Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On life lessons from Japan

Who paid, and how they managed to justify the funds, I do not know. We were five high school students from a relatively poor municipality in a small and insignificant town in equality-promoting Norway. It does not make much sense that they chose to single out five individuals, and in the reality-show like competition it turned out to be. How very un-Norwegian of them. No matter how it was done, though, we were sent to Japan. Five students and two teachers (one of which was our principal), for free, one week, paid by who knows, to act as “ambassadors for peace and equality” (that was the catch phrase).

Of course, the costs were considerably reduced by the fact that we stayed most of the week in host families. This was extremely exciting. We were to live in families we knew next to nothing about, in a country on the other side of the planet, and we had no idea if they spoke much English. We spoke no Japanese, of course. I am exaggerating, as all story-tellers tend to do. We weren’t entirely in the dark. Our host families were the families of students that already had been visiting us in Norway. We had spent a week showing these Japanese girls the sights of our own little town and the surrounding areas, and now we were in for a similar treat in their little town. Their “little” town had twice the population as ours, and yet, this was a much smaller town in Japan than our town is in Norway. Everything is relative.

The host family I was to stay with was the family of Yuki, the oldest of the girls who had visited us. I was happy to learn that another of the Norwegian students, Ina, also would be staying in that family, so that I would not be alone, in the unknown family in the faraway country. The family consisted of a father (who sadly passed away much too young, only a few months after our stay), a mother (who worked part time in the family’s photo shop – a working mom was quite unique, we later learned), and three daughters. Yuki was the middle one. Yuki’s older sister went to university, and did not live with the family anymore. The youngest of the girls was Kimmie, she was seven, a mischievous but adorable little kid. None of the family members spoke a lot of English, though Yuki definitely was the best (and bravest). Kimmie had just started learning, so she did not understand much of what we said, but we managed to communicate with her all the same. The parents tried to talk to us, but they appeared to be shy and worried that we would not understand them. They were always friendly and welcoming, though, and we soon figured out other ways to communicate. My experiences in Japan certainly have made me fluent in body language. We also got to meet the extended family, on both sides. Yuki was lucky enough to have all four grandparents still alive, and we got to meet them all, together with several aunts and uncles. They were all nice and friendly, but the one that made the most impression on me, was Yuki’s father’s father.

We were brought to the grandparent’s house, Ina and I, one afternoon. I cannot remember exactly anymore, but I do not think we were ever told what we were supposed to do there or how long we should stay. The grandparents lived in the house where the family photo shop was located. The shop was not big, but it supported the family. They sold cameras and developed pictures. It appeared that this had been the business of the grandfather, but that it now was run by his sons and their families. We were given a tour of the photo shop, they even took pictures that they later gave us, and then we were given the tour of the living space of the house.

The grandfather was a collector. This was apparent from the first step into the house. He collected – I am tempted to say everything – anything. Souvenirs, ornamental figurines, calendars, pictures. Various versions of ‘the ship with the seven gods’ (famous in Japan), one of them quite big (I think it was at least a meter long, and equally tall), one made from toothpicks. His entire home felt like a museum, with a strange mix of heirlooms and plastic fantastic.

After a while our host mother left the house. We were not told how long she would be gone, or how we would get back. For some reason, Yuki was not with us either. She was probably at school, as that was where she was most of the time. Often from 8 am to 9 pm. The work pressure at the schools there seemed insane and inhumane to me. Kimmie might have been with us, but as previously mentioned, she could not serve much use as a translator. So there we were, somewhere in Japan, this time in a house where no one could (or seemed willing to) speak English. We were placed in the only two chairs in the house, as the guests of honor. This being a traditional Japanese home, they generally sat on the floor. So the family, including the old grandparents that looked quite frail, sat on the floor, while Ina and I sat in throne-like ornamental chairs, looking down at the family.

We were fed with snacks of all kinds, chocolate and homemade pickles and pickled “Japanese apricot” (ume). The latter is something of a trick Japanese people tend to play on foreigners. The “apricot” really looks like an apricot, or maybe a plum, but (at least in its pickled version) it tastes nothing like it. They are sweet and salty and bitter and I don’t know what at the same time, and I have on several occasions been fed it by fascinated Japanese people. The first time I was polite enough to say “oishi” (it means delicious, and it was a compliment we paid to anything we ate, in fear of being impolite), and they laughed at me for that. Even our host father, that was not a very talkative man, confessed that he did not exactly care for the pickled ume. Later I have tasted a to me more tasty use of the ume, the umeshu, which is plum wine. When they can make something as delicious out of it, I do not understand why they have to pickle the ume.

We were getting hungry, we had no idea when or if we were going to get dinner (information was not what we got the most of that evening), and we were afraid to be impolite. Consequently, we ate whatever they put in front of us. We were later to discover that this had been fortunate in one respect. But let me finish the story of the grandfather.

If I had thought that the first floor felt like a museum, I had been wrong. The second floor of the house was exactly like a museum. The family probably had seen all of the old man’s treasures before, so they were not all that interested. However, in us he found the perfect audience. If we only had been able to understand what he was saying!

Stored in a big room upstairs, this man had at least twenty or thirty samurai swords. Imagine the sword shop in "Kill Bill", and you’ve got an idea what the room looked like. Whether the swords were real or replicas, I have no idea. They certainly looked real to my untrained eye, and they were beautiful. And apparently, each and every one of them had a story. The grandfather walked around the room with us, telling us the story of each sword as he unwrapped them, one by one. They were stored in velvet cloths, or in individual cases. He lifted some up, to show us how they were held, and his old body seemed to become younger with the movement. He understood, of course, that we were not able to understand a single word of what he said, but he still tried to explain it all to us. I do not think I ever have tried so hard in my life to understand a language, but of course, that did not help. Perhaps all his stories all started with “I know you cannot understand me, but I will tell it nonetheless…”?

He seemed happy to have an interested audience, as I am sure he had told those stories to his children and grandchildren so many times that they did not care anymore. He probably told us about who had used these swords, or who had crafted them. How old they were; the meaning of the symbols engraved in the blades. None of it reached through to us, but we still listened, and smiled, and encouraged him to go on, as if we expected or hoped that at some point we would get some of it. Only at one point did we reach some sort of understanding. He used a piece of paper and wrote down a number. 800. Indicating a sword, pointing at the number. I had the tiniest of Helen Keller-moment as I felt his message reach me. The sword was 800 years old. Only later did it hit me that the number could have had any meaning. The sword could have been made in the year 800, or 800 BC, or it could have been one of 800 copies. Maybe the cost of it once had been 800 (000?) yen. I will never know. But it does not really matter. He felt that he made his message clear, and I felt at the time that I understood it. I am sure it made him happy, and it certainly made me happy. This old man showed us his treasures, and I will never forget it.

As it turned out, we were thankful that we had gotten something to eat. Without explaining why, Yuki’s uncle (and perhaps some of the other family members - again, my memory fails me) took us for a ride in his car. We stopped at a diner, which turned out to be a sushi place. We were to do Japan properly this day, apparently. It was one of those McDonald’s style sushi places, with an assembly line where the dishes you ordered appeared. We did not order anything, the uncle did. He lifted off one tiny plate after another, with various sushi pieces. Allthough sushi is common all over the world, that was my first encounter with it. And it was not exactly love at first taste. I discovered, however, a fresh liking for the instant green tea they served in all restaurants – it took away some of the sushiness. I have never consumed so much tea in such a short period before. We struggled.

Today, I can eat sushi, though I confess it’s still not a favourite of mine. I tolerate it. Back then, not so much. I ate it all right. I was supposed to be polite, so I even smiled bravely and said “oishi!”. How believable my act was, I have no idea, but surely if any piece gave me away, it was the squid. I am not a fan of squid in general, and raw in particular… Let us just say it took some time to chew. I chewed. And I chewed. I drank cups of green tea. And I chewed. Finally I swallowed. Ever since then I have been confident that whatever I put in my mouth after that, it will not be as bad. That is a comfort.

Thanks to the snacks, we did not go to bed hungry. I learned a few lessons from that day. Listen to people when they speak to you, even if you do not understand their language – you might still get something out of it. Be open to new experiences – years later they might come back as beautiful memories. And perhaps the most important of them all: never eat raw squid.


Tundiel said...

Oh Mari, I LOVED today's blog!! What a brilliant character that grandfather was. I would have LOVED to have been there with you.

And... "Ever since then I have been confident that whatever I put in my mouth after that, it will not be as bad."

You did that on purpose, didn't you? Fess up to the innuendo, my dear....

Chary Johnson said...

Great story Mari! I absolutely loved the "Helen Keller" moment.

Cruella Collett said...

Tara - thank you (I'm using old thingies I've written to make up for lost NaNo time...). That grandfather really is one of the most special people I've ever had the great fortune to meet. I will never forget him, and his enthusiasm. Hopefully someday I'll be old and quirky like him :)

(And I'm ignoring the innuendo question. This was, after all, largely written before you guys had corrupted me. I had no such thing in mind *winks*)

Chary - thank you :) Unlike Helen Keller, though, I did not learn a new language. But not for lack of trying!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post! What a wonderful story! I love the fact that you were a willing audience for the grandfather and that he was so pleased to share his treasures with you.

You were brave to go so far away and to a place where you didn't speak the language. I studied abroad in college, too, and chose--England. :) Great place to go...but I spoke the language. It made things much easier on me.

Mystery Writing is Murder

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