A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

Review: Learning to Bow

Oshieru wa manabu no nakaba nari.

Half of teaching is learning.

If you’re thinking of travel meaningfully by teaching in Japan, you may want to try this memoir.

On the other hand, I was happy to read this book in retrospect, after completing a year teaching with the JET Program (a Japanese government initiative that pairs native English speakers with public schools), so I could compare and contrast our shared experiences.

In Learning to Bow (1991), the author becomes a JET and spends one year (1989-1990) teaching at a junior high school in Tochigi Prefecture. During his time, he tries to understand Japanese society primarily through its education system and his interactions with his Japanese colleagues and their friends and families.

At the start, Feiler sometimes writes in a rather hyperbolic and high-handed manner:

“I came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Education, to teach English language and American culture in Japanese schools as part of a program to bring native English speakers into the heart of Japan.”

Many of his initial interactions with Japanese people emphasize his difference to them: his white skin, his brown hair, his physical height, and his perceived inability to use chopsticks and speak Japanese.

Feiler often gets exasperated when he hears statements like this:

“Only a Japanese person can understand the heart of another. You can’t figure us out because you are a foreigner.”

Similarly, although I am not Caucasian like Feiler, many students would often remark and gesture about my “small face.” Also, because I come from a tiny, largely unknown country of Trinidad and Tobago, they couldn’t figure out my nationality and often thought I was Indian, Filipino, or Brazilian.

I also experienced repetitious questions about whether I liked Japanese food, whether I could use chopsticks and speak Japanese, and why I chose to come to Japan over any other country in the world, particularly “America.”

Despite his sometimes arrogant writing style, Feiler makes some astute observations about the Japanese education system which I can corroborate. Like him, I also saw how the system prepared students for life only in Japan by emphasizing community spirit and Japanese pride and patriotism over internationalization.

 “While Japanese schools prepare their students to be citizens of Japan, they fail to teach them to be citizens of the world.”

I can also confirm his observation that the hidden curriculum promotes Japanese values like the general intolerance of diversity (especially of burakumin and returning Japanese expats), gaman (endurance), the sempai code (respect for your superiors), and amae (dependence on others). These concepts largely underscore the sacrifice of individualism in favor of conformity and groupthink. In fact, Feiler’s comparison of the Japanese education system to the art of controlling nature through bonsai is spot on:

If you would form a tree, do so while it is young.

Like Feiler, I also identified with the challenges of team teaching and using a Western approach to pedagogy in the Japanese classroom. On another note, I don’t think his kissing a female student’s hand to illustrate different ways to say hello would fly in the 21st century school in Japan!

One sore point I have with Feiler’s memoir is that it sometimes reads like a boring textbook, littered with overly-generalized statistics and Japanese history/culture tidbits. Also, in many cases, the quotes at the start of each chapter appear to bear little resemblance to the content and seem to exist only to demonstrate that the author is “well read.”

All in all, this memoir, which is written from the perspective of an American Caucasian male, is an okay introduction to the experience of teaching in Japan but if you’re thinking of making this your next step, please read widely to get a more balanced picture. Thank God for blogs, eh? 🙂

Did you ever read Learning to Bow? What did you think?

Review: The Lady and the Monk

Initially, I was really excited to read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk.

For those in the know, Iyer is one of the world’s leading travel writers today (travel writer, not blogger) whose observations have made him quite famous. I was especially attracted to this book because it features Kyoto, my soul city in Japan. I decided to read it after I visited because I didn’t want to spoil my first impressions with someone else’s viewpoint and wasn’t I glad I did!

In essence, The Lady and the Monk recounts Iyer’s decision to spend a year in Kyoto living a Thoreau –inspired, monkish existence only to be distracted by a beguiling lady, Sachiko. In this way, his narrative follows the template of many of the Japanese lady and monk poems and stories he reads (life imitating art, perhaps?).

The book primarily focuses on the problems of preconceptions: those Iyer has about Japan/Japanese and those Sachiko has about the West/Westerners. Through their progressive interactions, we see both characters shed their initial romanticized notions and naiveté and slowly accept some ugly truths.

Iyer comes to Japan, thinking he already knows it, based on his reading. He seems obsessed with the feminine side of Japan and actively seeks it, especially in his relationship with Sachiko.

 “…but the private Japan, and the emotional Japan — the lunar Japan, in a sense, that I had found in the poems of women and monks — was increasingly hard to glimpse. If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever; yet if there were truly moments in Japan that took me back to a home as distantly recalled as the house in which I was born, I wanted to know that too.”

In the beginning, he tends to over-idealize the Japanese based on his own superficial, fly-on-the-wall observations.

“I never saw any of the children shout, or squawk, or throw a tantrum, and I never saw any of the mothers lose her smiling equanimity: both parties formed a tableau of contentment. In New York, the near-absence of children had struck me as a denaturing almost, and in California, the sense of endless possibility that was the state’s greatest hope seemed all but a curse in the hands of its young. But here, wherever I looked, I found images of madonna-and-child, in a world that seemed so settled that it almost cast no shadow.”

He also captures the seasons and changing landscape of Kyoto beautifully.

“…I felt the brightness of the Japanese autumn was like nothing I had ever seen before: such hope and stillness in the air. Tingling mornings in shiny coffee shops, dazzled afternoons among the white-robed priests: singing Handel days of rapture and precision.”

He even becomes quasi-Japanese when he travels abroad to Taiwan after a couple of months in Kyoto.

“So sheltered had my life become in Kyoto — so sanitized of danger or alarm — that I had all but forgotten that another world existed; and now it was a shock to enter a stage where tempers were lost, things went wrong, the surface snapped.”

Unlike Iyer, Sachiko idealizes the West. She loves Stand by Me, Aha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams and often compares Iyer’s freewheeling life to her rigid role of Japanese wife and mother.

“You are bird, you go everywhere in world, very easy. I all life living only Kyoto. So I dream I go together you. I have many, many dream in my heart. But I not have a strong heart. You very different.”

She, too, learns the hard way and changes her mind a bit about Western men after a particularly awkward moment with a foreigner who mistook her friendship as sexual.

As time passes, through his relationships with Sachiko, other Japanese people, and gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, Iyer also begins to see the darker underbelly of Japan and becomes more discerning.

“This was the social contract in Japan: forfeit your individuality and you would receive a life of perfect stability and comfort; give yourself over to Japan and it would never let you down. It was like a kind of emotional welfare system: give up your freedom and you would receive a life so convenient that you’d hardly notice the freedom you’d relinquished.”

“Mother Japan prepared its children only, and ideally, for Japan.”

However, after a year passes, he leaves Japan with his romanticized vision of the country nearly intact.

“It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even seen it till it was gone.”

Although parts of the book can appear heavily romanticized and dwell too much on Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry, The Lady and the Monk presents a generally balanced picture of Japan and Japanese culture, both the traditional and modern aspects.

Verdict: I highly recommend it.

Have you ever read The Lady and the Monk? What did you think about it?