Howard W. French: With life’s journey as goal, little can disappoint

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
June 26, 2008
SHANGHAI: The movers come Saturday morning, and for the sixth time in my career as a journalist, I will oversee the odd spectacle of uniformed strangers trooping through my house, filling boxes with my belongings, taping and labeling them and hauling them off toward their next destination.
What’s most unusual about this move is the destination itself. A few weeks from now, I will be returning to the United States. Yes, it is my country of origin, in the language of the hundreds of airport customs forms I have filled out, but since 1979, for all but three and a half years, I have worked overseas.
A lesson I have learned over those years is that the prudent don’t wait for the packers, so for several days now, what passes for free time has been spent sifting through all manner of belongings, throwing away whatever is deemed unneeded, of course, but also savoring a chance to revisit a life lived to a very great extent on the road.
By fortuitous coincidence, I have been rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Proust, one of whose guiding thoughts was about the way we are defined by the objects that we surround ourselves with. They become our compass points and, consciously or not, the stuff of most every routine.
The storage boxes I have sifted through have surprised me in any number of ways. There have been reminders of the kindness of strangers who have written to me over the years to comment, often at great length and in neat longhand, which seems almost quaint in our e-mail age, on things I have reported, chiding me gently over perceived mistakes or nudging my thoughts in new directions.
There have been the photographs, tucked away in unsuspected places, that have reminded me of long-forgotten trips to obscure destinations. There have been the faded legal pads and notebooks filled with my own squint-inducing scrawl: countless to-do lists, fragmentary thoughts that eventually coalesced into story ideas, bons mots and investment tips, both great and not so great.
There has been reminder after reminder of technology’s grand march of obsolescence, with 1.44 megabyte floppy disks and memory cards and video adapters and dial-up modems and video cassettes and much, much more, consigned to the junk pile.
A particular surprise has involved language study. Crate after crate has disgorged an unimagined haul of study tools, from Spanish dictionaries to instructional tapes of Haitian Creole. I almost feel like I should open a school.
The real language blizzard, though, began with the move to Asia in 1998, and with my soon to be warehoused materials. I’ve got the gamut of complexity covered: from Easy Hiragana to Japanese for Busy People; from the Power of Suru (perhaps the most widely used Japanese verb) to Power Kanji.
In moments of long past virtue and linguistic ambition, I have bought box after box of Japanese character flashcards, which I studied in elevators and on trains. I had stacks of beautifully homemade ones, too. They contain compound words (right-wing, business trip, export, import) written out for me in brush on small slips of paper in the midst of my hundreds of hours of lessons at the knees of Nagao sensei. With her prim smile and perfect posture, she encouraged me to keep climbing the mountain until my very last week in Japan.
The hard effort, she averred, would take me to the top.
Not to contradict my sensei, but as game as I was to study, I knew that one never makes it to the top. A Haitian proverb says it best: Behind a mountain is the next mountain. For me the next mountain was Chinese, and when I came to Shanghai, I exhausted my ambition during the first six months studying eight hours a day using teachers who tag teamed me. Today, my collections of Chinese character cards and homework assignments jostle mutely with the Japanese ones.
“Like people who set out on a journey to see with their eyes some city of their desire, and imagine that one can taste in reality what has charmed one’s fancy.” Proust wrote this phrase in gentle ridicule of people who would seek the unattainable.
If one takes one’s journey for the goal instead of fixing on a destination, there may be less opportunity for disappointment. It’s certainly been that way for me, setting out for Africa right out of school for a year and staying for six; plunging as deeply as possible into each new place, from Haiti, Cuba and El Salvador to Liberia, Mali and the then-Zaire.
To borrow a cliché, language is just a tool, and though true that may be, I remember the terror I experienced my first day of Japanese class, arriving two weeks late for a course at the University of Hawaii, and seeing students half my age write their homework on the blackboard in the language.
Good teachers make for good journeys, though, and fortunately for me, Omura sensei, my first Japanese instructor wouldn’t allow me to be discouraged. What ensued was the greatest ride of my life, as East Asia, with its immense energy, has opened up, sharing its secrets with me, first in Japan and Korea and now in the biggest dynamo for change of all, China.
Three decades ago, I set out on a journey desiring the world, and though one is humbled to know how much there is to be seen, and how little any one person can understand, there is little room for disappointment.
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