Wabi Sabi - a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight, to find beauty, even in imperfection.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Five Things I Learned About The Czech Republic

1) I probably should have known this, but I’ll admit, at the point in history when “Czechoslovakia” became the Czech Republic, I was not yet a “news junkie.” I didn’t pay attention to the news of the world, probably because my life was too full of taking care of my two young children, going to school and working. Therefore, before we planned this trip to Prague, I didn’t realize Czechoslovakia no longer existed, and that it is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

2) I’d always heard the term “Bohemian,” and perhaps even strived to be such a person — artistic, free-spirited, unconventional. Before we traveled to the Czech Republic, I didn’t know that Bohemia is a REAL place, the largest region in the Czech Republic. It consists of a central basin surrounded by mountain ranges. We visited Prague, which is in Central Bohemia, and Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, in South Bohemia.

3) In studying the history of the Czech Republic, I learned the meaning of two words I’d never heard before: defenestration and immolation.

Defenestration – the act of throwing a thing or person out of a window. The first “Prague Defenestration” occurred in 1419, when several Catholic councilors were thrown from the window of Prague’s New Town Hall during the reformation movement, which demanded the restraint of the church in state affairs. A second “Prague Defenestration” occurred in 1618, representatives of the non-Catholic Bohemian states threw two of Emperor Matthias’s emissaries out of a window at Prague Castle. It marked the beginning the The Thirty Years War, which lasted until 1648.

Immolation – the act of sacrifice, as if by fire. In 1969, twenty-year old Jan Palach burned himself to death to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops of the Warsaw Pact, by order of the Soviet Union. This invasion signaled the end of “Prague Spring,” and resulted in the return of orthodox Communists to power.

4) I learned the beloved Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” was based on Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, (907-935). He is the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic.

5) If I had been born in Czechoslovakia, I would have been two years old when the “Prague Spring” began. This was a reform movement within the Communist party which had taken over the country after the Red Army liberated Prague from the Nazis during World War II. I would have been ten years old when in August, 1968, the “Prague Spring” ended and the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to halt the period of political liberalization and return the country to orthodox Communism.

At the time of the Velvet Revolution, a non-violent uprising that began in November, 1989, I would have been thirty-one years old. By then, I had two children. One of our tour guides, who looked to be about the age of my children, told us that during the period from 1968 – 1989, parents told their children to “blend in. Don’t do anything to stand out.” I found this fascinating. I never thought of Communism in those terms – that it would change the whole way one might parent their children.

The young woman who was our tour guide (center in the picture below,) told us about the year she spent as an au pair in America. Though she was initially disappointed that the “American Dream” was not all she hoped it would be, she came away with a determination to speak her mind, to stand out, to be an individual.

This to me, was the most serendipitous lesson from my trip to the Czech Republic, because in learning about the history of this country, and in talking to people who had lived through Communism coming in and out of their country, I saw what we so often take for granted in America -- the freedom to stand out, and to be an individual --perhaps even Bohemian!

Rohwer Whispers

When I first started writing Broken Dolls, I wasn’t aware there had been two relocation centers in southeast Arkansas. This discovery added new layers to my story which follows the lives of a Japanese-American family from 1941 to 1968.

In November 2009, I decided to visit the site of one of the relocation centers, Rohwer. I began with an interview with the former mayor of McGehee, Arkansas, Rosalie Gould, an authority on the history of the Rohwer and Jerome Relocation Centers. She holds an extensive collection of artifacts from the camps and has maintained relationships with many former internees. She told me fascinating stories that were told to her by internees, and she shared her collection of photographs, artwork and essays. Her interview started my passage into the past and helped me to better understand what it meant to be a Japanese-American in the 1940’s.

But my real empathic journey began the following day, when I drove to the site of Rohwer Relocation Center. When I was a child, I’d visited Topaz, a relocation center in Utah where my mother spent three years of her childhood. As a little girl, I couldn’t grasp the concept of being “relocated.” In fact, I thought it would be an adventure to live in a desert camp named for the semiprecious stone found there, and I looked all over to see if I might find a jewel. But I saw my mother crying as she recollected her days in camp, and it made me queasy, but I didn’t understand why.

So, on that very warm day in November 2009, I hoped that as an adult, I might feel something deeper and come to a better understanding at the Arkansas site.

I left my hotel, and my gas gauge indicated I had approximately 1/8 tank of gas. I approached a gas station at the crossroad of US-65 and AR-1, where I would turn off the highway to get to Rohwer. I debated whether or not to stop. I pulled in and found the pumps were not auto-pay. Lazy and in a hurry, I didn’t want to take the time to go inside. So, convincing myself the site couldn’t be that far off US-65, I turned onto AR-1 and headed in the direction of Rohwer.

I drove and drove. And drove. Through acres and acres of cotton fields, still dotted with puffs of white. Through marshy patches of tall trees. All the while the gas gauge snuck toward “empty.” Surely I’d pass through a small town that would have a gas station. But what if I didn’t find one before I ran out of gas? There was hardly a house in sight. I really was out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.

As my heart beat nervously, I wondered when I would finally arrive at Rohwer. And would it be before I ran out of gas? Then, in the middle of my frustration and fear, an epiphany hit me. I realized my anxiety might be similar to what the Japanese-Americans felt as they were being relocated from California to Rohwer, Arkansas.

Such a strange-looking land. So hot and humid. In-the-middle-of-nowhere.

The “low gas” warning light flashed on, feeding my fear of the fast-approaching empty tank. But I immersed myself in that fear and apprehension and imagined being on the train that brought the internees from California almost seventy years before.

When will we be there? What will Rohwer look like? Will there be armed guards and barbed wire, like at the last camp?

In the distance, I saw a couple of buildings, perhaps a town?

Please have a gas station.

My heart pounded.

How much farther to Rohwer? Why aren’t there any mileage markers? What if I’m not going the right direction? Please have a gas station.

There it was. A tiny station in a tiny town. Though it was not an automatic pump, I counted my blessings and proceeded inside to pay. I interrupted the conversation of two young girls behind the counter and an awkward silence followed. One girl glared at me while the other took my credit card, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wondered why. Was it because I wasn’t from “around these parts?” Still engaged in imagining the feelings of an internee, I even wondered if it was because I am half-Japanese, so close to Rohwer. I finally decided it was probably because I’d cut short the gossip of two teenage girls.

Finally, a couple of miles farther down the road, I saw the sign for Rohwer. I turned right onto a gravel road and crossed the railroad tracks on which the internees would have arrived. I got out of the car and stared down the long, lonely track. I turned 360°. A small swamp. Cotton fields. Tall, shrubby trees. Arkansas Highway 1, Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial monuments.

The tarpaper barracks that housed almost 12,000 Japanese-Americans from September 18, 1942 to November 30, 1945 were gone. All that was left was a group of monuments that stood in a grove of trees in the middle of a cotton field, and a tiny cemetery of internees who had died while in camp. I felt lonely and sad, but at the same time grateful, to be the only visitor at the small site.

Swatting mosquitoes away from my face, I closed my eyes, and imagined getting off the train after a four-day ride from California. Being half-Japanese, if I had been alive during that time, I too would have been sent to a relocation center.

The wind whispered in my ear as I walked around the site looking for any memento that might tell me a secret of the camp. A lost trinket. A carving in a tree. A name I might recognize on a headstone.

At last, Sachi, the young girl in my book, whispered a secret to me that changed my story in Broken Dolls. Sachi has become a part of me, and every page I write is a visit with her. One day, when my book is finished, I’ll miss her.

As I prepared to leave Rohwer, I wanted to leave my own monument to the internees. I searched for something special, but the area was barren. Gravel crackled with every step I took in my search. Rocks! That would be my monument. I stacked several and left them as my personal monument to the Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes in California and brought to Rohwer, Arkansas.


Then, I drove away with the secrets I’d learned.

Poverty and Nimiety

Pov-er-ty – deficiency; insufficiency.
Ni-mi-e-ty – excess; overabundance.
Compared to millions of people in India, we in America have good and easy lives. Recently, I sat in a comfortable tour bus, where from my window I watched masses of poor, even homeless men, women and children. Many times I turned away because a particular scene filled me with pity, helplessness, anger, even guilt that I watched them from the relative luxury of an incongruous tour bus.

But by journey’s end, I’d begun to wonder. There are all kinds of poverty, and who was poorer—the people of India, or those of us who live our good and easy lives?

Day after day, my bus window was filled with images of thousands of people lingering along garbage-filled streets. Stray dogs sniffed the ground, desperate for any morsel. Cows strutted royally, weaving in and out of traffic at will. Pigs foraged piles of garbage, perpetual smiles on their faces.

I wanted to go home. I missed my well-ordered, sanitary world. My well-fed dogs. I turned away from the window—the outside world, too foreign to me.

But I began to zoom in on the small scenes within the larger scene—the countless conversations taking place between men; women whispering secrets to each other as they walked together; children chasing down the street, laughing along the way.

Many areas had central water pumps where women gathered to collect water in large urns. The beautiful colors of their saris were as bright as spring flowers on a tundra, a rainbow against the gray ugliness that surrounded them. They chatted and giggled as they moved the pump handle up and down to fill the urns. Once full, they placed the urns atop their heads and carried the water away, slow and graceful, their saris flowing like clouds around them.

I thought about the role of water in my own life—about the times I’ve complained about the limitations of living on a farm with a well—no lingering hot showers, no watering flowers. I admired the grace of the women, not only in the way they moved, but in the pleasure they found in performing a chore.

Another scene-within-a-scene was the central bathing area. It consisted of a large concrete tank filled with water—green-tinted water. Even in the near-freezing temperatures of the northern cities—New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra—men and boys gathered around, naked but for scant underpants and a smile. They joked and teased as they soaped themselves.

The voice of one of my fellow passengers provided a whiney soundtrack to the scene I watched. “It’s cold in here. Can’t you turn the temperature up?”

I smiled at the bathers outside, who laughed and cajoled as they splashed each other with water.

Night brought darkness and a change of scene. As the sun set, lean-tos sprang up along the broken walls of the city. One-by-one, the residents of these temporary villages lit campfires, using garbage for fuel. Women stirred the scant evening meal in small pots over the fires, their saris glittering in the flickering light.

“I sure hope we don’t have chicken for dinner again tonight,” a woman on the bus complained as we headed for the hotel. Guilt dampened my own hunger pangs. I too had been looking forward to a “good steak” upon returning home.

When the last warmth of sunlight had disappeared, orange flames dotted the sidewalks and streets like twinkling lights on a tree. Children chased each other, weaving around the campfires and stopping at times to warm their hands. Hunched around other flames, men talked, their faces expressive, hands animated.

Some did not have a fire to keep them warm, and they hunkered close to the wall, under dirty blankets, tarps, garbage—whatever was available to use as cover.

Many of us had complained that day about the hard beds we’d slept on the night before.

I thought about what I would be doing at home as the sun set. Flip on the news. Turn on the computer. Check my email. See who’s on Facebook. Gripe about the slow internet.

Each day, I looked forward to watching the children of India play. As with the adults, Indian children spend most of their daylight hours outside. Without electricity, it is dark inside the houses. And without electricity, there are no televisions. So, the children run, play with each other, ride bikes, build forts, create games with sticks, stones, garbage.

I couldn’t help but reflect on commercials that had played during the Christmas season, where kids recited their lists to Santa Claus:

“I want a Nintendo Wii with a Modern Warfare game module.”

“Can I have a new I-Pod Touch? Sherri got a new pink one, and besides, my old one has run out of memory.”

“Can I have a digital camera? Make sure it has at least ten megapixels.”

“Oh, please—I just have to have a Hannah Montana doll!”

I considered the chasm of wealth between our cultures, both material and spiritual. Yet, I was still overwhelmed by the primitive, sparse living conditions that surrounded me. I’ll admit, I was often happy to be on the bus, secluded from that world. But beyond the deficiency of wealth, in the people of India I found a richness of spirit I believe is often missing in our good and easy lives, as we pursue excessive abundance.

One day, I watched a woman sitting next to a man I assumed was her husband, as he laid stones in a sidewalk he was repairing. She looked fragile, and all but her eyes were hidden behind a dingy veil. Her eyes were dark and hard, almost angry. I stared at her, imagining stories about her life. I surmised so many different tales, but each had the same conclusion—she’d live unhappily ever after with her difficult lot in life.

For a brief moment, our gazes met.

Though a bit intimidated by her eyes and uncomfortable being an American who watched her from a window on a tour bus, I waved at her. And smiled.

Her eyes brightened. She removed the veil from her face and smiled the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.

She tapped her husband on his back, and he turned to look at me, too. The tired lines on his face disappeared and he, too, smiled and waved at me.

We shared a tiny moment of happiness, and it transcended poverty and wealth.

No, I wouldn’t trade my life for any of the lives I witnessed in India. Many times, I counted my blessings for being born in America, and for the opportunities I’ve been given. But I also realized that often, we pursue those opportunities too-focused, like a horse with blinders, we gallop toward what we consider a better life. And we pass right by the simple pleasures in life. A warm conversation. A good laugh. A chance to play. A smile shared with a stranger.