Sakai-san: Closure – 2007


In May 2007, I went back to visit Sakai-san.

House boarded up, front room barricaded, entrance padlocked shut. Cats meowing loudly from somewhere close, but no Sakai-san. In our last conversation, there was mention of subsidized housing in the city. He’d been denied the first time; wasn’t allowed to declare his old age pension as a source of income to pay rent, but now, perhaps . . .


I tried looking through the glass, afraid of what I might find.


Had he died? Did he move out? Housing projects? On the road selling art? No neighbours, no family, no memories.


I came back a month later to the same situation, said a few words, made my peace, and drove away.


On India – 2005


What to write about India? It is bizarre stepping into India from the air-conditioned comfort of the North Gate Hotel. The North Gate is not India, with it’s room service, laundry, and round-the-clock CNN satellite TV. Over the threshold lies a clash of realities, exemplified by western-style hotels strewn amongst street vendors, beggars and chai stalls. Internet boutiques sit under partially completed freeways. IT infrastructure support students make their way to KFC. Cart-drawn oxen contest 3-wheeled scooters, passed by Mercedes-Benzes.


What is a clash of realities, on reflection, reveals itself as the experience of place. And so the air-conditioned Northgate Hotel is India. Just as much as the limbless, blind beggars it towers next to; no more so than the young, white, pink-gowned Harry Krishna converts wandering it’s streets. Shiny new call-support centers, staffed by university graduates paid in American dollars, next to malls showing the latest Bollywood sensation. Such is a cross-section of India that cuts close to the moment: impatience with the present, hope for the future, reflections of the past – tradition, religion, belief – in a blender.


I’ve read – been told – that India is ‘in transition’, if such a thing is possible – to isolate one country from 193, and view it statically. One perspective from 6.1 billion. A-zoom-in-freeze-frame of an entity that is by definition, “[in] passage from one form, state, style, or place to another,” and yet through the simple state of existing, could be nothing less. It ‘is’ unfortunate the linguistic structure of English fails to encompass past, future and present in one tense. Or rather, perhaps this ‘is’ it’s greatest downfall – in so doing, relying on separate cognitive symbol-associations that make possible the process of disassociation; present from past, past from future, future from present. By this ‘is’, I hope to include not only, ‘was’ and ‘will be’, but ‘might be’, ‘could be’ ‘should be’, ‘won’t be’, ‘has never been, ‘will always be, etc…To further this, perhaps language’s greatest downfall ‘is’ (was, will be, wasn’t, won’t – substitute whatever you wish) to difference between ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’, thereby creating the skeleton framework on which a common reality is built. Is there a language that doesn’t differentiate? Where my, ‘is’, doesn’t inflect on your ‘isn’t’? Where the plural ‘I’ and ‘we’ are one and the same? Perhaps such a language would cease to be language, and, neither voiced nor written, cease to exist.


After all, these terms ‘are’ neither here nor there; they are self-defining opposites, co-dependent on one another in their attribute-value existence. Remove one, and the other ceases to, “be”. In a similar way humans recognize individuality, nations draw borders, and economic theorems create value. That is to say, none really exist, and are merely abstractions of consciousness. Perhaps language is the first layer in interpretation that constitutes myth. Thus language ‘is’ myth: “A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society”. Wordy to be sure, but perhaps not far from the mark; language formed and encompassed as myth explaining reality, a rationalization that in turn substantiates reality.


And so this freeze-frame is an effective manner of simplifying, interpreting, decoding, structuring, comprehending –on a superficial level– the statistical, socio-pop-economic ramifications of the world it has created. A world of layered myth, tangled together in a web of blood and bone, roots and stone, neutrino and clone, then smelted in the subconscious fires of 6.1 billion into an entity. EarthTM v.4.63 beta.


And so, from one perspective amongst 6.1 billion, a freeze-frame of a moment. An analytical observation of the India that separates me from you, us from them, now from then. A myth, a myth, and song and a dance. It could be nothing more, and it is nothing less.


A Letter Home – 2004


I’m writing from Toyama, Japan, a main-island prefecture nestled between mountains and sea, roughly 4hrs Northwest of Tokyo by bullet train. For the past four months I’ve been teaching English to children ranging 3 – 14 in the town of Ohyama. Or perhaps more aptly surmised; for the past four months I’ve been attempting to teach English to children both young and old, with a couple of their parents thrown in for good measure, too. Attempting to teach English is an interesting task – a combination of human tape recorder, stand-up comic, dictionary, and jungle gym. Although it’s half-a-world-way in many regards, the duality of classroom dynamics is ever-present: there are students who love to learn and students who hate it, students that try super-hard and students that sleep in the back of class under their textbooks; hyperactive students, attention deficit students, hungry students, rich students, poor students, happy students, depressed students – those whose only concern is the next minute, and those who walk as though they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Elementary students are highly excitable – live-wire bundles of energy – running, shouting, playing, laughing, learning, all part of a larger game; junior high students in the awkward stages of transition – unsure about being cocksure, too cool yet at the same time, not cool enough.


As Vincent Vega (John Travolta) comments to his criminal cohort Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Ficiton, “It’s the little things that make it [culture] different.” Japan, like Amsterdam, is on the metric system, thus a Quarter Pounder with Cheese over here is called a McGrand (pronounced Mi-ku Gu-raa-n-do). But perhaps even more impressive than McDonalds burger schemes is the Katakana alphabet in which they are written – an alphabet separate from the phonetic Hirigana, and character based Kanji alphabets, in which anything foreign is translated to a Japanese-friendly vowel-consonant combination. Or maybe it’s the belief promoted by Den Fujita, “the eccentric billionare who brought McDonald’s to Japan three decades ago”…”eating McDonald’s for a 1000 years would make his countrymen taller, blond-haired, and fair-skinned” (Fast Food Nation). It must come as quite a surprise that in only 30 years it’s made believers fat and unhealthy instead, although in this regard, Japanese youth are right in line with the N.American ideal; what milkshakes, fries and burgers haven’t been able to transform, bleach-blond hair-dye, punk music and pump-heels has. Not that embracing any of these ‘N.American-isms’ has made Japan any less ‘Japanese’. If anything, the reverse is true; Japanese pop-culture exists as a testament to the surreal – a sort of Dali-esque pastiche of various cultures and generations injected with high-tech gadgetry and neon lights that culminates in a, who-dropped-a-tab-of-acid-in-my-bowl-of-rice experience. Young woman with platinum blond hair wear mini skirts, pink feathered boas, sheepskin boots, and accessorize with bling and T-shirt’s that read: “Give me strength! Are you serious? Pise myself laughing” or, “Daddy was a street corner. Know your limitations, my mother said.” Toilet seats are heated (and if you’re lucky, hydraulic), public transport arrives exactly at the specified time, a synthesized ‘Big Ben’ plays over the intercom to signal the end of each class, beer vending machines stand next to coffee dispensers, bears threaten the existence of small towns, and everything – absolutely everything – from baked cookies to batteries in a box, is individually wrapped in plastic. There’s a shirt I’ve seen on several occasions that embodies the heart of the matter; in bold letters it reads, “Same, same, but different”, and there’s really no better explanation.


Under the initial onslaught of culture shock lies something more tangible. Peel away the thin veneer of glitz and pop, look behind the facade of trend and fashion, and there is the realization that despite the often bizarre, superficial differences, individuals the world over face a similar set of challenges. Albeit for many in the first world, the primary set of challenges are not so much challenging as an unconscious pattern of actions taken for granted; food is in the fridge, heat comes from vents in the ceiling, and water comes from a tap. Japan is no exception; rice comes from the rice cooker, heat from your AC unit, water from the tap. However, in expressions of individuality and conformity, quirks and idiosyncrasies, cultural context is revealed and the fabric of society on which routine intertwines with daily drama, unfurls. How does a student express frustration? What discipline is appropriate for the disruptive child? Why does nobody speak when asked about East-Asian political tension? Or, rather – how is a student expected to express frustration? Is disciplining a disruptive student beneficial to the class? Why is it inappropriate to express personal feelings about controversial topics in a social setting? The answers to these questions, indeed the questions themselves, belie one of the main differences between East and West: the dynamic of individual vs group. Unfortunately, four months has only begun to hint at this insight, and I’m afraid there’s not too much I could write now that I wouldn’t disagree with later – so I’ll stop this digression, get back to the original intent of the email, (which was to wish all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year) and leave you with a description that could only come from Japan at Christmas – something I’ve heard about, but yet had the pleasure to see. In the back of a department store, amongst rows of stuffed reindeer, origami christmas cards and miniature snow globes, lies a destitute tree ornament looking for a better home: Santa Claus nailed to a cross.


Bic Rouge – 2002

The time is unclear
. It could be 3:00 pm, maybe 4:00 pm, perhaps 2:30 pm. Time trickles so slowly it appears to have stopped; like a rivulet of sweat perched on the tip of a whale’s nose, both suspend belief. And hot, so hot — a damp, wet, humid hot that fills one’s lungs with moisture, and leaves clothes clinging to skin. I should be sleeping like the others, napping while the sun is at its crux. But everything is too new for a nap, and isn’t that what the night is for, and instead I’m drawing, sketching sorghum (a wheat-grain) at the base of our compound. Or rather, Perré is sketching sorghum, and I’m watching, enthralled.


Perré is a day guardian. He arrives a little before 6:00 each morning and stays well after dusk to ensure belongings remain put; magazines on coffee table, water bottles by tap, solar panel on tin roof. I’ve discovered Perré a fellow illustrator, and Perré has just discovered my Tupperware container of drawing supplies.


“Lessorgo, lessorgo.” Perré gestures at the adjacent field.


“En Mafa?”


“Enmafa, sahlawey, sahlawey.” Slurred, jumbled vowels to the ears, peculiar intonations hard to distinguish. Perré pauses, his free hand rummaging through the Tupperware container. “Beekrouge…?”


Caught off guard. There are more pens than I know what to do with in the container; surely there must be a…




Sounds French. Small springs in the brain creak under weight, cobwebs are swept aside, spiders scuttle, and off in the distance, a bell rings faintly. Memories of junior high French class come wafting back. The scent of lavender mixed with a sweet synthetic perfume. Potpourri. In a glass jar, on the desk, next to a stack of jumbled papers, and cahiers. There’s a poster of a famous French-Canadian rock star hanging on the wall. Caught in mid-wail, gaunt mouth strained open, fluorescent pinks and yellows shout out her name: Celine Dion. Je me, Tu te. I’m reciting something, but there’s no “beek-rouge”.


“Beek-rouge?” It’s a question. Perré smiles. I’ve got no clue.


The others are awake now, and I wander to the open veranda where they are seated. Beek-rouge, beek-rouge? Surely they will know. “Oh, beek-rouge. Yes, that’s a Swahili adaptation of a French verb in the past tense pronounced by clicking the tip of your tongue against the inside of your left cheek. It means feather duster”. Or more likely, “Oh, beek-rouge; that’s French for felt-tip, didn’t you know?”


But the others don’t know. They are as puzzled as I.


“Beek-rouge, by golly, what’s that? Sounds funny – isn’t even in the dictionary.”


Beek-rouge? Beek-rouge?? What on earth could it … Bic. Rouge. Bic-rouge! The others watch bemused as I return to the rocks and sorghum and Perré, paused from frenzied sketching, waiting intently. I hand him the new addition to the Tupperware contingent.


“Bic Rouge.” It’s a statement.


“Beekrouge.” Perré smiles nodding his head in agreement as vibrant lines of color flow from the tip of a red ballpoint pen.