Have Overheads: Will Travel


The Asian Connection

This was to be a three stop trip. First, Hong Kong, to see a school for the gifted being organized by a professor with whom I had had some correspondance, and to discuss translation of my most recent book into Chinese. This stop was on the way to Singapore, where we were to attend a conference. A colleague from my university who was to participate in the conference also spent the few days in Hong Kong. The conference was for the 7th. Intergalactic or maybe International Conference on Thinking ( a title that is hard to take unironically) and along with four others from Canada and the U.S.A. we were to make up a panel addressing various aspects of imagination in learning. For the third stop I was to go on alone to Japan where I would give some talks.

Hong Kong is, of course, an amazing city. We were there a few weeks before the British hand-over of this outpost of Empire to China. Since my last trip, about three years earlier, the long day of colonial influence had tangibly waned further. The best value in the city still seems the Star Ferry ride across the harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong island, and back. It seems that every bit of air and water is inhabited by something thrashing to make a dollar. The harbour churns with every form of aquatic vehicle devised by humankind, from ancient junks to the huge catamarans slicing down to the gambling palaces at Macao.

We visited our host, Dr. Li, and were taken around his school, the planned first of many, and spoke for some time with its headmaster. Then we had a long discussion with our Dr. Li. His English is excellent, but perhaps the accoustics of the room were not well-suited to the druidic falls of my colleague's Welsh tongue. Somehow we got on to discussing questions of motivating reluctant learners, perhaps reflecting on a contrast with what might be expected in Dr. Li's school. My colleague, Geoff Madoc-Jones, spoke energetically about the research that indicated how learning stimulated endorphins in the brain which produced that exciting pleasure that is the intrinsic reward of learning. Dr. Li listened respectfully for some time, but was clearly disconcerted about something. He politely interrupted: "Er. . . about the dolphins . . .?"

This was cleared up, and we spoke about language learning. Geoff spoke about the need for training in rhetoric, and about the aim of encouraging students to write and speak with eloquence. We talked about common difficulties our students exhibited in reaching more than a functional ability with English. Dr. Li again ws clearly puzzled about something, and when Geoff paused, asked: "Er, about the elephants . . .?

The needs of the modern academic include ceaseless access to e-mail and the WWW--if only to check up on the number of hits on one's own Web Page. Carrying a portable computer, and keeping it secure, exacts a price on the body of your average aging professor. Earlier this year, with the residue of a grant and a chunk of professional development money, I bought a Newton MessagePad 2000. A stunning piece of technology in a hand-held tough plastic box. It has a modem which is a bit thicker, but no bigger, than a credit card. A tiny jack slots out of one side of it. I hooked it up to the phone jack in my hotel room, hit the dowload button, and the usual ton of e-mail poured into the Newton. There were the usual pleading messages, bordering on harrassment, from Gong Li and Juliette Binoche. I dumped them unread in the trash as usual, and went on to the academic business.

Singapore is pretty much what everyone says--remarkably clean and orderly. It is also extraordinarily boring for a major city. One exception being the Long Bar at Raffles, where we doffed peanut shells with the best of them, while downing Tigers (the famous Malayan beer, which we drunk largely in memory of Anthony Burgess, whose Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, involves frequent consumption of multitudes of Tigers). We also ordered a Singapore Sling and four straws. With renowned Irish generosity, I stood a round, and was a tad surprised that someone had made the mistake of debiting my credit card for around the price of a mid-sized house on Vancouver's west side. It wasn't a mistake. It seems someone has to pay for the wooden fans on brass rods hanging from the ceiling, the manly skirts on the huge Indian waiters, the carefully preserved colonial ambiance, and half a ton of peanuts. We visited again a few times, but drank very carefully.

There is another non-boring part of Singapore. That is Changi prison, where Australian and British soldiers were kept by the Japanese during the war, after the impossible fall of the city. On the way to Changi we were puzzled at a chime going off in the taxi. It seems that this is automatic if the taxi exceeds the speed limit. We also learned about the mosquito police. If you want a city that tourists will flock to, and it is surrounded by water and is on the equator, then you should expect the odd mosquito or two. Not in Harry Lee's paradise. The mosquito police can call anytime they suspect there may be standing water in your apartment and inspect, and give you a list of things that need to be fixed or changed within a short amount of time, when the inspectors will return. The result is that no mosquitoes eat tourists. There are other political and social and environmental results, some of them not yet evident perhaps.

Changi remains a prison, but a section that was part of the administrative block during the war remains roped off. The exhibition of photographs includes a set taken at risk of his life by an Australian of emaciated British and Australian soldiers in shorts. When being shipped out the photographer wedged them inside one of the drains in the city, and miraculously found them there after the war, most intact and ready to be developed. The Anglican chapel built by the prisoners still stands, and to the side of the open-air altar there are many small memorial cards, some recently written, movingly addressed by children who had hardly known them to fathers who had died there. And some by wives who had often been married only weeks or months when the new husbands went cheerfully off to war and finished in this antechamber to hell.

We delivered our papers to a decent audience--I mean in size--who listened politely. We had to leave a little earlier than the program allowed us, and our chairperson announced this at the beginning. We had been invited to a lunch with Dr. Li again, where I was to meet my Chinese translators, and with Dr. Howard Gardner who was one of the keynote speakers. There was, however, time for a few questions at the end of our papers. Nearly all of them were addressed to Madoc-Jones, who did his Welsh bard routine to great effect. As we rushed out, heading for a taxi, women of various races were clinging to his arms and legs, pretending to have further questions about rhetoric and the imagination.

Howard Gardner was trying to be cheerful, despite bugs his doctor tells him he will shake only if he stops spending half his life in airplanes. After the meal, as is the custom in Asia, we were all photographed in endless combinations with various of the Hong Kong, Singapore, and Chinese academics present. Gardner said that he was willing to forego book royalties in Asia if only he could charge a small fee for being photographed with Asian colleagues.

We had one day free, and took a trip to Malacca in Malasia. There seems to be no indigenous flora left in Malasia. We drove for hours through unvarying scenery of palm trees. Malasia is now the world's major source of palm oil, as it was a while ago of rubber. But with the invention of effective artificial rubber, the endless rubber plantations--from trees imported from Brazil--have been erased and replaced by endless plantations of palms--imported from South Africa, I think.

We drove our bodies up the hill overlooking the sea to the ruins of the old church founded by St. Francis Xavier, who was one of the first group, of seven, ordained to the Jesuit order in Paris on August 15th. 1534 (I thought you'd want to know.). His mission at Malacca was just one of a series that spanned the Malayan penninsula. He founded others throughout south Asia, notably at Goa in India, and he was the first Christian missionary to Japan. St. Francis Xavier is credited with converting nearly a million people to Christianity, though this is now generally considered a legendary number in more senses than one. But he was without doubt the most successful Christian missionary since the earliest days of the Church. When he died, of flu or some fever when returning from a trip to China, it is said that his body remained incorrupt. There was immediate action in Rome to have him canonized, and the incorrupt nature of his corpse seemed added evidence of his sanctity. But the advocatus diaboli at his canonization trial demanded evidence of his incorruption, so an arm was hacked off and shipped to Rome. This was a clincher, so to speak, and Francis Xavier was declared a member of the Chruch Triumphant. (I can't find any corroboration of this story, but it is what we were told in Malacca.)

We stopped at a fourteenth-century Buddhist temple, and were told by our guide that, unlike many temples, this one had been unrefurbished from the day of its construction, and what we saw was the original laquer and the original wood and decorations. We admired the left altar, and moved casually across the central altar, and over to the right. As we watched in wonder a young man spinning fortune sticks, there was a terrible crash, and the roof gave way over the altar we had just left. A huge beam smashed down, fortunately with no-one under it, followed by smaller masonary and supporting wood. The most memorable sensation was the strange smell of centuries old dust that billowed towards us. Geoff Madoc-Jones, ex-teacher, immediately took charge and ordered everyone out of the building, lest the rest of the roof give way too. The legacy of the Empire asserted itself, as everyone immediately obeyed the commanding British voice.

Our group broke up, and I set off alone to Japan. A first visit for me. I was not greatly looking forward to it, full, I guess, of stereotypes and accounts of Nanking, and fresh memories of Changi in Singapore. But I found the country utterly enchanting and fascinating. I spent most of the time in Nagoya--home of Toyota--with a day trip to Kyoto. I gave a few talks while there, and was flattered at the turn-outs. I had, after all, only had one book translated into Japanese, and that some years ago. Alas, the colleague who had initially invited me crushed whatever boost the attentive audiences had given to my tender ego by telling me that Japanese academics loved to listen to English speakers to help boost their language skills, regardless of what they were talking about. I was especially popular, it seems, because I was rumored to have a British rather than American accent.

At Kyoto I had time to take The Philosopher's Walk. This is a path that winds through the hills to the east of the city from temple to temple. Endlessly varied buildings, most of them stunningly beautiful, and some with a very real sense of sanctity. All of them were built among the hills, with water running through them, over stones. One took off shoes and padded around in the footsteps of men whose lives of prayer seemed to have become incorporated into the walls of the temples and paths around the gardens. Monks know a thing or two about life style.

One can everywhere see why the Japanese consider "westerners" barbarous. The ubiqitous politeness is one symptom of how the Japanese have learned, in a way western countries haven't adequately, how to live without constant aggression on one's neigbours in a modern crowded state. At one temple I skirted what seemed like the ending of a tea ceremony. I was most politely called over and invited to sit. It seems--I never discovered--that it was rather a tea ceremony class. A priest-like man of immense charm and the gentlest face was apparently instructing a bevy of brightly kimonoed women in the ritual. I was asked to sit, and was handed a bowl of rich green tea. I couldn't help, but tried to suppress, James Joye's characterization of the color as "snot-green." Another strike for the barbarous west. Another guest instructed me in how to raise the bowl, how I should turn it three times this way, and drink, and three times back, and drink. Then to contemplate the bowl's beauty. I no doubt got it wrong, but tried to follow along. In conveying my thanks and departing, I bowed, and bowed, and bowed.

In Kyoto I saw three uniformed men by the gated entrance to a building site near the town center. The uniforms were immaculate: blue blousan-style jackets and trousers, yellow hard-hats, yellow boots, and wide yellow belts. When a truck approached the gate from the inside, one of the men strode into the street and held up the traffic with an immaculate flag of the same blue as his uniform. The second opened the gate, and the third followed the wheels of the emerging truck with a brush and large dust-pan, energetically sweeping up any stones or dust that fell from it. When the truck had departed, the gate was closed, and the man with the flag bowed to the drivers on both sides of the road and withdrew to await the next truck's arrival.

My colleague's partner is a tall, blond, strikingly attractive Russian woman. She said that Japan is the only country she has ever felt entirely safe from any form of harrassment by men. The only occasion she could recall having been spoken to by a strange man had occured some weeks earlier. Her schedule meant that she had to walk late at night some distance through the suburbs of Nagoya. One night, with virtually no-one around, she was stopped by a policeman. He told her that when she walked along the sidewalk she should try to not swing her purse so freely, but hold it closer to her body. He then politely bade her goodnight.

It is shaming to see in downtown Nagoya dozens of bicycles lined up outside an office building, and not one with a lock. It is inconeivable that anyone would steal. I was told by my colleague of a visiting friend who left her purse on one of the city trains in Tokyo. She was very distressed, as it had her passport and wallet in it. He assured her not to worry, that the train followed a circular route around the city. They checked the schedule and discovered it would retun in an hour and a half. They shopped then went back to the station and stood at the point where she had got off an hour and a half earlier. The train doors opened. She went to the seat she had been sitting in, and there was her purse.

At Nagoya airport on my way home I was delighted by an exquisite event. Three Japanese businessmen had identified with large printed signs three American businessmen they were to welcome. Both groups had clearly studied the customs of the other country. As they approached each other the three Americans bowed low while the three Japanese put out their hands to be shaken.

Return to Other Writing Page

Return to Home Page