I’ve been fortunate to have had the experience of living in a variety of countries for extended periods. I was born in England, have lived in Canada, Japan, and now the Northeast US. I’ve also spent extended multi-month long spells in countries like Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Each of those places leaves a mark on a person, changes you a little bit, and as an adult I can’t claim to have an identity that is wrapped up with any particular nationality. I’m from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I spent much of my late 20’s and early 30’s in a search for ‘rooted-ness’ somewhere, but that hunger seems to have subsided now. I am where I am I guess, and glad to be here.
In many countries in which I’ve visited and lived, some of the locals will tell me that their country and way of life is the best. It’s a curious form of parochialism, though I do admire sometimes the surety of conviction which accompanies the sentiments expressed. The first time I visited the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts, I met a timber framer named Jack Sobon, who assured me that, just as the sun rises and sets, the Berkshires were the best place to live on earth. He’d been a few other places, but there was nowhere like the Berkshires as far as he was concerned. That must be nice to have such certainty.
Every culture has it’s pluses and minuses, and an internal propaganda system that keeps reinforcing certain messages about the validity and uniqueness of that cuture. Those who think propaganda is something connected only with warfare are sadly mistaken, for each of us swims like fish in a sea of propaganda every day. It’s particularly pronounced in the US, where I am continually shocked to find from the media I receive bombardment from that there really aren’t any other countries on earth worth paying any attention to, unless perhaps bombs need to be dropped on them. One American friend smirked and told me once that Canada was ‘America Lite’, while another asked me in all seriousness why he should give a damn about what went on in other countries. Land of the free, home of the brave, or so it is said. I’ve heard many Canadians also sneer and mutter about ‘f*ckin’ American’s!”, as if they were all the same somehow, thought the same things, supported the same ideas.
It’s a human tendency I guess to stereotype and a means of ordering reality into more digestible chunks.
It was interesting living in Japan, a country, like Korea, of intense ethnic homogeneity. It’s very hard for people living in cultures like that to have a real idea about what people of other cultures are really like as they have no opportunity to interact with them, and the messaging otherwise comes from the their TV, which usually features programming of a slant like “look how weird all these other people are.” One time a Japanese colleague who’d had a drink or two asked me, “where are you from again?”, as if was not quite able to keep it straight in his head. I told him I was from Canada. He then snarled, “ugh, Canada, France, it’s all the same“(!).
It’s a very interesting experience to be a white person and be on the other side of someone’s stereotyped idea of what you are about. I always value the chance I had to experience the other side, as I’ve lived most of my life as a white person in a land of white privilege, a privilege that is not always obvious, especially if you happen to be white….
That particular fellow, Mr. Kato, a slender fellow in his 50’s, was civil enough until he’d had precisely two drinks, at which point he’d turn into Mr. Hyde like a switch had been flicked. When I first met him he expressed a liking for a pocket bilingual dictionary I was carrying. I told him that if I came across another one I’d get it for him. I kept an eye out for the little dictionary every time I went into Sendai city and visited the bookstore. It was never there to be found. Meanwhile, Mr. Kato continued his erratic behavior, to the point where I was starting to dread seeing him. He didn’t seem to have a good impression of westerners in general. Several months went by and then lo and behold I happened upon that little dictionary in a bookstore. I picked up a copy, remembering my promise.
The following Monday morning I went into the office as usual, and there was Mr. Kato sitting at his desk, with the usual none-too-pleased look on his face – not uncommon among the salarymen class. I walked right up to him and placed the dictionary on his desk right in front of him, smiled and said, “There you go. Sorry for the wait.” The expression on his face was something I will never forget – and Japanese people tend to conceal their emotional states rather well – his eyes opened wide, he stood up immediately from his desk, gave me a short bow, and then shook my hand. As he shook my hand, he said, almost as if he couldn’t believe it, “Why, Hall-san, you’re a man of your word”. I was a bit taken aback, and said, “well, uh, glad you like the book, and again, sorry it took me so long to obtain a copy”. After that, Mr. Kato was very nice to me indeed. Mr Hyde went away altogether. It seems that my small gesture had broken a fixed image in his head that all westerners were liars. I have studied a fair amount of the history between the western powers and Japan, and can well understand how he might have formed that impression of the hairy red-nosed barbarians. I was glad to have been in just a small, and accidental way, part of an interaction that changed at least a part of that for him. I certainly could not have attained that end by means of lecturing him on western virtues!
So that was a point in my life where a strong impression was formed. Japan is a country of seasonal rhythms and cycles, and the events that marks those cycles are fairly formal and ordered. There’s a comfort in that I found. One Japanese cultural practice that I have absorbed to a certain extent is the ritual of house cleaning prior to New Year’s eave. This is called ‘o-soji’, or ‘honorable cleaning’. I’ve always like the sense of starting the year with a clean slate and a clean house, though I must confess I have not always followed through on the house cleaning, though part of that has associated to living in rented accommodation. This year my wife and I live in our own house now, so I feel more reason to make the place our own and am following the o-soji practice.
Another way I am following this practice is what I call ‘o-togi‘ – or, “honorable sharpening”. I want to start the new year with all my tools sharp and ready to go. I have 80 or 90 edged hand tools, so it takes a while to plow through them all, and I am a bit more than 2/3rds of the way as of today. I also tune the wooden dai that associate to my planes, flatten the faces of the marking gauges, kebiki, file the auger drills, put a new blade in the bandsaw, make sure my planing beam is flat and clean, and, of course, clean the shop. A bit of this process of o-togi is akin to running up a sand dune, with a certain amount of downhill slippage, as I am using the freshly-sharpened tools for projects I am working on at the same time as I strive to get things in order. And that’s kind of what it’s about, a physical manifestation of wanting to collect my thoughts, come to a place of equilibrium, and clarity before the new year begins.
Maybe you might find a bit of o-togi a good thing for your shop and/or work situation too?