Wednesday, August 11, 2010

from Kyoto: contexts

There’s this discussion at the moment between the me and the I: I wants to slow down, me wants to pick up the pace.

I wake up in the middle of the night and remember last minute instructions for Ed, who is shortly boarding a series of planes for Osaka. I call, I instruct, even as I'm certain he's only half listening. Then I can’t sleep. I work a little on the class and then doze off, but it’s too late to have a fitful rest.

And even as I am back on the “too little sleep” treadmill, I also have the feeling that I am not doing nearly as much as I would like.

Part of it is that my work is taking far more time than I would have guessed. Reworking law school materials for non native speakers of English is something that I’ve done many times in the past, but now I am doing more than just the guest lecture or two. I am presenting an entire body of law and I’m teaching Japanese students an American legal mind set, in periods of three hours each day. It is intense.

I make a point of starting the day gently, with a cup of coffee and cinnamon toast at a nearby café (that is actually part of a small and lovely chain here).


But at every turn, I am reminded how difficult it is to transcend barriers to understanding. One must try, but it is an ongoing challenge. An example: in Kyoto, when you step off the tourist path, all traces of English disappear. People here struggle with our language (in the same way that we would struggle with theirs, were we to even try) and often times know a few words, but not much more than that. And their utter agreeableness and desire to please causes them to respond in a way that implies that they understand, even as they really don’t. Because truthfully, you’re saying words they’ve never heard before.

In the morning, I am happy that my request for coffee with milk is understood. As I leave, I look at the sign in front. This is truly an unusual place – it has a sign with an English message. I may be the only one for miles who actually can read it. But even as I read it, I puzzle over its meaning. It’s lost on me. I know that they must be trying to evoke an image of a European (German?) bakery. But what theme are they using that strikes a chord for the Japanese, but not for us? (I know, they probably meant "sweet." Or maybe not?)


And so it’s the language, but it’s so much more. Meaning is a contextual concept. At best we will understand each one’s words. But conversation across cultures requires more than that.

It is such a challenge (though a rewarding one!) to communicate across cultures.

I ride the subway to campus and I watch a group of young Japanese girls. So many of them have this in common: a love of pastels and pinks, of cartoons, of English language slogans on clothes and bags.


I look out my office window at the university, enthralled by the views from this lovely corner room...


...and I worry about reaching the group of students in my class.

After, as I walk home from the subway, passing, as always, the baseball field, I think sports fans have it easy. There is a common denominator. Everyone is on the same playing field (no pun intended).


In the late afternoon, the “me” in me wants to see some more of ancient Kyoto. It’s my third trip here, and I am very aware that I am on my third day and I still haven’t been at the most beautiful places and spaces that so define the city. I run through the listing of temples, gardens. They all close in early afternoon. Until I break from teaching (beginning Saturday), I have to wait.

Except for one. My guide book tells me that Daitoku-ji (a complex of some two dozen Zen temples) is open until dusk. I set out.

But I need more than just the morning cinnamon toast. My energies are low. I can feel my pace slackening. The “I” in me says – can you walk more slowly please?

And so I pause at a café for a pastry and another coffee. I know. I need real food. But dusk is near and I want to reach my destination.


But it’s no use, the temples at the complex have long closed for the day (correction to guidebook: closing time is 4, not dusk).

And still, the grounds are enormous and perhaps this is one special way to see this place, because there is a sense of empty tranquility here now. And the late afternoon colors are gentle, lightly golden.



There is only an occasional person walking her dog. And a monk opening and closing a gate. And a pair of apprentices, trimming a tree to one of the many entrances.


And it’s not as if I cannot see what’s behind some of the gates. The buildings, old and beautiful, rise above the enclosures in splendid curves and forceful ornamentation.


I stroll quietly and for once the I and the me are not at war.

But then I have to hurry again. Ed is to leave for Japan at five in the morning Madison time and both of us are concerned that he wont wake up. I want to call and make sure he gets going.

And now I am back in the neighborhood of my apartment, not wanting to go downtown again. I walk along the main, lightly commercial street, looking for a place to eat. I come across a pleasant looking place with a posted menu that shows reasonable set dinner prices. And there are little photos of very Japanese looking food. The place even has an English translation on at the entrance: it’s a yoba restaurant. I look up the word yoba in my guidebook. Not there. Useless guidebook. Lonely Planet! You failed me twice today!

I go inside and order the cheapest set menu and a small beer.

The waitress asks: Meat? Fish? Tempura? I ask what kind of tempura? That’s too difficult. And why should she know – it’s not as if she deals with English speaking people on a daily basis. I try to ask about the fish. I’m curious: ocean fish? No, I’m pushing it. She says yes, but I know that we are lost in our own worlds of meaning. She nods, I smile and I wait.

First comes the chilled yuba soup.


Whatever yuba is, it’s bathed in soy milk. The mystery continues.

Next – a sampling of some pickled veggies and fish and something probably yuba. All yummy.


Next, a bowl full of pure yuba. The waitress is beaming as she sets it down. Yuba! Any wise person familiar with soy products would have guessed by now that yuba is this. Me, I’ve put thoughts of translation aside. Eating strands of coagulated yuba in a milky broth reminds me of eating sour rye borsch at my grandma’s in Poland. You have to be raised liking it. Outsiders cannot jump in and understand the attraction with the first spoonful.

I finish it, not knowing yet that I have eaten a natural health elixir with benefits recognized by kings and emperors and more recently, those favoring organic, natural products over prepared foods.

I then get delicious tempura. I actually thought we settled on the fish, but I am so glad she thought otherwise, because the tempura is excellent. Sprinkled with wasabi salt. Fresh. Outstanding.


Then, yuba drenched rice. Again, in fairness, this is a yuba restaurant, so there will be yuba everywhere. Sort of like going to a wasabi farm and buying ice cream: be prepared for wasabi ice cream.


But I do a “let’s bury some the yuba under the bottom layer of rice” number, because for now, I have had my yuba fill. And I know there will be a next time, and I know I will eat it with more pleasure then, merely because I will have understood the context. I will know my yuba.

The final course is a delicious little plate of citrus jelly and soy milk ice cream. With several teas.


I walk home thinking about how good it is that people tolerate our inability to speak their language when we travel to really distant places. And how hard they try to please us anyway. I think also about the many Japanese women who, in Madison, came to shop at the little store where I moonlighted this winter selling French creams and soaps. When they would enter the store speaking Japanese, I would ask once if I could help them and then I would let them talk in Japanese amongst themselves. If I enter a shop or a café here, I am swamped with attention exactly because they realize it will take ten of them working round the clock to get me to understand perhaps one wee portion of what they’re trying to tell me.

I walk home in the dark night and I think about how humid the air is here and how soft the skin feels bathed at all times in an ocean of moisture. It must be so hard to live in Wisconsin (as a student, for example) if you are from Japan.