Archive for August, 2007

Tourist in Paradise

Today I played tourist, which is part of the study abroad experience. For a section of the day I escaped from the group and made my way to a secluded section of a nearby river in Kyoto to go for a swim and contemplate life.
Traveling to a place like Japan brings all sorts of thoughts to ones head about what a country will be like when you get there. No, Pete, I haven’t seen any Ninjas. But there were expectations of seeing the exotic, and for the most part this is followed by disappointment.
When I walked down to this section of the river and heard a flute player practicing on the bank while a boat paddled by, I felt, for the first time, an authentic connection to the present Japanese culture.

Money on the Bank

“Why are Japanese rivers so rich?… Because they have two banks.”
Some students I’m traveling with pondered recently about the fact that the Japanese speak very little English, and it’s quite true. But do they really need to? If a Japanese traveler was to travel through the United States and ask himself, “Why is it so many Americans don’t speak Japanese?” wouldn’t this sound presumptuous?
English has become the global language of business and often the default language of tourism, so it’s not so out of the ordinary for a US citizen to assume the world speaks his language. But coming to an understanding of the reasoning behind a country’s citizens learning a second language is important. When Europeans joke, “What do you call a person who speaks two languages?…French…What do you call a person who speaks one language?…American.” they are generalizing for the sake of generalizing without putting thought into why most Americans only speak one language.
The Japanese are rich, for the most part. Things here cost more than they do in New York City. Their economy is strong. Hondas rock, while Fords…well…suck. Japanese are movers and shakers. There’s very little need to learn English as a Japanese citizen. Americans have the same economic isolationism when it comes to language learning. We learn languages in high school and college only to dust them off to order a beer in Cancun. Mexicans learn English so they can feed their family.
This photograph was taken at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. For me the small pond sparkling with coins reflected the progress of these people and their connection to nature and something greater than themselves.

Form and Function

There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Manchester, NH, know as the Zimmerman House, that has been turned into a museum. I’ve visited it a number of times and wondered where all of his ideas on the use of space came from. After walking through a temple in Kyoto, Japan, I think I’ve found the answers.
As an American I’ve always had a distant understanding of the Asian world and culture. The Chinese and Japanese have always fallen into a similar group. The difference between these two cultures has always been a mystery.
My first impression of the difference between the Chinese people and the Japanese is basically a feeling that the Chinese are similar to a nation of worker ants, whereas the Japanese feel more like a colony of bees. Now, I mean nothing derogatory by saying this. It’s a very simple analogy, but it sums up my feelings initially. The Japanese feel more refined and reserved. Their homes, their cars, their humbleness…
It is a beautiful country, and I have a lot to learn about it and its people.

Density in Hong Kong

Going from Beijing to Hong Kong is a lot traveling into the future. This is a city like I’ve never seen. People are stacked on top of each other to heights I never thought possible. Every window in one of these high-rise buildings is a different life, a different family, a whole set of different thoughts and dreams… It’s amazing to see and scary at the same time.

Alice in Consumerland

Woman’s clothing in China can border on provocative, like any modern short-skirt wearing country, but for the most part I find it conservatively cute. The same dress worn by a 30-year-old can be seen on a 10-year-old.
Consumption of clothing, or just about anything in China, and now I’m noticing in Hong Kong, is unnerving. Going through malls in Beijing is a lot like when you were a kid and would climb inside clothing racks to hide. Only in these shopping emporiums it’s not a matter of hiding it’s a matter of getting lost in a world of material goods. The first time I went into one of these places I felt like I had fallen down the hole with Alice and we entered some acid-trip Wonderland of mass spending.
My hope is to some day look into the places where all this stuff is being made.