What a Wonderful World part.2
This is the second half of my exercise in optimism as in the lyrics of What a Wonderful World, the evergreen hit made popular by Louis Armstrong and others, on all the nice things I’ve experienced, seen and heard about the peoples of different countries. I’ll continue with Italy, the country that juts out into the Mediterranean like a long boot. Food being just about the most popular medium though which we learn about different cultures, “Italian” is nowadays practically synonymous with its cuisine like pasta and pizza. One reason may well be that tomatoes, used in so many Italian dishes, contain natural MSG, the famous (infamous?) umami-enhancer.
We have formed a certain image of Italians though their influence in music, seen in the use of such words as “tempo, finale, forte, piano(forte), staccato, prima donna,” their fine arts as represented by Michaelangelo’s works, literature popularized by works like Pinocchio, their movies as represented by Federico Fellini, their fashion industry and so on. But how about their national characteristics? Based on my experiences with Italians (i.e. mostly Romans, Florentines, Neapolitans and Sardinians) over some two and a half years (as an American school student, a news agency correspondent and tourist), what I like about them includes their artistic and culinary senses as well as their friendliness and warmth.
In particular, they are well-known in Europe for their love and devotion to children. It was over 10 years ago. While traveling through that country with our son and daughter who were still small, we visited a small hilltop town of Osimo near the port city of Ancona on the Adriatic. The town dates back to the days of Greek colonization. We stopped at a green grocer’s with the kids to buy some fruit. As we left the store and started to walk away, we heard footsteps behind us. We turned around and it was the old store keeper. “These are for your little boy and little girl,” he said, holding out two large, bright red strawberries. His smile and the eye-popping look on my kids I shall never forget.
Around the Mediterranean, I’ve also visited in Spain San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona. Barcelona, that city pervaded by the magic of The Sagrada Famuilia cathedral and other architectural wonders of Antonio Gaudi, leaves a very strong impression. But other than that I don’t have enough experience with their national characteristics. The same goes for Greece and northern Morocco that I visited on short but enjoyable trips
This global mini-tour of memories feels about ready to head back to the Orient again. From the historical perspective of us Japanese, the Basque region of Spain is the birth place of Francisco Xavier, that famous Jesuit missionary who first brought Christianity to Japan back in 1549. At the behest of the king of Portugal, he was sent o Goa in India, whence he went on to Malacca (in today’s Malaysia) and onto Japan. Along the way he also stopped in Cochin on India’s west coast facing the Arabian Sea. Since the 14th century, the port city prospered trading spices and other goods.
It became a Portuguese territory in 1503. Subsequently governed in turn by the Dutch, the Mysore rulers and the British, it is a gem of an old city redolent in history.
Having been raised in a Christian family, I learned about “Father Xavier” when I was young but never did I even imagine at the time that I would be visiting that historical place much later.
Once Singaporean and now Canadian, my wife is of Indian ancestry. Her mother’s parents’ home used to be in a village several hours’ drive away from Cochin, now in the state of Kerala. About four years ago, while we were visiting relatives in Singapore with our teenage son and daughter, we said to each other “Let’s all go visit our relatives in India” and ended up doing a week-long tour of Kerala’s interesting places by a chauffer-driven mini-bus together with her mother, her elder brother and his wife. It was almost too easy, just a four-hour flight to Kerala’s state capital, Trivandrum. After all India, for me, had long been a “distant country that I may never have a chance to visit.”
We call it “India” in a single breath, but the country is as large as Europe in land mass and inhabited by various racial types speaking hundreds of languages. I also have Indian friends in Singapore in Vancouver, but I’m hardly qualified to discuss the Indians’ “national characteristics” beyond such clichés as their prowess in mathematics. But within the context exchanges with relatives in Kerala and friends in other places, I can point to a couple of things I like about them. One is their warmth in welcoming foreign relatives they’d never met into their homes and all family members taking turns to entertain them. Another is their humour-laden skill in the art of conversation, which is sometimes accompanied by that endearing habit of tipping their head left and right as they speak.
Let’s move on to Southeast Asia. As I lived for 16 years from 1981 in Singapore working for a newspaper and then a magazine, and married a local lady with whom I’ve had two children, we have wonderful memories of fun-filled family trips to fascinating cities and seaside resorts in Bali (Indonesia), Malaysia and Thailand. I also had opportunities to visit Myanmar (Burma) and Laos on job assignments.
As I was also editing Myanmar Airways’ inflight magazine at the publishing company in Singapore about 20 years ago, I had a chance to visit the capital Yangon twice. As a child way back in 1956, I had had the experience of flying with my mother and sister from Tokyo to London, where my father was working, in a propeller passenger plane. During the air journey, we spent a few hours transiting at the then Rangoon international airport. What astonished me this time was that the airport terminal building was still the same wooden structure that I remembered.
It was for a story I was doing on Yangon that I met Mr A. He was one of the English-speaking tour guides that were still rare in those days, but I found we could communicate so well like old friends that it was almost uncanny. He was living with his widowed mother, brothers and sisters who were probably all devout Buddhists. He wanted to introduce me to his mother right away, so he took me to his house, a comfortable wooden structure in a heavily-wooded area. While serving us a delicious home-cooked meal, Mr A’s mother said: “You were probably friends in your previous life too.” I can never forget his warm and sincere personality and his curiosity for the world outside in a country that was still “closed” back then.
Unforgettable for the intelligence in his gaze and his friendly smile, Mr A must be around 180-cms tall, practically a giant among Burmese who are usually small in stature. Oddly enough, I have a close, old friend whose resemblance to Mt A is uncanny, from his smile and height to his olive complexion. He is Mr C, a Filipino guy I became friends with back around 1968 when I was working at a news agency bureau in Rome, and he a budding architect at an architectural firm there. We first met at a live music bar, and still talk over Skype from time to time, nearly half a century later. Over those years we had opportunities to meet and enjoy our friendship in San Francisco, Manila, Tokyo, Singapore as well as Vancouver. As one of his closest friends, I’m impressed to this day with his inter-cultural sophistication and linguistic ability covering English, Tagalog, Italian and Spanish, the fact that he grew up in a “good family” notwithstanding. I’ve also met some of his friends and their sophistication and sense of humour might generally be as good or better than those of “upper class” people in Japan like diplomats.
Southeast Asia is of course part of the “greater Chinese” sphere of influence, what with the Cantonese, Hokkienese, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka from Guandong and Fujian provinces and so on having played key roles in the economies of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere for a long time. Among my friends at a primary school and later American high school were many overseas Chinese whose parents were from Taiwan and elsewhere,. One of them I met again at a class reunion in Toronto two years ago. The Hong Kong people are in a sense a unique “tribe” and I’ve met so many since coming to Vancouver, including our kids’ friends and homestay students that I’m not even aware of them. Folks from mainland China have become much more visible as retail clerks, bank officers and so on over the last decade both in Singapore and in Vancouver. We’ve also had a language student from Liaoning Province in northeast China stay with us for a while.
Are there strong points that are common to such a diverse variety of Chinese and overseas Chinese? I’m hardly a scholar capable of discussing Chinese culture, but I can cite the following two things as a personal view based on experience. One is their practical sense and the other their concept of fairness. Take their culinary culture for example. Preparation methods are very practical. To exaggerate a bit, all it takes is a sharp, cleaver-like knife and a wok to prepare any dish, be it deep-friend, steamed, stir fried or cooked. If you have a wok, a cleaver, a place to cook and ingredients, you’re all set. That’s why an eatery together with a tailor and a barber are known as <the three knives (三刀)>, businesses you can readily start using blades.
As for their sense of fairness, it is well represented by the round tables with circular turntables at the center that we often see in Chinese restaurants. There’s no “head of the table” or a place of honour for guests. In other words, everyone at the table is equal. If someone is hosting the feast, he or she will start off by serving everyone at the table. A round table for 10 is practical also because it can squeeze in two or three more diners if necessary…
Lastly, we come to Japan’s neighbour, South Korea (ROK). I would cite, among their strong points, their musical talent fueled with passion along with their kindness on the personal , day-to-day level. Around the time of the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, we spent some time there with my father who was covering the games for a news agency. From time to time, we had South Koreans, aspiring opera singers enrolled at the Santa Cecilia Academy of Music, dropping in to socialize.
Ever since, I’ve always admired the Koreans’ musical talent, especially their powerful singing voice. Throw in some dynamic choreography as well, and we can see why K-pop is nowadays so popular in some Asian countries.
While editing an in-flight magazine in Singapore, I once asked a Japanese writer (a language instructor) for an article on his trip to South Korea. What had astonished him, as he wrote in his article, were the many acts of kindness toward him, merely a “nameless” Japanese travel writer. At one inexpensive lodging, he asked the lady in charge to wake him up next morning as he had an early train to catch. Not only did she wake him up next morning, she prepared a breakfast of so many items that he could hardly finish. When he got to the station, he had trouble finding his ticket counter and the right boarding platform. But a helpful railway officer went and got the ticket for him and even took him to the right platform. I also have also experienced kindness from a Korean couple who run a neighborhood stationary store cum post office as well as another Korean couple who operate a kiosk I frequent.
From a purely personal point of view, I’ve listed the strong points, what I like, about various peoples around the world based on my experiences. Needless to say, there are good people and bad people in every race But if we imagine there are only good people, What a Wonderful World! It would be. Like all of you readers, I can only strive to be one of those “good people.”
Last night I managed to catch the performance of pianist Hiromi Uehara, one of the top acts appearing in the Vancouver International Jazz Festival this year. If I were a foreigner, I would most certainly cite her artistry and talent as some of the best of Japanese culture.