Different but the same

Xi’an, China

       While travelling, I often reflect on cultural differences. I like to observe people, trying to understand, how their culture differs from mine. In China, I have enjoyed looking at how people interact, how people observe foreigners, how they eat, what they eat, what they do while riding the subway. These small details allow me to piece up together a greater and more accurate image of how Chinese live.

Xi’An’s wild goose pagoda

We travelled to Xi’an this weekend. Often considered the cultural center of China, it is the home of the Terracotta warrior, an entire army of soldiers that were buried along the side of Emperor Qing, amongst many other famous 名胜古同, historical sites。In my country, France, we treasure our cultural tradition to the extent that cities have done everything possible to maintain the cultural identity and historical tradition in every city. China does not have the same desire for authenticity. It is quite the opposite actually. Even though Xi’an is a very renowned city in China with constant flows of visitors, the city’s charm is far from being comparable to a European city. Most buildings are from the 70’s, the colors have started to fade and they are cramped together. I know the purpose is to create a new, 现代化, modern city, where the 8.06 million people can live and work. Beyond the modern appearance of the city, which, is far from the small provincial town I imagined before arriving in Xi’an, the city holds many treasures of old dynasties. When I talked to a local, on Thursday night, I realized people take great pride of living in this city. They like it for its safety, the old architecture and the tourists. The guy I was talking had great pride in his cultural cultural heritage. I was surprised nonetheless when he explained to me destroying smaller districts to ensure the growth of Xi’an was a good thing. It was very interesting to see his point of view when, for me, destroying historical districts to build modern buildings breaks my heart.

Wish tree

Within the large differences between Western cultures and Chinese cultures, Xian also showed me that we all share deep similarities. On Friday, we visited beautiful palace. While wondering around, I stumbled upon a wish tree, beautiful, with red charms hanging from all the branches, bringing them down with the weight. Magical, truly. Some charms had little bells attached to them. The bells were ringing as the wind was blowing through them. It was peaceful and soothing. I started looking at some of the wishes written on the charms. One of them particularly attracted my gaze, “我希望我和你在一起”.


It was very simple, the words said, “I hope we stay together”. Others wished for luck, happiness, health of themselves and, most importantly, their loved ones. I can’t specifically explain why but it resonated with me. And I thought it was beautiful to see so many charms from very different people wished for something as simple happiness and health. It goes to show, that no matter our cultural differences, humanity shares a similar hope. We all have different ways of attaining it but remembering the essence of our lives is the same should help us be closer.

ICU Cultural Activities

And we’re back with another (hopefully) informative blog post! As promised, I’ll be discussing three experiences with traditional Japanese culture. I visited a Zen Buddhist temple and learned a little bit of calligraphy thanks to the hard work of the ICU staff. Afterwards, I had the chance to buy myself a yukata and put it on for a festival in Asakusa. All three experiences were very enlightening in their own way, though the third had its difficulties. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.

Sakae Miayama Temple

The entrance to Sakae Miyama Temple

My first cultural excursion was a trip to Sakae Miyama Konanin to learn about Zen Buddhism.

When we entered we were met with temple staff (one of which was an ICU alumnus) and the head priest who currently oversees the temple as the 29th member of the temple’s lineage of priests. My first impression of him in his ceremonial robes was, of course, that he was about as traditionally Japanese as a person could be. He was exactly what you would expect a Buddhist priest to look like from the rounded spectacles on his face down to his sandals. All of the staff members spoke primarily Japanese, but the ICU alumnus and our guide, Asaoka-sensei, translated nearly all of the information given to us.

A glimpse of the ornate decorations in the main ceremonial chamber

The monks of the temple where kind enough to offer more than a simple tour of the temple. They also introduced us to Zen philosophy, history, ceremonial traditions, meditation techniques, and etiquette. We were essentially treated to a crash course for Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately due to temporal distance and losing my informational booklet on the train, I’ve forgotten the finer points of our history lesson. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to recount what I learned before getting into the more practical experience.

My general take away from our lesson on Zen philosophy was mindfulness, efficiency, and unity. In the sect of Zen Buddhism the temple adhered to (whose name I have forgotten entirely) many aspects of one’s daily life are regimented in order to be as efficient as possible without indulging in excess or wastefulness. The methods that one uses for daily life also imbue a sense of connection and equality with those around them. This was most easily demonstrated to us through Zen dining etiquette.

A humble vegetarian meal served to us at the temple

There are well defined and rather strict rules regarding how to eat in the temple. In the picture above you can see a spoon, a pair of chopsticks, a cloth, a stick, and bowls of varying sizes. All of these items with the exception of the plate of fruit and bowl underneath it come in a compact package. The bowls come stacked together with the utensils and cloths wrapped on top in a specific manner. You unwrap things in a certain order. You set your table in a certain order. You put everything in a certain place. Each item has an express, single purpose. Once you have finished eating, you put things back in a certain order. All of this is to ensure efficiency. The method we were taught is intended to be the most streamlined way to eat that wastes no time, effort, or food.

On top of these strict set of rules is behavioral etiquette. Whenever you eat you have to be sure to avoid pointing your utensils away from yourself. Always bring your food inward. There is no speaking during meal time. Other monks of the temple will pass by and bring each food item in pots and buckets and dispense them to you. Rather than verbally telling them to stop, there are certain hand gestures you can use. Whenever the servers arrive or leave, you both bow to one another. Each of these points is meant to teach you to be mindful of yourself and to respect those around you. You are all equal in sharing a meal, an essential part of life itself. No one is above the other, and the self should be diminished in favor of honoring and maintaining a harmonious collective.

Pretty heavy stuff for dinner, I know. It sounds a lot better coming from a Buddhist priest speaking Japanese.


A pillar at the entrance of the temple

Dining etiquette was what we spent the most time on for the reasons I mentioned above. It was an efficient way to teach us fundamental facets of Zen Buddhism. Of course, we also meditated. We were taught the proper posture, but there was much less time spent on teaching meditation techniques. I enjoyed the silent, serene atmosphere set by wonderful incense and an opening chant. I honestly just daydreamed the entire time, so there isn’t much to say about this part of the experience.

After dinner and meditation, we ended the session with a casual tea ceremony. One of my favorite parts of this experience was the head priest. He was a very approachable and funny 70 year old man who didn’t look a day over 50. You could tell that he enjoyed teaching his philosophy to inquisitive foreigners, and he did his best to use simple Japanese and even English at times. He was adamant about etiquette without being too austere in correcting mistakes. I enjoyed having him as our teacher for the evening.


Tools for calligraphy practice

Calligraphy is a Japanese art that was adopted from China centuries ago. In modern Japan it is a cultural practice only used on special occasions such as New Years greetings and signing into a wedding ceremony. It’s an art not many people are adept at, but all Japanese students who attend middle school have at least a few classes in calligraphy. Most Japanese people don’t study calligraphy beyond that, but others choose to continue studying while some become so adept that they make a living from it.

Our quick introduction to calligraphy didn’t give anyone enough experience to call themselves masters, but it was fun nonetheless. I always thought calligraphy of any type was incredible but probably not too difficult to pick up. I was so very wrong. Calligraphy really is an art. It’s easy for me to write legibly in Japanese. It’s not even all that hard to have good looking handwriting. However, there are rules to calligraphy. The brush was surprisingly difficult to handle, and producing the shapes you want was much harder with ink that I anticipated.

A picture detailing the various strokes in Japanese writing

Calligraphy in Japanese and Chinese demands a few things: symmetry, proper proportions, and recognizable strokes. Everyone has their own style, to some extent, but certain techniques have to be mastered by all who have set their minds to learning the art. These techniques aren’t too hard to accomplish with a pen and paper, but it becomes far more nuanced and difficult to accomplish with a brush.

My classmates and I practiced the basic strokes and then chose a single kanji (a written symbol with its own meaning) to write on our own. During this process the previously mentioned Asaoka-sensei, a nearly professional-grade calligrapher, was teaching us. Before I attempted to draw my chosen kanji, I asked Asaoka-sensei to draw me a model.

The template kanji created by my teacher

I chose the kanji depicted on the right “kuro,” meaning black. I rather like the look of kuro, but I chose it because I figured the straight lines would be easier to write. I was right for the most part, but the edges of the lines are what were difficult to reproduce. You can see that Asaoka-sensei’s work is tapered with rounded ends. The strokes are also very smooth. My attempt was… Less elegant in comparison.


My attempt at calligraphy on traditional rice paper

So if we were to critique my work, the first noticeable problem is with symmetry. The kanji isn’t in the center of the paper. The proportions of box at the top of the symbol are a bit off as they should be more tapered. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you all the critical scrutiny. All this is to say that calligraphy is something that is mastered through mindfulness and practice. If given more time and the resources, I would love to continue learning in whatever free time I could muster.

Wearing a Yukata

A short, simplified tutorial on how to put on a yukata

A yukata is a simpler, summertime kimono typically made of more breathable cloth. In modern Japan yukata are worn to summer festivals and other special occasions. Though yukata have less layers than kimono, they still have multiple pieces to them. There is the yukata itself which is the robe-like dress, strings to tie things in place, a decorative sash laid over the strings called an obi, and, typically, traditional shoes called geta. I managed to find my yukata and obi for a very reasonable price, but my feet are a bit too large to fit into geta. Large footed foreigners beware.

Yukata and accessories
The back of the ensemble. The bow came pre-made

Disappointing shoe sizes aside, putting on my yukata went quite well. I managed to do so on my own, and I think it turned out quite well. The sandals I brought with me looked good enough with the ensemble, and I found out that it’s fairly common for Japanese men and women to were western sandals to festivals.

My friends and I attempted to go to a fireworks festival in Asakusa while in our yukata. Unfortunately, it rained. Heavily. And because the festival is so very popular, it was incredibly crowded. I don’t think I can accurately put into words exactly how crowded it was. Saying that people were packed together like sardines doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that something around a million people were gathered in a single section of the city doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that there were police officers directing pedestrian traffic and taping off certain paths while occasionally pushing people into place doesn’t do the situation justice. It was…  A lot to handle in an outfit that restricts your movement a fair amount.

I could lament further, but I think you all get the point. While the festival was a bust, wearing a yukata for the day was actually really fun. The fabric is very breathable, so even though I had an outfit on underneath I never got too hot. It also dries very quickly, which was wonderful consolation prize after we escaped Asakusa. Despite it’s someone restrictive nature and the unfortunate circumstances that occurred while I was wearing it, I became so enamored with my yukata that I have felt the urge to buy myself another ever since. If I had space in my luggage, I would definitely have picked up another. They’re simply beautiful.

Next Time

Each cultural experience was honestly amazing to me. I know this post drags on a bit since I rambled on about each one, but I think that simply reflects how exciting each moment was. I hope my enthusiasm came across in my description of each event.

But enough about that. On to the next thing. I plan to use my next two posts to give some impressions I’ve developed about Tokyo as time has gone on. The topics will be a bit scattered, so I can’t really think of a good way to summarize them at the moment. Still, look forward to the next rambling post I come up with.


Top 5 Things I’ve Learned – Culture

Every weekday, we get the opportunity to practice our Chinese one-one-one for nearly an hour with one of our instructors. These sessions are very informal, and while they are meant to reinforce the grammar and vocabulary we have learned that day, they often turn into interesting conversations about friends, activities, politics, social media, and anything else that we feel like talking about – just like I would have a conversation in English with my American friends. Our second-year Chinese instructors are young, smart and interesting, and are always willing to discuss complicated topics with us. Here are five things I’ve learned from these conversations:

1. The American Dream and the Chinese Dream are extremely opposite. In America, personal opportunity is paramount, and we’re told that if you work hard enough, you, personally, can be extremely successful. However, in China, the success of the country is much more important than the needs of individuals. Even Chinese children are taught that they should not work hard for their own money and success, but rather to better China at large. This idea of sacrificing personal glory is much less common in the United States. However, while this cultural belief is definitely different, that doesn’t mean the people are very different – Chinese people want to provide for their families and feel proud of their successes, and Americans have a lot of patriotism and place a lot of importance and value on service.

2. In some ways related to my above point, discipline is extremely important in China. Every college student does at least a week or two of mandatory military training (i.e. physical training, learning how to properly make a bed and fold clothes, being yelled at by the equivalent of drill sergeants). Many Chinese primary and secondary schools have a rigorous class schedule in addition to daily physical training – many of my Chinese friends recount running around their school’s track in formation every morning while repeating some book knowledge. This discipline can be seen further in the strict parental guidance that is common in Chinese households – children must learn to be disciplined in how they manage their time, often placing extreme importance on grads and sacrificing all other activities to focus on school and homework every day. From a young age, Chinese people often must put their work and duties above their own desires and are taught to listen and heed the instructions of authority. There is MUCH less room to ask “why?” or question authority in China – from children to their parents to citizens to their government.

3. Perceptions of North Korea and Russia are completely different. In America, those countries are perceived as scary or bad, but that’s not necessarily the case in China. In fact, many Chinese people like to visit North Korea because they think it’s interesting or funny to see inside the secretive country! As an American, I would never even consider venturing into North Korea, but to Chinese people, the idea isn’t too uncommon.

4. Public safety is completely different in China. Before entering campus every day, I had to show my ID card to a guard at one of the four gate entrances. As an American, my initial, natural reaction was that this was to prevent bad people from getting on to campus, i.e. school shooters. However, it wasn’t until I took a minute to think about it that I realized threats like school shootings generally don’t happen in China. Private citizens are not allowed to have guns or weapons of any type, and punishments for crimes such as murder are generally harsher than in America. Additionally, China has not faced the terrorist threats in attacks that have been on the rise in America and Europe; while the police watch and monitor for those events very closely, from what I know the only terror threats they face are from small groups from the more rural eastern China. I felt very safe in Beijing, even when walking alone on the streets at night, which to be completely honest I can’t say about most of the American cities or towns I’ve been to.

5. There is an incredible blend of tradition and modernism throughout China, especially in big cities. China is a huge country with a storied history, which can clearly be showcased in the architecture and preserved parks in the cities, but also much more modern than I expected, which can be seen in things like modern buildings and public transportation, but even smaller things such as how people use WeChat or AliPay (phone apps) to purchase virtually everything in the city. This divide between old and new is also evidenced in the people’s attitudes and values – many people hold more traditional or “old-school” views about things such as marriage, homosexuality, and filial duty; however, at the same time, many people, especially young people, are becoming increasingly open-minded and aren’t much different from young people you might meet in America. I definitely didn’t not expect the level of modernism that I saw in Beijing, and I think this dichotomy of tradition and modernism will only continue to grow and change in the future.