Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Philosophical Traveler

When I posted my piece advising you to Say Hello to Strangers I said I was having an off day, and not saying hello to anyone. This time, visiting the city of Lethbridge, I had my chance to do it right.

Wearing my citizen-tourist hat, I drove south to the city after my writing class on Friday. You know, to a European, a town is “city” if it has a cathedral; to me on the prairies, a “city” is any town with a public bus service. I drove to an Econo-Lodge. An older couple from Montana was checking in—the lady’s first time in Canada—on their way up to see the open pit coal mine in Hinton. And Banff, too. I enthused about the big Japanese garden just down the road in Henderson Park. No flowers, just Buddhist landscaping. “After you leave, the real world looks ugly.” We talked a little about wartime civil internment camps; today, of course, we have only friendship for Japan. We shook hands, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning I awoke to possibilities: Maybe in the evening I could take in a discotheque; in the afternoon, perhaps, a golf course; for lunch, maybe, a gourmet meal at a museum—all the standard tourist things. But what about my humble morning? And my humble wallet? It could be cheaper and more rewarding to just go around saying “hello” to the natives.

I bustled about my room while enjoying the novelty of having a TV. At my usual “cowboy hotel” in Edmonton, the old Strathcona, there aren’t any television sets in the rooms. That’s OK by me: It suits my budget, and besides, I don’t do TV back at home: no cable, no rabbit ears, no peasant TV…It’s cheaper that way, leaving more time for writing. And so my idiot box is now a glorified DVD player… for watching my Japanese anime. (animation)

Just when I was ready to leave my room, I found the ending of an old Spencer Tracer war movie—maybe you’ve seen it—where he is a dead pilot, back as a ghost. Cool. I sat on the bed to watch. Next came another black-and-white war movie, Hell to Eternity. “Of course,” I thought, “in the US this is Memorial Day.” I remained sitting.

I just had to smile: Down in the U.S. the armed forces, and the police, enjoy the affection of the people, having a friendly distinct competence possible only in a democracy when the people and their civil servants are competent rather than corrupt. “Every nation gets the armed forces it deserves.” An immigrant from a country with poor citizenship said he knew Canada was a good country from his first arrival at the airport, because two passing RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) smiled and said, “Good morning.”

I had never heard of Hell to Eternity. I kept watching because the film starts out in that nostalgic time when my parents were young, the pre-war years. In the opening scene Hollywood-handsome delinquents use 1940’s slang. And then, how nice to see schoolboys with Japanese parents using slang so well, so melted in as “real” Americans. The hero, a feisty orphan, gets adopted into a Japanese family where the parents are learning English—of course he learns fluent Japanese. I just had to smile: America is where, with the exception of the American Indians, everybody can come and assimilate into any family, and meanwhile get assimilated into the national family, just fine. No one has to stand in front of a mirror and brainwash himself: it just comes natural. Like how the hero, after enlisting, naturally adopts the body language, attitudes and reactions of a US Marine. One year you naturally believe in arranged marriages; another year you easily believe in marrying for love, and, if you attend a local mosque, that Islam means peace.

In LA, before air conditioning, the hero is with a Japanese-looking girl in an open convertible when the fellows in the next convertible have their radio on: It is “a day that will live forever in infamy.” War. To paraphrase what the Bible says about the Lord, “Thou shalt hate the enemy with all thy heart and all thy soul.” Obviously, during strenuous war-time hatred, it is just not done for Asian-Americans to serve in the Pacific Theatre of War, so the hero’s brothers go off to fight in Italy; the hero fights the Japanese on Saipan; their parents are interned far inland.

It’s a queer coincidence how the hero is of Italian background, for my high school was half Italian, half Asian. When I left home as a teenager to attend school alone, I naturally found parental-figure Asians, and I naturally gravitated to finding a home in the armed forces.  So I related to the movie… I kept watching a little longer, and then a little longer; eventually I dialed “O” and got the front desk. “I’m watching a Turner Classic Movie. Can I stay another hour?” And I did, for another $15.00. Hey, it’s the same price as a movie and extra popcorn downtown. Besides, we tourists like to see movies.

Eventually, out in the bright sunshine, I found myself on a path in Henderson Park. A fixed wing aircraft was droning over the park, banking to vertical, again and again. A mature man with a stroller was watching. I asked, “Friend of yours?” Small world: The stranger turned out to be a pilot, guessing at the make of the aircraft. He said, “He sure looks like he’s having fun.” His partner came up and took the stroller, and a lady using an electric scooter came up and we three talked about the weather and she knew Calgary politics. I said, “I can’t believe you have full leaves on the trees! And blossoms too! Up in Calgary the trees are only still budding!” I told the strangers I was in town to go to a Japanese kitchen/gift store downtown—they knew the one—to find out how to cook my brown rice better. And sure enough—small world—the nice man gave me a blow-by-blow explanation of how to cook brown rice, and told me where in Safeway to find the fluffiest brown rice of all. (Called something like buzzmat) Good thing I talk to strangers.

Best of all, when I told the man I was in a good mood from seeing Hell to Eternity, he knew the movie and said it was well known. That was nice to hear. For most of my childhood we had no TV, so maybe I had missed seeing it on seeing the Late Show.

Soon I was striding down a long arrow straight path to the Japanese garden wall: The approach is part of the experience. At the gateway I met two Japanese young men. One was just finished high school in Japan, only a little older than I had been, when I was in a strange and urban land. The older man, cheerful and expressive, with dyed brown hair, was here for the local university. I’m glad I conversed, because, after I photographed them, the quiet younger guy offered to take my picture posing with his friend: how thoughtful, how wonderful, as I never take pictures of myself. In Japan, I know, they always take group pictures twice so the person with the camera is included too.

The garden meditation path includes passing through a Japanese house constructed of beautifully fitted wood. No nails. Two Lethbridge young ladies in Kimonos talked to me. Along the walls were a few dolls behind glass, of porcelain faces and exquisite fabric. Know what? When I was the age of those girls, I told them, I had bought one of the dolls being displayed, as a teenager, in the tourist area, “gas town” in Vancouver. It had belonged to one of the sales staff. I remember I couldn’t buy the velvet display stand, only the doll. Who knew it would be worth so much? (Later it cracked, later I lost it during one of my moves)

Later, back down the straight long path, back at the gift shop, I conversed with a young lady from Japan. She exclaimed and pointed to my Totoro ball cap! We conversed about anime, and she darted to a book with lots of color pictures and flipped the pages, to find good anime to show me. The book is Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential subtitled How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool. Yes, I bought the book, feeling very avuncular.

Regrets? Two: Next time I’ll have memorized the titles of anime I like, as I really blanked out when I was asked. And I regret I didn’t ask the university student whether he was between semesters or yet to start, so I could warn him: Universities here are hard compared to Japan. (Where high school is very hard) As a graduate myself, I could share a few tricks.

You probably don’t want to hear whether I golfed or had a gourmet meal. (No and no) The important thing, in my eyes, is that I got back to practicing what I preach: talking to strangers.

Now to put on my citizen-philosopher hat, considering Hell to Eternity: I thought, for 1950’s Hollywood, there was good acknowledgement of sexuality, with ladies dancing burlesque in their apartment; splendid scene cutting; and more American bodies (except for maybe the opposed beach landing) than in Saving Private Ryan—why? Are citizens of today unable to face war? In the horribly restful silence after battle, the hero walks in a field among American and Japanese bodies… The sergeant is played by David Janzen, who went on to make a lot of people happy playing The Fugitive in the TV series. (Later a movie starring Harrison Ford) I am relieved to realize U.S. civilians, at least as late as 1960, are aware that Japanese women and children would leap to their deaths rather than be captured. Someone tells the hero to lower his rifle, advising you can’t stop suicide with violence. But you can talk.

I am relieved because I was feeling a little guilty, some essays back, when I revealed the Saipan suicides, and, in the Japanese comic Barefoot Gen, an Okinawa class of students and their teacher killing themselves with a hand grenade. I don’t feel I can judge what my generation is able to face. This spring most people initially couldn’t bear to guess that “masked troops without insignia” would, if unopposed, invade, occupy and annex the Crimea; others couldn’t believe that some American Muslims, “deniers,” would never talk to overseas Muslims, to convert them away from believing Islam means violence.

As a happy humble traveler I enjoy our friendly continent, good for citizens and tourists. I hope you, with or without much money, can manage to travel too.

Sean Crawford
(Hurray, now the trees have full leaves, as spring becomes summer!)

~When the teen hero of Robert Heinlein’s young adult novel finds himself a displaced person, Between Planets, (Book title) then, as the narrator knows, but as the young man himself is unconscious of, he seeks out a father figure from another race: …a talking dragon.

~For being newly amongst urban Asians, back when I thought in terms of “belonging,” not “assimilation,” see my essay Young Bombers Longing to Belong, archived November 2013.

~When my parents were young the saying was, “Scratch a Russian, find a Tartar.” (under the scratch) Perhaps the 21st century version will be, “Scratch a Russian, find a communist.”

~A slogan I “quoted” above is actually a paraphrase of a wartime observation. Yes the fascists bombed both London and Pearl Harbor before we bombed Berlin and Tokyo; still, bombing them back was not easy. It could help to say, “Every country gets the government it deserves.” (is fit for)

~Speaking of not having a TV, I thought I would paste in a quote you read last week, from Stevey’s blog:
I can't promise you any satisfaction from the upward curve. You'll get better at a lot of things, and you'll have plenty of interesting insights. You may even get a better job, or build some software that makes you famous, or just have more fun at what you do. But you won't have much time for television. Something will have to give. We all have to choose how to play our time, and it's a zero-sum game.(Stevey Yegge, see footnote)


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