Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Month Long Trip to Kunming

Old timers may recall the 700 mile (1150 kilometers) long Sino-Burmese Road used during World War II, a vital transportation route for wartime supplies to China. The Road runs through the mountains from Lashio, Myanmar and ending in Kunming. Today, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province (similar in size to California), is getting popular as the marathoners' training base and as the venue of the international horticultural exhibitions. Population of 30 million people includes members of 24 different ethnic groups, which represents a third of the total population in the province. This diversity is also a draw to visitors. There are a couple of theme parks featuring ethic villages.

Kunming, Shilin, Dali, Er-hai. How lovely their names sound! I yearn to go back. That's where I spent my second summer (1995) after returning to Japan from the U.S. when I retired. The general altitude is about 2000 meters (Approx. 6000 ft), so they are great summer retreats from the heat, even though bordering Laos and Myanmar in the south.

It was during one of my regular commuting flights between the U.S. and Japan that I first heard the name Kunming. The guy who sat next to me was a tall, rugged looking American. He unloaded his backpack before settling down in his seat. I asked him how he found the Japanese Alps. His answer surprised me. "I didn't climb Japan's Alps. I did the Chinese mountains." I continued, "How interesting! Where were you? Which part of China interested you most?" He replied, "Kunming in Yunnan, the city of eternal spring". The name stuck with me.

Later on, I made friends with a Japanese woman who had been to Kunming. She told me that Kunming and its backwoods are just paradise, and that you see exotic butterflies there that continually reflect various colors. She kept sending me articles on Yunnan even after I left for Japan. Then she sent an email about a special tour sponsored by the University of Vermont. I emailed the tour contact person and asked if I could join from Japan. I got the answer that the tour was for U.S. teachers to learn about China, but they could bend the rules. I jumped at the chance!

Vermont and Yunnan are in a sister state relationship and they have been exchanging teachers to learn about each other's cultures. It was at a hotel near Beijing Airport where I was introduced to the members of the group. There were four men and ten women, mostly from Vermont. The exceptions were a man from Connecticut, who became my roommate, and a woman from New Hampshire.

The Yunnan College of Teachers, our host school, had a welcome ceremony and dinner reception on the first day, attended by the College President, the faculty who would teach us various subjects of study for the next three weeks, the corps of interpreters, and staff members in charge of taking care of us, including a microbus chauffeur. That is how the three week "daily routine" project began.

Mornings were for Tai-chi exercise on the rooftop before breakfast and an easy Chinese lesson by Mrs. Wang, plus culture and art class (subject changed daily: calligraphy, brush painting, history, etc). Afternoons were for the extra-curricular programs such as visits to the children's palace (musical training for talented children), a hospital of Chinese medicine and acupuncture, Provincial museum and exhibits and temples in the city (including Yuantong-si, Xishan). Dr. Wu, a young assistant professor who specialized in minority races, accompanied us the whole time for the afternoon projects and he spoke excellent English. One evening he surprised us by taking us to his own apartment. He shared a one room apartment with his wife and a daughter 5 years of age. One curtain separated their bedroom from the others. We found out that other teachers and the chauffeur were living in the same apartment complex. The University operated like a big enterprise with hotels, restaurants, apartments and transportation.

Two weekends were for longer trips. One weekend we took a train to Lunnan Shilin, a geological phenomenon known as a stone forest. It is composed of closely knit outcrops of dark limestone karst. It was such a wide expanse of stone forest that you could easily get lost. Another weekend our chauffeur drove close to 10 hours (on a highway under construction) to reach Er-hai, one of the big inland lakes, famous for its pu-er tea. Rough weather made the lake a wild ocean with choppy waves and we had to wait to cross in order to visit a small minority group (subculture) village.

Our conversation with the villagers, including the village master, was the highlight of the entire trip. They live in their traditional homes on the slope of a hill with narrow roads of crushed rock. They were not bashful and very talkative yet modest. Many children gathered around us. Some female teachers had brought souvenirs for the smaller children and they cheered.

During our stay in Kunming we met a number of different minority groups: Na-Shi zu, Tai zu, Yi zu, Pai-zu, etc. Pai (white) zu did not look Chinese at all. They get special scholarships from the government and are allowed to bear up to three children.

Graduation, or the farewell ceremony, was held over dinner. Each member received a certificate, and a seal that was engraved with our names in Chinese characters.

We flew back to Beijing for one more week at another university hotel. A representative from the Chinese Cultural and Educational Exchange Bureau accompanied us on a city tour as well as a one day excursion to The Great Wall. Since the group was eating only Chinese meals throughout the visit, everyone wanted an American breakfast, but they were disappointed with the quality of it. I enjoyed the Chinese dishes during the trip. My favorite was rice porridge for breakfast.

The month long trip ended at Beijing Airport, where I said goodbye to my schoolmate teachers, and promised to correspond over the Internet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Asian Literature by Women

The Japanese view recent Thailand floods as if it happened in our own country. We see hundreds of Japanese manufacturing plants submerged under water, causing severe supply chain shortages in key electronic/automotive/medical industries. It invokes the same feeling as the Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami disaster that hit Japan this past March. It’s unbearable to see Thai priests working hard with sandbags in the water. We sincerely pray for an early relief.

I saw a dozen books of Asian women literature on the shelf of the Kitakyushu University Library I often visit. They look very different because of their non-commercial style binding, no fancy artwork or book belts around them. All the books acknowledge that the translation, printing and free distribution to educational institutions was made possible by the generous contribution of the Daido Life Foundation. I looked up the Daido Life Web page which said the foundation was established in 1985 as its 80th anniversary project to promote international understanding and to bridge the language barrier between Asian nations and Japan. Translations were done both ways. The books I saw were the Japanese translations from Tagalog, Malay, Thai and Burmese. Now, for its 100th anniversary event, Daido’s project has entered its second phase by moving into construction of school facilities. In Thailand, for instance, 16 schools were built in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc. by mid-2000 and the effort is going strong.

One book that stood out for me was a book titled “When Sarapi Flowers Bloom” written by Suwannee Sukonthiang (1932-1984), a Thai woman of my generation. The translator is Mineko Yoshioka, who taught at the Bangkok Japanese Language School (1981-83) and is now a lecturer at Tenri University in Nara.

The author Suwannee was born in Bangkok but at the age of 11 she moved to Phitsanulok Province, about 400 km north of Bangkok as her father had to serve as the village doctor. Phitsanulok is a midpoint between Bangkok and northern Thailand, surrounded by several National Parks. The village must be a pretty place. Suwannee wrote in her message to the Japanese readers that she would not have been a writer if she was not raised in Phitsanulok. Her family kept a number of livestock and she dearly cherished memories of a horse named Kee-oo.

That is the horse her father had to ride to visit patients’ homes. She was very attached to him. She fed him, played with him in the stables, and took him out to nearby pastures. She could never have imagined being apart. The horse had to be offered to the Japanese army.

The following is a partial translation from the book:

As the war spread, news came that Japanese soldiers landed. First a glimpse of them but soon we began to see them everywhere we went. They were deep in our turf. I knew some Japanese - “Arigato”, “Banzai” and Konnichiwa”. I learned more Japanese and those words still come to the tip of my tongue even now. The Japanese were inside coconut palm orchards, vegetable farms, and when the village was fully filled with the Japanese, my father moved Kee-oo to outside the village. The Japanese bought up bamboos to make beds, set up bivouac camps, like neighbors. Rumors ran that the Japanese buy up horse as they needed horses to transport military supplies to Mae Sot, by the Thai-Burmese border, with no other way to do so in those days. They said they would buy but we Thais knew it was mandatory and we were unable to oppose… Kee-oo was no exception. Most Japanese soldiers behaved, were disciplined, frugal as well as friendly. They excited us children greatly with the conversation mostly through body and hand gestures. We liked them.

Then one day march began. Horses and soldiers marched westward with many troops and in long lines. Marches, however, seemed lackadaisical and cheerless. Perhaps soldiers were weary away from home and families for many years with no ceasing sign of war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers marched on and disappeared. I was there on and along the roadside eager to catch a glimpse of Kee-oo. And luckily, I found him among the herds. How could I not recognize him? Alas, he was overloaded and weighed down with things. The luster of his hair under our care was gone. I screamed “Kee-oo!” and ran to him. A couple of bearded soldiers looked back at me. Kee-oo shook his tail towards me as he always did to me and I took it as his good-bye.“Kee-oo!” I shouted again in my quivering voice with sobs and tears.

l) Sarapi is a species of flowering plant in the calophyllaceae family. “Mammea Siamensis or Ochrocarpus Siamensis” bearing sweet scented, jasmine-like flowers.

Known in Thai as “Sarapi,” it is a small evergreen tree distributed in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. The flowers of this plant have been used in traditional Thailand medicine as a heart tonic. Investigations of different parts of the plant have revealed the presence of several coumarins and xanthones.
(Source: The Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society, Vol. 18, No. 5, 2007)

2) County of “Sarapi” is in Chiang Mai Province. Chiang Mai is known as the rose of the North.

3) Mae Sot
Thailand and Myanmar are attempting to establish relations. The Friendship Bridge) connects the two countries across the Moei River.

4) The Bridge over River Kwai, known as the Death Railway Bridge during Word War II, is near Kanchanaburi, 130km west of Bangkok.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cover Girl

My June blog post Ultimate Champions described my granddaughter Alina who was on the University of California, Santa Barbara team that won the North American Collegiate Ultimate Frisbee Championship.

CARAMBA Y SORPRESIVA, Alina appeared on the cover of the USA Ultimate Official Magazine of Fall 2011! Please see the photo. Actually it is on the back cover but equally awesome as on the front. The families are thrilled and proud to see her as the cover girl.

The Nadeshiko Japan women soccer captain Homare Sawa was among the honorable guests this month at the Akasaka Garden in central Tokyo to meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Also accompanying her was her coach Norio Sasaki and Kyushu native Sumo Ozeki Champ Kaio, who retired recently. Homare was clad in a light blue “Furisode” formal Kimono. By analogy, I likewise picked Alina’s photo in her formal dress in order to show how happy and proud this grandpa is!