After several months in Tokyo, my wife Linda had been invited to give a series of lectures on intercultural communication in Doshisha University in Kyoto. We took the Shinkansen, a sleek, refined bullet train, and we were discussing yet again the concept of shikata, the Japanese forms and protocols for doing things. That’s the usual translation, but in Japan it means much more than that; it has an almost-spiritual connotation of social harmony. It’s the relationship between you and interactions with your social context. One of the key characteristics of shikata is that the society has agreed on what the appropriate form is. During the entire time we were in Japan we constantly discussed shikata.
Our current conversation came to pause. I instantly recalled two incidents in my life.
When I was about 5, my father was the CFO of the Beijing-Wuhan railroad. He took me to the yard, where I learned how to identify locomotives by the set of their wheels. It was such a simple, straightforward way to identify a powerful piece of machinery. The trains exposed all their moving parts, especially the old-fashioned locomotive engine, all oil and tar, belching steam. The wheels, the pushing arms were all there for anyone to see. It fascinated me.
Then, some 15 years later and half a world away, I was in a train on my way to Paris from Florence, running through the Alps. I knew the steward would come to announce the dinner served in the dining car. In the meantime, with the droning of the train in the background, alone in the compartment, I began to examine the years I had spent in Hong Kong.
After 1949, my family and I left China and joined the refugee community in Hong Kong. I was more or less on my own, struggling to survive—not only trying to make a living, but also trying to get myself educated. Formal education was sporadic with odd jobs in between. I worked part-time in Mr. Gu’s antique shop; formerly, he had been my father’s dealer. The shop, located half-way up the mountain in Hong Kong, was where I learned how to recognise the authentic antique objects of quality. He also taught me how to recognise fakes.
Other times, I worked in a men’s tailor shop. Due to my English, although limited, I could help out with foreign tourists who were shopping for 24-hour suits. There I made friends with the chief cutter. I learned various qualities of textiles and how to appreciate good cutting and sewing.
At night, I usually attended some lectures and seminars given by former professors who had also left China, who made up an informal, underground “academy” of higher education. Then, in the past two years, I had managed to attend night classes at a small private college to study engineering.
In 1954, with the help of a friend, I managed to obtain a scholarship to study abroad. Now I was on my way from Hong Kong to Canada to study. My friend from my school days had arranged it. His name was Shi Dong. Shi Dong had given himself the English mononym of Stone. He worked in his father’s travel agency, and he had spent many hours searching economical routes with the most value for me to go from Hong Kong to Canada. Then he and I persuaded my parents that I should go west to my destination, rather than east, arguing that a trip to Europe would increase my knowledge and enhance my ability to be successful in Canada. I would also be able to retrace my grandfather’s travel 70 years earlier.
As it worked out, my path never did cross my grandfather’s, but my parents were convinced. That was how I came to be sitting in the train compartment in the Alps, looking out into the night.
At a knock on my compartment door, the steward announced dinner in French, English, and Italian. I put on my tie and blazer, which was a gift from my friend the chief cutter. The dining car was not as one might picture from the Orient Express, but rather functional-modern in design. Tables for two on one side and tables for four on the other side. I was seated at a two-person table where a middle-aged woman was already sitting facing forward. I assumed she was French. She looked up and gave me a pleasant smile. I mumbled a greeting in my very limited French: “Bonsoir.”
When I sat down, I could see both surprise and curiosity in her eyes. All my life, people have assumed that I am younger than my actual age. My appearance suggested I was about 16, not 22, and I could tell she thought I was an Asian schoolboy, improbably travelling on his own. My English was mostly self-taught—movies, detective novels, very limited encounters with native English speakers—and my French was merely a few phrases from travel books. A lengthy conversation was out of the question. But we began near one-word exchanges.
“Yes, to Canada.”
“Paris, Le Havre, Liverpool, Quebec.”
“Architecture.” Long pause.
“Le Corbusier.” Another pause.
“From China. 1949.” Long pause.
During our conversation, I had an opportunity to observe her. I couldn’t tell her age, but she was not young. She wore a very well-tailored light wool suit, and I assumed it was a pre-war fashion: worn but well-kept. The blouse was good silk, what we called Shandong silk, heavy and pure. The colour was distinctive: a slightly yellow tint. She smiled and then appeared to be deep in thought.
I realised the purpose of the simple conversation was to collect pieces of tesserae, like a Roman artist making a mosaic floor for a grand villa to form patterns and portraits of gods. In her mind, she was using those single words as tesserae to form a complete narrative.
The meal ended with a small piece of cake, and then a bowl of fruit was presented. She selected a banana with her fork and placed it on her plate. With a sharp fruit knife, she sliced the banana horizontally into two halves, one on top of the other. Flipping the top half, she exposed the flesh. Then she used the fruit knife to slice the first half into sections without cutting the skin. She proceeded to eat the whole banana with her fork.
I was totally engrossed in this performance, carried out with such a refined and elegant manner. Then she stood up, indicating she was going back to her compartment. I stood and said, “Good night.” She wished me good luck.
My second experience was actually earlier. In the 1930s, my great-aunt on my mother’s side came to visit us in Wuhan. She always came in autumn, the high season of crab-eating. My great-aunt lived in Shanghai, in a villa in the French Concession. She was born in the Qing dynasty and had some sort of title. In the late afternoons, my mother would arrange for small tables and one chair to be set in the garden terrace that was lined with many potted chrysanthemums of various colours. My great-aunt would sit in the chair. My mother would hover. A plate of three steamed whole crabs, orange in colour, would be brought. Her maid, standing behind her, would set before her a small rosewood box with ivory inlay, and my great-aunt would open the box and take out various silver instruments with ivory handles—nutcracker-shaped, some small spoons, some digging and extracting instruments, and tweezers. A chilled rice wine would be poured, and my great-aunt alone would proceed carefully and deliberately to eat every morsel of the crabs. When she had finished her first crab, she would re-assemble it in its original form on the plate. Then, with another plate, she took on the second one, and then the third. When all had been finished, the maid presented a bowl of lukewarm water in which chrysanthemum leaves and flowers floated, and my great-aunt proceeded to wash her fingers, rubbing the leaves, to get rid of the smell of the crab. I was usually sitting on one of the drum-shaped ceramic stools, with my nanny, mesmerized. I think my great-aunt was fond of me, because every time she would ask me a question, I would jump to my feet to answer, and she thought that quite appropriate. So she had granted me permission to sit on the stool to watch.
On the train, Linda has been insisting that kata, the form in behaviour, is social lubrication, smoothing the interactions with other people to achieve the ultimate aim: harmony between people. But as I think about the two instances in which I observed women eating something special with exquisite and elegant manners, it seems to me the behaviours went beyond the social requirements of shikata. I alone was the witness to each woman’s display of form in eating a rare treat. It seemed to me that each of the two incidents demonstrated satisfaction for self, beyond any social interaction, in order to achieve supreme enjoyment.
Then I began to speculate, “Could this be a metaphor for refinement in aesthetic expression?”