Saturday, 11 April 2015

Most of Me is Back from Japan - Cathy Butler

I've just come back from my first ever trip to Japan and half my head is still there, so I'm not sure I'll be making much sense today. Still, such is my devotion to ABBA that while I was on my travels my every second thought was naturally of what I would be putting on this blog, and a few ideas arising from my being on the other side of the world did indeed present themselves.

For example, I was struck by the way that travelling in a new country puts you in the position of a child, for better and for worse. I've been studying Japanese for a couple of years, so I was able to hold some basic conversations, but I was also aware that my linguistic skills (so notoriously formidable in English)  had been instantly knocked back to three-year-old level, and that I would have to find ways to make myself understood using very limited vocabulary and grammar. Every sentence, every thought, had to be worked out in advance; words were stripped of nuance, reduced to crude, blunt tools. That was challenging, but fascinating too for a children's writer. Roald Dahl once wrote, "If you want to remember what it's like to live in a child's world, you've got to get down on your hands and knees and live like that for a week." I suppose that's what I just did, linguistically if not physically.

In addition, I was suddenly in a world where many sights were new and unfamiliar. I had to work out what they meant, what behaviour was appropriate in what situation, and so on – all work that children engage in far more regularly than adults.  As Diana Wynne Jones once put it to me in an interview, explaining why she made allowances for the slower brains of her adult readers:

[there is] a marked tendency for adults not to notice things as quickly as children. Children are used to not knowing, and therefore they make sure that they do know and remember, whereas adults are used to knowing. Besides which they’ve usually done a day’s work and want to put their feet up. So there is that much difference, that perhaps in sheer sympathy for adults you ought to make it just a bit looser, so that they can understand what’s going on.

In some ways I was worse off than a child, because I had a lifetime's habits and assumptions to unlearn. I found myself watching other people for guidance on a hundred everyday matters, from crossing the road to eating to visiting a shrine. It made me a better people watcher, which is a fundamental skill for any writer – but will I be able to keep that good habit back in the UK?

As a writer too, I'm fascinated by sameness and differences between cultures. It's always seemed to me that Japan and England have many things in common: both are island nations off the coast of continents that have had a profound effect on them, not least in terms of language and religion. Both have strong interests in tea, politeness, the weather, gardens, queuing, and so on. Both even drive on the left, for goodness' sake! Yet there are many obvious differences, too. Seeing what is "strange" in another culture – from heated toilet seats to wasabi-flavoured Kit-Kats – is also a way of seeing what is strange in one's own, of stripping "the fascination of habit" from the familiar. It reveals what has seemed natural and inevitable as anything but. This is an excellent frame of mind for an imaginative writer.

All of which amounts to little more I suppose than the cliché that travel broadens the mind. But I'm writing with half my own mind in eastern Asia, as I say, which may be stretching things a little thinly; you can't reasonably expect profundity. Think of this post rather as a hanging scroll decorated with sights from the last week. Drink your tea, eat your okashi, and take a look: I hope you like them.


Elen C said...

Oh, how wonderful! Japan is somewhere I'd love to go. Tho I might give wasabi KitKats a miss!
On a different note, I've always thought that the best way to learn a language is to babysit children who speak it. They are much keener to understand faltering attempts at communicating than adults. Also it's less embarrassing to get things wrong in front of a four year old!

Catherine Butler said...

I avoided the Kit-Kats on principle because I don't approve of Nestle, but they were... interesting.

That's a very good tip about the babysitting, if you can get the gig!

(By the way, I've written a quite a bit more about the language side of things in the posts I've been writing about the trip on my own blog. So far:

It's taking longer than I expected for a week's holiday - and there are still a couple of entries to write - but I want to make sure I capture as much of the experience as possible!)

Joan Lennon said...

So many interesting thoughts and images - thank you!

Penny Dolan said...

A delight of a post, Cathy, especially the thoughts about living through a child's view. Japan sounds so interesting - and lovely photographs.

Sue Purkiss said...

I love the last picture especially. Cherry blossom in Japan - marvellous!

Tess Berry-Hart said...

When I was in China I got exactly the same feeling - cultural knowledge got me nowhere - when I pointed at something, people(esp in northern China) would look at the end of my finger rather than where I was indicating. Amazing! Great post.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

How wonderful an experience. And aren't those pale pinkish kimonos just perfect fro the cherry blossoms. Beautiful! I spent 2 days in Tokyo on a trip to somewhere else. I had only just learnt how to cross the street by the time I had to leave!

Did you find any amazing Japanese picture books with their lovely calligraphy? They seem so very beautiful. I have one of an army of samurai frogs winning a battle with a black cat but wish I had bought more. Why don't more UK publishers bring in foreign titles. It's a shame.

Catherine Butler said...

UK publishers not showing interest in foreign titles is another post, I suspect - but you're right that it's a shame, one that impoverishes all of us. And yes, some of those picture books are delightful!