The Japanese Wave

by Maureen Elizabeth Magee

 

Since childhood, everything about Japan has enthralled me: food, traditional clothing, bonsai trees, ikebana floral arrangements and, of course, the people themselves. The poster in the window showed verdant, bucolic rice paddies being tended by women in traditional bonnets and straw hats. For dramatic relief, a snowcapped mountain hung in the background and the caption promised that I would “See the real Japan. Become immersed in the mysterious Orient by cycling the back roads of rural Shikoku – an island that outsiders rarely visit.”

It took about a nanosecond for me to walk into the travel agency and pay a deposit.

A few months later, in the baggage claim area of the Tokyo airport, a man met the luggage as it tumbled onto the carousel. Carefully setting suitcases upright, he snapped the tired handles to attention, briskly swished each piece with a white cloth, and then released it to rumble properly along, seeking its owner. He wore white gloves.

As my soft turquoise pack thumped limply to the bottom of the ramp, it exuded a cloud of Indonesian dust. The luggage man yanked it upright, but the bag sagged forward, weighted by its overstuffed outside pockets. He set it up again quickly and as he turned his attention to the oncoming pieces, mine slid onto its back with a slightly inebriated air.  Threading my way through the crowds to claim it, I could see him do a double take; the horizontal piece must have offended his sense of alignment. He sprang into double time, sprinting along the carousel edge to catch up to the limpid piece. Jerking it up sharply and with a stern little shake, he wedged it upright between two stoic suitcases standing on their own. As I pushed my way through the throng, I saw him look down at his white gloves and, with compressed lips, clap them together to get rid of the dust. When he saw me, however, (and for some reason he immediately identified me as the owner) his face smoothed over and he gave a low, dignified bow, which I’m sure, in his mind, I ill-deserved for having such badly behaved luggage.

Had I known at the time, I would have recognized that this one incident told me much about the Japanese psyche.

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No, I Don't Speak Spanish

by Sallie Bingham

 

No, I don't speak Spanish. Yes, I tried - a class, some CD's, but somehow it never “took” although I live in New Mexico where perhaps half the population speaks Spanish, and my daughter-in-law and granddaughters speak Spanish, too. But somehow it never came home to me until we were taking a family Christmas vacation at one of the huge resort hotels that wall the beach in Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja Peninsula - or “Baja” as we tourists call it. Everyone who worked in the hotel spoke Spanish but none of the guests did.

The symbol of this linguistic divide, for me, was the rope that was strung across the beach, about half way between the oceans and the throng of lounge chairs under thatched roofs. Perhaps the rope was taken down each night and put up again in the morning, but whenever I was on the beach, the rope was there. On one side, the tourists sat or lay in their lounge chairs surrounded with the usual sunbathing paraphernalia. I was one of them. On the other side, local men and women held trays of jewelry or bundles of brightly-colored serapes and looked at us. Occasionally, one would softly call out to us, but I sensed that this was probably forbidden.

They stood all day on their side the rope, or sometimes walked up and down the beach and chatted with each other. Meanwhile, we sunbathed, read, drank water, gossiped, talked on cell phones, and avoided making eye contact across the rope. During the week we were there, I never saw any tourist approach a vendor or speak to him or her or make a purchase. Yet the local vendors were there, day after day, even on Sunday.

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French Camp Failure

by Jules Older

As Effin and I left Vermont for French Immersion Camp in Quebec, I felt scared.

I had reason for fear. I nearly flunked French in high school. I did flunk Latin, got a D in German, just squeaked by Spanish. I kept switching languages in the forlorn hope I'd find one I was good at. I never did.

So why was I voluntarily leaving for seven days of French immersion in La Belle Province? Two reasons.

The most pressing: I edit Canada’s biggest ski magazine, a Quebec-based venture, where every one of my colleagues is bilingual. And while they generously switch to English whenever I'm there, I'm tired of being the only single-language idiot in the room.

The second reason is a fond hope I've clung to since my less-than-stellar experience in high school French/Latin/German/ Spanish. I've always said that the problem wasn’t me; oh, no, the problem was the way language is taught. I claimed (and almost believed) that if I were thrown into an environment where, say, French is spoken—as opposed to parsed, declined, memorized and chopped into small bits—I'd soon be speaking it like a native.

So. Alors. It’s crunch time for my dignity and my theorizing. On to Quebec!

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