by J.M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
March 24, 2009
OVERCOMING CULTURE SHOCK
AOMORI, Japan -- The theme of this past week naturally unfolded to become Arts and Crafts.
I have become the de facto art teacher at the Youth Center three afternoons a week. My morning work with individual children from the child development centers usually includes some form of creative expression as well.
The children at the after-school program made paper-Mache sculptures, dream catchers and dioramas from recycled boxes, paper towel tubes and other found materials. The children had an exciting time messing around until they came up with new uses for old objects. One young girl said: "This is the best day I have had in a long time!"
A 10-year-old boy was happy to take home something that would catch his nightmares, yet leave room for the good dreams to come in.
Another little boy was seeing me for anger fueled by the sudden and violent death of his grandmother. He is only seven but made many perfect cranes for himself. "One thousand of them make your dreams come true you know". Later he left a surprise of two lovely miniature origami boxes for me as a thank you gift.
This weekend's travel adventure brought me to Morioka. Here I had the opportunity to weave a bamboo basket (shibata kogei) and make a delicious buckwheat noodle (soba) soup (pyon pyon sha). If I could have stayed longer I would have done some indigo tie-dye (kakiura dyeing) and made raku pottery (Hokutogama). I couldn't stay though, because I wanted to leave time to see the Iwate Museum of Art and the Museum of Great Predecessors. Both are on the Shizukuishi River.
My experiences in Japan remind me of the quote given to me by my Pacific Oaks College art teacher, Polly McVicker "We have no art; we do everything as well as we can." It seems that just about everything here is an art or a craft.
I have enjoyed seeing numerous folk toys. I played with wooden tops, and got to kick around colorful hacky-sack type cloth bags. At the handicraft museum I purchased a Kakeshei doll. She is wooden with a sweetly painted face and but no arms. Originally, these dolls represented spirits of the gods. Huge ones greet visitors at the airport and people entering city hall.
Lanterns of natural rocks, some with wooden housing, others of cast cement are everywhere. These (Ishidoro) are placed in front of buildings and shrines. I took pictures of all that I could find on the base. No one was the same.
Other abundant works of art and craft that are available in the schools and towns are: Haiku, Bonsai, Masks, and Buddha statues,
Colorful folded pieces of paper with fortunes written on them (Omikuji), are found in trees near shines and monuments. Shimenawa are paper lightning bolts placed on ropes of rice straw are symbols that mark the boundary between sacred and profane spaces
Restaurants look festive with their (Noren) short, split, blue curtains hung in shops to show they are open. Others also have red lanterns, (Akachochin) hanging outside to advertise that they are inexpensive eating and drinking places.
I love the beauty and esthetics of this country, but I still feel anxiety as I venture forth to the culture that is so foreign to me. Just getting my hair cut and taking a taxi worried me this week. I wondered how would I communicate that I want my bangs cut this or that way, or that I want to go to a certain place at a specific time. Somehow, through pantomime, I was able to get a fair hair trim. The taxi driver who brought me to the art museum returned to pick me up two hours later. He was even waiting for me inside the museum!
In spite of the joy of exploring, I think I am ready to get back to doing things in a more automatic, habitual way. I realize how much my habits regulate and stabilize my life. As much as I have enthusiastically soaked up the new aspects of two cultures (Japanese and military), I am ready to be a creature of habit for a while. Just going to the supermarket and trying to understand what the products are, I become fatigued. After using my intuition 24/7 to figure out how to behave correctly/properly, I now long for some familiarity.
I keep thinking that if I had traveled more extensively like my daughter has, I may not have become so tired just adapting. If I was born with a more outgoing personality like she has, I might have been able to avoid the exhaustion of culture shock. I came here ready, able and willing to take in all things Japanese. I have the hang of things much better now. For example, my driving is more natural and confident. But it's not easy in Japan. While I was in Europe, I was able to figure out many words, symbols and signs, but here I can't decipher even one.
At first I was dazzled, fascinated, and in a state of wonder about the Japanese culture. Now I know for sure that I have only skimmed the surface. I can see why some people here ignore the culture and stay in the cocoon of Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks, Burger King, Budweiser, Harley-Davidson, Air Force television and the Mexican food offered on the base. It really is much easier.
Due to my workload, this will be my last column. Writing about these experiences has been a great outlet for the tensions and stress of adapting to the changes required by both cultures. Using the art and craft of writing has sharpened my skills of observation and helped me to look further at my inner self. Now I make mental notes all week long about what I have noticed. The feedback and questions that some of you have shared with me has been uplifting and inspires me to keep on with the craft - thank you!