time this year, but he wants to settle into his new life first, after marrying his Japanese fiancee this year. Kew keeps those soccer boots at the ready, but he is also prepared to include more about Japan in his fiction: “So much literature on Japan (penned by Westerners) seems to be focused on samurai, sumo and sushi, but I am really interested in the connections between Japan and Canada and the immigration that happened in the early 1900s.
“When I first got here, I could have only written about the strangeness, the feeling of being a foreigner here, but I’m not interested in that — in focusing on the stereotypes. It is difficult, sometimes, not to focus on your own foreign-ness or a new friend’s Japanese-ness, but I always try to focus on things that connect us, like history or soccer.”