Category Archives: culture

Japan – journeys and excursions

I am certainly a newcomer to the genre of Japanese literature; before this month I think I had only read one other book by a Japanese author. Never in my life have I given serious attention to the literature or culture or history of Japan, probably sensing that I could never deeply understand its soul, being an outsider, very much from the West, not East.

It seems a little random that I have now embarked on only a short excursion, if you will, into things Japanese. Last year when I traveled to India and tried to learn about that country, there was a familial motive; otherwise I would have felt similarly. It’s not that I have a lazy mind, but rather that I know myself: it’s very frustrating to go only shallowly into any subject. I always want to keep going and going and ….

I’ve now finished the third novel on my original list, Convenience Store Woman. The library is holding one I’d forgotten I reserved, The Gate by Natsume Sōseki, and since my last post I discovered another book that I have already begun reading as well: Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura.

“This is an elegy in the form of a weeping cherry, Japanese symbol of ephemeral beauty and now my personal symbol of enduring hope during dark times.”

Fujimura is a Japanese American artist who spent years in the country of his ancestors learning traditional nihonga painting. You can click through his name above to his website if you would like to see more of his painting and learn about the layering technique, about which he says, “The nihonga process, which flows out of a thousand-year refinement, overlaps as a metaphor for the journey of faith that is refining me.” Here I show one of his Post 9-11 series.

In the book he explores the postwar Japanese novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, and shares his own soul’s journey of faith and the many events, people and gifts that have nurtured him:

“God took me to Japan, a country of my roots, to become a Christian. Thus, my aesthetic journey overlapped with my faith journey. This book reflects on both those pilgrimages, through the lens of my encounter with Shusaku Endo’s postwar masterpiece, Silence.

“…The three critical themes in understanding Silence are hiddenness, ambiguity and beauty.”

I have barely begun reading, but I have hope that Fujimura’s gentle and reflective way of conveying his own engagement with Japan and its legacy to humanity will enrich my own mind and heart, and lay more reference points on the grid, if you will. [Update: This did not happen; on the contrary, his book was the opposite of enlightening, and I can’t recommend it, or justify taking the time to write about it.] Right now I wouldn’t know how to write about the books I have read so far for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, because no matter that they have been translated to my native tongue, they remain foreign. Perhaps down the road, before this read-along has ended, I will have made a little progress in understanding. It might happen that I will gradually find the map easier to read, and who knows, my excursion may turn out to be not so short after all.

Cultural studies in a flurry.

I once read a definition of culture as “everything people make and do.” That’s the one I’m working from for this post, in which I want to briefly touch on many odds and ends that interest me about India, but which I don’t have time to research or think about extensively.

One writer said that India is so diverse in its history and culture that it is more like 60+ countries than it is a unified nation. I think that is one reason that I was really glad to have limits on my explorations. How can one person deal with that breadth of possibilities? I would rather have depth of knowledge about a few things, or lacking that, just more time being exposed to a type of food, or the sound of a neighborhood, or day after day chatting with a native.

It was a treat to be in India when Republic Day was being celebrated last month, and to watch the parade in Delhi on TV with Kate and Tom. The most colorful and impressive aspects of Indian culture and tradition were on display for the international guests sitting in the stands and anyone who tuned in.

I had never seen motorcycle stunt riders before, but they are a huge thing in the Indian Army, and we enjoyed their performance. Women teams performed as well that day, and since then I’ve read about how the Indians have set records for various motorcycle stunts like most men riding a motorcycle (58) and longest ride standing up, etc. On my first day in Mumbai, you may remember that the things that first caught my attention were the trees and the motorcycles. I haven’t stopped wondering.

On our road trip when I was riding in the back of the car and watching traffic behind me, I had the chance to do a lot of people-on-motorcycles-watching. One young family was riding down the freeway at 50 or 60 miles per hour and when I first saw them, the wife looked especially pretty in her colorful sari, because she was smiling so happily as she rode sidesaddle behind her husband. The whole family was obviously carefree and enjoying their ride, a five-year-old boy sitting in front of his smiling father. The father was wearing a helmet.

At least in some places in India, there are laws that say the driver of the motorcycle must wear a helmet. Kate knows this, because when they were in Goa they rented a bike and the rental company gave Tom a helmet because it was the law that he must wear one. Kate wanted a helmet as well, but the shop didn’t have enough for anyone but drivers.

Since I heard that story I’ve been noticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone other than a driver wearing a helmet, and often not the driver. Many women in traditional kurtas with scarves around their heads and sometimes faces will ride solo, and they don’t usually wear a helmet.

It seemed like dozens of marching bands streamed past in the Republic Day parade, and my favorite by far was this group from the Oxford Foundation School in Delhi, who changed my life in a minute, turning me into a woman who would do anything to get a pair of velvet Indian salwar pants in that exact shade of green!

Truly, if I were staying only a week longer, I might have bought a sari to wear to a wedding the family will attend. Indian weddings are huge and lavish affairs — one important expectation is that you invite everyone who is in your life in the remotest way. If you work for a large company, you invite everyone in the company, for example.

“We” received an expected invitation to Tom’s co-worker’s Hindu wedding, delivered to the door, a portfolio sort of presentation, accompanied by a shiny box holding a family-sized confection called a ladoo. We cut it into six wedges and finished it off for dessert that night, savoring its indescribable subtle flavors which we think included rose and fennel.

Since then we’ve shopped for the proper wedding attire for the whole family – you need one sort of outfit for the morning part of the event, and another for the evening.

Indian families normally don’t take their babies out until they are six months old, so we haven’t found formal wedding wear that Raj doesn’t swim in. He may have to go a little casual. Kate has a sari now, and another sort of Indian dress; she is very hopeful that they will get more wedding invitations during their stay here so she can make further use of these traditional and fancy outfits. Tom is making do without a pair of elf-like shoes that the sharpest dressers to wear to weddings.

The book Reimagining India that I’ve been browsing has a whole section devoted to Culture and Soft Power, in which various writers treat subjects like Bollywood, Indian food and restaurants, and the mindset of the privileged middle class. One of the writers was at the time of the book’s publication the reigning world chess champion, and he wrote an article on “Making Chess India’s Game.”

I don’t even play chess, but I liked his story, and found this paragraph helpful in my “studies”:

One of the things I bring to my play is my Indian identity — my ability to shrug off a loss as destiny and hope for a better tomorrow. I am often described as a “natural” or “intuitive” player. I agree there is something to that. I learned to play chess at high speed. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai, where I began playing chess, we used to play “blitz” — the shortest format of chess in which players use a timer and neither is allowed more than five minutes of total playing time. We embraced blitz to make playing fun; the club was crowded, and blitz was the best way to ensure that the maximum number of players got time on the board. The winner stayed and the loser had to go back in queue. It made the evening more exciting. We all loved it. I learned to play fast, without agonizing about strategy or overanalyzing individual moves. Maybe this is a form of Indian ingenuity: making the most of a situation in which there isn’t much structure.

~Viswanathan Anand 

It just now occurs to me that my India studies have been fast and intense in a similar way. Like the traffic flow on the city streets, it looks chaotic, but under the circumstances it’s the most efficient way to go. I can’t afford to stay here any longer — I would become hopelessly immersed in the Indian jumble, only coming up for air long enough to type a few feeble words on my laptop.

This is not my photo, but I did see many women carrying water in similar containers. People carry all kinds of bundles and baskets of things on their heads in India. Kate and I discussed the weight of water if the containers held three gallons each: two containers = 48 pounds. I hope they only hold two gallons, in which it would impress a mere 32 pounds on each head.

In India, I have seen men sleeping in public every time I go out, often in shops, and I imagine they are workers on break; everyone stays up late here, so they need a nap. But what do I know? Maybe they are drug dealers who work at night and sleep in their uncle’s shop in the day.

India is labor-rich. Kate and Tom explained to me that an economy is either rich in labor or in capital, and in India it is definitely labor. A rule of thumb is that if there is a job you expect one person to do in the U.S., four Indians will be doing it here, because they are available, and machines and technology are not as abundant so they are relatively expensive.

This can be a bit disconcerting when you shop, and two to four store staff hover about, not just waiting to help you but asking you to look at one thing after another you don’t want. In restaurants you have very attentive waiters, often standing a few feet away from your table watching to be sure they don’t miss a cue that you might need something. And just generally, people, people everywhere, walking and riding their motorbikes and carrying things.

Several months ago Kate had told me that many Indians have stopped using the all-purpose “Namaste” for every greeting, because a phrase like “Good morning,” for example, is more specific and useful, and they like it.

It also is essential for the latest fad that was pretty much started by Indians of my age group, a trend that caught the attention of Google and which you may have heard about because of that. As older people started getting hooked up to the Internet, they discovered the joys of wishing all their friends “Good morning!” about eight o’clock every day, by means of image-rich text messages. These texts were using up Indians’ digital storage three times faster than average and causing their smartphones to freeze up.

“Perhaps India’s most famous morning-message enthusiast is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He gets up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga and is known to fire off good-morning messages as the sun is rising. Last year, he admonished a group of lawmakers for not responding to his greetings.”

My son-in-law has been getting these kinds of texts from his Indian coworkers and has jumped on the bandwagon himself. I don’t have any Indian friends who might send me a cheery Good Morning message, but I figure some of you are still in the early part of the day as you read this, so I asked Tom to send an example in my direction. This way I can share a little upbeat and current Indian culture with you my readers and at the same time wish you my best. I hope that in the next several hours, morning or not, your life is rich but not chaotic. And if you ride a motorcycle, please wear a helmet!

Food for the mind, feasts for the eyes.

If I have trouble putting together a Real blog post, it’s not because I haven’t been soaking up the sights and thinking about so many things. Now that I am actually here, I have been reading about and discussing with Kate and Tom Indian history, language, politics, slums, and religion.

The night before Baby Raj was born, Tom projected maps of India on the big screen and gave a little talk on various of these topics — it was the best sort of lesson for me, the map presentation helping me to tie bits of knowledge together in my mind. Perhaps there’s a chance I will retain more than a smidgen.

My “studies” are interspersed with or carried on in the midst of Baby Immersion. Just being in a home where a newborn baby lives and breathes and will stare back at you with no feeling of awkwardness — it’s too sweet.

This baby will have Indian nannies as long as he lives here, so some of the first words impressed on his pliable mind will be from Indian languages. But which ones? Hindi is not the primary language spoken in these parts, and India has designated 30 languages as “official” languages of the nation. According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.

20% of Indians speak Dravidian languages, which are not even related to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi. These and other non-Hindi speakers have fought against proposals to impose the Hindi language in southern India. The Indian constitution does not give any language the status of national language, but the authorized version of laws is required to be in English, and the business of the Supreme Court is conducted in English.

I’ve learned very few Indian words, mostly names of food. But I didn’t learn the name of the Diwali festival treat above before eating the last one in the house. Almost everyone I encounter seems to speak at least a little English, but sometimes I can’t understand one word in a whole sentence by the most fluent speakers, because of their accent.

Everywhere we go I feast on colors, and feel myself to be somewhat ghostly in appearance in contrast to the Indian women in their rich attire. I’m sure I will come home with a few new and bright, concrete items to go with the images on my computer and the imprints on my mind. New dishes are constantly being set out on this banquet table.

Denmark is not all hygge.

denmark-bookWith winter coming on, it’s time I gave a report about a book I read on my Kindle, under my wool blankets last winter: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Why did I choose this book in the first place? It had something to do with the erratic and perplexing workings of my mind in that first year of widowhood, combined with the popularity of the concept of hygge and the instantaneous nature of Kindle shopping.

Once I began, an unhealthy curiosity took hold and overcame my better impulses; I wanted to find out if the author decided to stay a second year. I also hoped she might reveal moral principles in herself, or a change of attitude, or anything to show that she was more than an unemployed journalist using the Danish experience to make a buck.

Russell’s husband had been offered a job with LEGO, and after some deliberating about leaving her job and mother behind in Britain, they decided to try it for a year. Why not, when it’s known to be the happiest country in the world! During the year that they live there, she writes about various aspects of Danish life, and gives the reader tons of statistics (which I didn’t check) from various research studies not specifically about Denmark, to show that maybe the Danes are on to something. She does not hide statistics about the sky-high divorce rate, the highest anti-depressant use in Europe, high suicide rate, how people change jobs frequently (certainly not because they are unhappy at work), but the many people she asks personally always say that their happiness level is either 9 or 10.

What bothered me was how the author didn’t appear to like the Danish people, her new neighbors and friends. She uses them as humorous subject matter for her book, but if she likes living in Denmark, it doesn’t appear to be out of appreciation for the natives. Also, I kept waiting for her to show that she held to principles against which to assess the culture, but by example, she quickly got over an initial concern over the way Danes casually expose children to pornography, and seems to easily absorb whatever socialist values are expedient, in trade for living in a welfare state with free everything.

denmark-happy_children
Danish children – www

It may be that Russell is only trying to maintain an objective stance as a journalist; when she lacks her own ideas, she finds some statistics to throw out there. We are told about the Danes, “They cherish their freedom to indulge every whim,” and they “really enjoy themselves, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be looked after if (or rather, when) anything goes wrong.” This is important, because “women here have the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, and Denmark also tops the overall worldwide cancer charts for all types of cancer in both sexes.” Related statements are about how they are “among the highest drinkers in Europe,” and “smoke with zeal.” She also lets us know, using language I find oddly travelogue-ish, that Denmark is the “top spot for STI’s [a.k.a. STD’s] in Europe.”

She’s less non-committal about the many more wholesome customs she learns about. When a neighbor tells her about the importance of church confirmations, saying, “It’s tradition!” she calls the concept “That old chestnut.” One belief I’m sure was inculcated before she ever left the U.K. is “…sometimes the practice of religion goes against human rights, for instance in the case of abortion.” That she doesn’t say whose human rights she is thinking of, we must chalk up to her not being in the habit of thinking outside the box that the typical journalist these days is ensconced in, and not even being aware of her bias. She states in several places her assessment that religion doesn’t really mean much to most Danes, but if it is “going against” something in the popular culture, I am encouraged.

As to hygge, Russell does try to learn to slow down, to burn candles and eat pastries in the winter as she’s told to do, and she credits this more relaxed life with ending her infertility. Though it means that the grandmother will be across the sea, the couple do decide to stay another year.

fire-zoe

I can’t help wondering if her new friends read her book, and how they felt about it. Maybe they don’t like to be the targets for her sarcasm… but probably she is a good neighbor in real life and they forgive her for not treating them as more than superficial-sounding book characters. I don’t like to think about the possibility that the author and her subjects truly have been reduced to mere contented, or sated, consumers; but when I factor in all those alarming statistics, the image I get of what people are doing on those long winter nights is not inspiring.

This winter, I will be glad not to live in a frigid place like Jutland. I will work on my own style of being cozy at home, and it will no doubt include the reading of many books. But reading this one hasn’t made me want to pursue anything Danish, and it has done nothing at all for my hygge.