Thursday, 1 October 2009

Tradition, Tradition

I'll never forget my first Coming of Age Day in Japan. If you don't know what this is (I sure didn't), it's the second Monday of January, the day that all young people who have reached the age of majority (twenty) are recognized and celebrated. Twenty-year-olds come out in kimono, having spent many hours getting dressed and made up, and a small ceremony is held to welcome them into the adult world. It is a big deal, and a very traditional occasion. Oddly enough, what I remember the most clearly is not the kimono-clad young women posing in front of the ward offices, clustered in giggling groups, showing off their fur stoles and expensive accessories (a full kimono and all the bits and pieces it entails can cost as much as a decent car), but a group of them huddled together, wolfing MacDonald's hamburgers and sipping cokes. It was so incongruous, this group of young women in their traditional attire, indulging in an entirely western snack, that it stayed in my memory.

Over my years in Japan, I saw a lot of tradition-meets-the-20th-century clashes. A portable shrine bearer kitted out in a traditional jacket, but wearing jogging shoes instead of the wooden geta his mates had on; a man in a festival done up in Heian Era kimono, but who had obviously forgotten to remove his wristwatch; tonsured Buddhist priests on mopeds, wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

It was funny, but a little sad in a way too: no matter how traditional people might look in their formal or festival attire, almost all of them, it was obvious, found western clothes and accessories more comfortable. The old ways were, it seemed, largely for show.

Last year, I was downtown shopping when a woman sitting in an outside cafe caught my eye. She looked quite young -- perhaps in her late teens or early twenties -- and she was wearing a sky-blue burqa; only her eyes were showing. You don't see that many women here in burqas, so I'm assuming she wasn't Turkish, but whatever nationality she was, she looked bored out of her wits. She had her chin propped in one hand, and in the other she held what appeared to be a Game Boy, her thumb clicking away. I had to look twice to make sure, but yes: she was playing with a Game Boy. And why not, really? Just because she happened to dress traditionally didn't mean she should forgo all the fads and accoutrements of modern youth, did it? After all, the Koran could not forbid people to use things that had not yet been invented.

But after seeing this girl and her Game Boy, I wondered if I would ever see anything purely traditional in this country. Here, like in Japan, westernization had obviously crept in and woven itself insidiously into people's lives. Television antennae, I noticed, bristled out of the meanest hovels; women in shawls and kerchiefs pulled out credit cards in stores; even the local call to prayer closed off with electronic feedback, obviously relying on a computer. Was nothing entirely safe?

And then one day a friend and I were driving through the mountains when I saw a flock of sheep in a field, surrounded by olive trees and thorn bushes. Right in the middle of the flock was a shepherd. Dressed in white, his head covered by a length of cloth banded around his forehead, he could have stepped right out of the Old Testament as he strode along, his eyes focused on something he held in both hands. I gaped at him, thrilled. "Did you see that guy?" I almost whispered, gesturing. "He was the real thing!" I shook my head in wonder. "I didn't think there was anyone like that around anymore!"

The friend I was with smiled. "Mary, he had a cell phone. He was texting on it."

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29 comments:

Falak said...

Hahahah!!!!! Tradition these days is mostly followed with trepidation. :) You are a great writer. I enjoy reading your blog

Patrick said...

Enjoy reading your blog. Nice one.. =)

Vijaya said...

Oh, yes, even in the remote interiors of India, you will see men in dhotis (loincloth) with their ear to a phone.

Bish Denham said...

If old and new can be happily married then we'll be OK. I'm just not sure they can be, one will eventually overpower the other. To our loss I think.

Charlie said...

The adoption of Western ways is fine, but not at the expense of tradition. How boring this world would be if we were all the same!

debra said...

Wonderful story, Mary. We once went to watch Tibetan monks assemble a sand mandala. They used ancient rituals and quietly worked. One monk moved quickly and walked across the room. He reached inside his saffron robe and pulled out a cell phone that had evidently been set on "vibrate."

planetnomad said...

I have thought about this a lot. Mauritania is such a traditional society in many ways, yet it is changing so fast you can get whiplash just watching it. So you can see nomads in nike caps on cell phones amidst the dunes, or a sign for Coke on a dusty store in the middle of the Sahara. I always rather liked the juxtaposition between ancient and modern. I don't begrudge them anything that can simplify their lives...after all, you don't catch me in long skirts and corsets just because my grandmother wore them!

Postman said...

An interesting and relevant post. I saw the same thing in Korea. Old women wearing Nike and Adidas instead of traditional footwear. A farmhouse that could've been torn right off the pages of an ancient history book...but for the two or three gaudy-colored plastic buckets in the front yard. Every day in that country I saw a clash of old and new, with the new slowly gaining ground and the old slowly being relegated to the realm of tourist traps or curiosities. It's a saddening thing, all the more because it may be inevitable. Thanks for writing about it.

Robin said...

That was a wonderful post. (Just like all of your posts, might I add.) I can visualize it all.

We're going to China in November, and I can't wait to see stuff like that. My heart fills just thinking about it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife went to a school assembly in Wenatchee Washington back when she was in 4th grade. The guest speaker; Chief Dan George, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. She was completely impressed at seeing her first real live Native American in complete regalia... until one of the kids piped up and said: "He's not a real Indian, he's wearing sneakers"!

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- Thank you for saying that -- it's what keeps me going.

Tradition is great, but it really does get in the way of progress. You won't catch me in wooden shoes or nipping out for buffalo chips to light my fires, but I still get all wistful to see KFCs and gameboys all over the world.

Patrick -- Thank you very much!

Vijaya -- I can imagine that cell phones would be a lot more useful in the remote interior of India than they would in a place where transportation is complex and readily available. Still, it makes me sad. I am a real Luddite and resist most technological advances no matter how valuable I know they are...

Bish -- They are somewhat happily, if incongruously, married in Japan (and here too), but it still makes me feel wistful -- and it makes me smile. Technology has transformed he States over the past decades; in some countries the rise has been a lot sharper, resulting in these interesting clashes.

Charlie -- That's actually what I'm afraid of. Everyone talking like Valley girls or surfers, wearing the same clothes, eating MacDonalds' hamburgers and KFC, tearing out their olive orchards and orange groves (or whatever) and putting in strip malls. The Hollywoodification of the world, if you will. Shudder.

Debra -- I would have loved to see that! I love it that he had it set on 'vibrate' so as not to interrupt the ritual.

Elizabeth -- Actually, I love it too, for all that it makes me feel a little sad. I certainly don't begrudge anyone polio vaccinations, macadamized roads, or computers. (And no way would I hitch my wagon to a horse, get rid of my laptop, and go back to using quill and parchment.) But seeing strip malls go up where fields used to be, chock full of KFCs and MacDonalds' hamburgers, breaks my heart. I want all the advantages of modern culture, but none of the junk. And I don't think the two can be separated.

Postman -- Thank you for visiting and commenting.

Korea is a great example of this. When I first went there, in 1979, no one had washing machines in their homes. I knew women who wouldn't buy them -- they insisted that washing by hand was the only way to get clothes clean. I'm told that lots of people have washing machines now (I certainly do), and there are a lot of similar changes in people's lifestyles. It's great -- but crazy though it sounds, I know I will miss seeing women washing their clothes in the rivers the next time I go there.

Robin -- Thank you.

China -- you lucky woman! Come back and tell us all about it!

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- (Our posts crossed!)

Poor Chief Dan George: sneakers are SO COMFORTABLE, who wouldn't want to wear them?

My grandfather's claim to fame was meeting Chief Joseph (Nez Perce leader) and witnessing him being shown the first telegraph transmission in the area. Chief Joseph, he claimed, was very impressed. I can't help but wonder what he'd think of America today, though, and the changes technology has wrought.

MG Higgins said...

HA! That is hilarious!

There's something so sad about the passing of traditions. Yet inevitable.

Falak said...

India is one of the countries where you can find many hilarious examples of tradition and technology mixing!I had a neighbour who insisted on always wearing a saree since that is the traditional outfit but her shoes were always gucci!!!

Anne Spollen said...

It seems so incongruous, doesn't it? Sort of like technology has "contaminated" ancient ways.

On my daughter's third grade class trip, there were eight year olds calling their parents from their cell phones.

That's another mighty weird sight we're going to have to get used to.

To think we had to REMEMBER what we saw to tell our parents what went on at the zoo or the museum...

Kim Ayres said...

A couple of weeks ago, Prince Andrew came to do an Official Opening of the new primary school in Castle Douglas.

When I was at the optician's with Meg a few days later, he asked Meg if she'd since Prince Andrew. He then went on to say his own daughters had been there and had been quite taken aback to find he was "just a bloke in a suit!" Clearly they'd been expecting someone dressed like in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty with all the glittery accoutrements :)

Angela said...

Haha, love it. I guess he had Verizon wireless way out there in the middle of nowhere...

adrienne said...

Interesting post, because there are two ways of looking at it - you also have to wonder why we'd want to hang on to some of the old ways.
It is odd to see that kind of mix, though - it reminds me of watching a historical movie full of anachronisms.

Charles Gramlich said...

LOL. I believe it. Humans are amazingly adaptive to new technologies. Too bad their thinking is much more entrenched.

Mary Witzl said...

MG -- There is! I cling to the past. I feel like I'm missing out because things like black and white movies at old-fashioned movie theatres with organ players, going out to eat in diners, and ship voyages have become so rare. And here I sit clicking away on my laptop...

Falak -- Yes -- there are girls at my university who wear Gucci shoes and change back into their headscarves and overcoat-type things in the parking lot when they leave the campus. It's such an interesting mixture.

AnneS -- We were really something, weren't we -- such stoics! And our memories were phenomenal: once I fell down at school and grazed my knees and had to wait THREE WHOLE HOURS to tell my mother! And I was able to tell her all about the mummy at the museum SIX HOURS after I saw it. My kids thrill to hear my stories, but they can't quite believe it.

(Sad, isn't it?)

Kim -- You mean he DOESN'T wear sparkly stuff and go around sporting a crown? I knew I was missing out by not reading those tacky 'follow the Royals' magazines!

When I was eight, a British girl transferred to our school for a year. She had grown up in Africa and during show and tell, let us know that she and her parents had had tea with the queen. I was beyond disappointed to learn that the queen she was talking about wasn't African. SHE was disgusted that I didn't fall over myself with embarrassment to have gotten it wrong. Kids almost always manage to get the wrong end of the stick, don't they?

Angela -- Is that what it's called -- Verizon wireless? My God, I had no idea.

Actually, I'd make a great shepherd: I can invigilate in classes all day long and hardly get bored at all. I suspect that someone would have to teach me all about cell phones, though...

Adrienne -- You are right. Some of the old ways were just plain stupid, inconvenient AND dangerous/unhealthy/painful. You won't catch me pining for an open fire in my house, lugging all that wood in and all those ashes out, breathing in the wood smoke night and day. And I LOVE my modern plumbing and dentistry -- and the availability of things like epidurals. But when I look at California nowadays, I just want to cry. I miss the beautiful old buildings, the streetcars that used to make living in Southern California so convenient (and NOT smoggy), the orange groves that used to be everywhere, the lovely old houses with their Spanish tiles. And I hate strip malls like the devil.

Charles -- Boy, are you right. And how sad that technology has been embraced as a way to bully others and threaten countries who don't hold our political or spiritual beliefs.

Falak said...

Hi! I enjoyed reading your blog and really loved your style of writing.... Also noticed that you have been in the blogging buisness for quite some time now. Since you are a pro at this and I am only a novice I'd be really glad if you could drop by my blog when you find the time for it and tell me what you think of it... Your advice would be of great help... Hoping to hear from you...

Sang said...

There are traditional Korean shoes made of woven cords. These go with the traditional silk "hambok".

Long ago, before the invention of electronics, many Koreans switched over to mass-produced rubber versions of these shoes.

I'm sure when the sewing machine came along, the hamboks were made with these instead of hand-stitching.

Regardless, the traditions remain.

Lily Cate said...

Good post.
I remember on a drive home through the countryside a friend mentioned wistfully how much she'd like to live in the pioneer days, and see the frontier. I think everyone else in the car turned at the same time and said, "Are you out of your mind?" and then proceeded to list off all the things we loved about being modern and spoiled. Things like not dying of preventable illness, and being able to study and travel with ease. All good trade offs, I thought.

On one hand, things do change much quicker these days, and we are experiencing a wave of globalization which is great and terrible all at once.
On the other hand, I live emersed in a society that gets nostalgic for 10 years ago, leading to TV shows about how great the 90s were, and acts like the 50s and 60s were some mythical fairytale land of yore. We could use some tradition and history around here.

Falak said...

Thank you very much! It was really nice of you. I did reply...

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- (I'm really not a pro!) The best advice I can give you is to read A LOT, particularly of the genre you yourself want to write in, and while you read, remember what you like and what you don't. Also, accept praise grudgingly, but make full use of any negative criticism you get. The negative stuff is bitter, but in the long run it has more value.

Sang -- Thank you for commenting on my blog. You have a great blog, and I loved your last post.

I once had the experience of putting on a pair of traditional Dutch wooden shoes and trying to walk in them. It was like sticking my feet into a mangle. Silk cord is bound to be a big improvement over unyielding wood, but I can imagine that rubber soled shoes are heaven. Comfort trumps tradition every single time for me.

Lily -- We have a pretty rosy picture of the West, what with t.v. shows like Bonanza, Little House, etc. My grandparents were really old (late marriages run in my family for some reason) and remembered a lot about life on the frontier, including diphtheria outbreaks in which half their friends and relatives died, quack dentists, buffalo chip fires that smoked and stank, and having to eat brains beaten with scrambled eggs. What I'd like is to take a two-day trip back to the west, but enjoy the comforts and safety of the 21st century. Voila: a trip to Disneyland. Sigh...

Carrie Harris said...

I do a lot of Native American sweatlodges and ceremonies, and I have to tell you that there's nothing funnier than seeing a Ceremony Singer, painted in sacred clay, dressed in traditional garb from top to toe, with eagle feathers in his hair (or painted facimiles thereof, since plucking eagles is both stupid and illegal)... listening to an iPod.

After I laughed, I asked why, and he said simply that he listens to the songs as he sings them. Inspiration and accompaniment all at once. So I do think it can work, but it's tough, isn't it?

Kappa no He said...

I wish I could see have the things you have seen. What delightful images.

terrie

laura said...

Here in the states I lived very close to the Amish (no electricity, no zippers in their clothes...) who are known as plain people. Over 40 years ago the Amish girls were allowed out on Saturday nights and they immediately got a ride to a local dive bar where they shaved their legs and changed into hot pants. At the end of the night this ritual was reversed and home they went. Today most of the Amish have cell phones which of course need to be charged, and they get around the 'no electic' rule by having electric installed in outside sheds. Apparently this is ok since it's not in the home??!!
It will always astonish me how people work around the restrictions that their religions bestow upon them. I'm very thankful that I make my own rules!
(BTW if you have a ghost story, and I'm sure you do, I have a contest going on at my blog and I don't want you to get left out!)

Mary Witzl said...

Carrie -- I love that image! And it won't make me too miserable to think that the eagle feathers are just painted facsimilies; I'm new-fashioned in some respects. But come to think of it, what a great way to use technology: recording old, sacred songs.

Kappa -- Thank you for those kind words, but it's just age: live long enough and you get to see all sorts of things. You'll have accrued just as many interesting experiences by the time you're my age.

Laura -- That is so interesting! Here, there are girls who come to school in full cover and change into modern, uncovered young women in about thirty seconds. It is interesting to watch, but most of these girls are only changing because they are not allowed to attend university with their heads covered. This may change if Turkey loses its non-secular status, though.

I will get over to your blog as soon as I can: we have no internet connection at the moment, so it may take some time (I'm using the one at the school library.) I do have ghost stories, though -- please wait for me!