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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

Himeji, Japan

My time here in Japan has one fatal flaw:  no garden.  Yes, there are gardens everywhere to admire, but there is not one bit of earth here I can call my own. At moments like these, it heals the heart to live vicariously though someone else's experiences.

Cutting Back:  My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto by Leslie Buck was all that for me and more.  If you are a migrant/expatriate and a gardener, I think you will love this memoir.  And for those among you who aren't particularly enchanted by the finer points of Japanese pruning techniques, I would still recommend it for insights into the Japanese system for training craftsmen and women.

Buck is from California and when she left for Japan she was 35 years old and the owner of a landscaping company in the United States.  She had studied under Japanese craftsmen living in the US and had a portfolio of her work.  This is a definite advantage that craftsmen and artists have because they don't have to rely entirely on language;  they can actually show what they have done.   

How she managed to get the apprenticeship in Kyoto is illuminating.  Much of it was about using a Japan-US migrant/expatriate network.  Through one contact she found a place to live in Kyoto.  Through another master gardeners from Japan living in the US gave her names and letters of introduction.  A very kind woman at an party translated her cover letter into Japanese.  Another contact introduced her to a neighbor in Kyoto who spoke English and owned a landscaping company.  And yet another person went with her on an interview as a translator.  Her approach, which was a combination of persistence, determination, and humility, was successful and in the end she had two offers.  The power of a transnational network?  Absolutely.

How did she make her choice between the two companies?  One was very tempting because the company was close to where she lived in Kyoto and the owner spoke English.  The other was a very well-known company but it was much farther away and she was told before she interviewed that no one in the company spoke English (something that turned out to be false by the way).  She chose the harder road and became an apprentice at the Uetoh Zoen company.

And it was hard in so many ways.  What makes her book a cut above many other expat memoirs is how forthcoming she is about her many mistakes and things that she found particularly difficult.  She was integrated into a hierarchical, all male work crew and since she was the latest arrival, she was almost at the very bottom of the hierarchy.  The work itself was physically taxing (6 days a week) and sometimes very frustrating because there was almost no spoken guidance given.  She was given a tree to prune and if she did well, she was given another.  If she did poorly, she was yelled at and told to start hauling brush.  Learning was 90% observation and 10% negative verbal feedback.   She writes,  "Working with the men was a codependent's dream job!  The company hierarchy kept the momentum going. No one stopped to discuss a plan.  You do as you're told, or guess and accept the consequences."

Among the many things she found odd was the requirement that she wear white gloves when working.  If you've ever gardened than you know that anything white will turn grey within the first hour.  The boss of the crew mocked her when she tried to get away with reusing her gloves.  All of us migrants/expatriates have experienced these moments when something just doesn't make any sense to us and we search for why the culture asks this of us.  Buck did, in my view, exactly the right thing which was to obey and buy a pack of fresh white gloves at the store.  And only then did she attempt to make sense of it. 

Her conclusion was, "By asking me to wear new white gloves every day, I think Nakiji was trying to teach me that if I act like a premier craftsperson, I might feel like one."  That may or may not have been true but her after-the-fact reaction feels more like an attempt to rationalize obedience.  Here is a strong independent woman needing a reason to put aside her own thoughts and beliefs and performing an act of humility when faced with a cultural difference.

The nadir of her apprenticeship occurred toward the end when she was temporarily assigned to another crew.  It was snowing and when the crew broke for lunch they climbed into the truck to warm up and eat and the crew chief handed her a sandwich and told her she had to eat outside by herself.  "Fine, I thought spitefully, I can adapt to this situation, like all the other workers would.  I ate my lunch with my back turned to the men, my silent protest."

Cold, wet and physically exhausted she was in that state of cultural confusion where one begins to imagine all kinds of nefarious intentions on the part of the natives, she stubbornly sat there even when a woman came out from the nursing home and invited her to come inside.  When she wouldn't move the woman brought her a cup of hot coffee.
"As I sipped my cooling cup of coffee with lovely, icy snow falling around me, the woman came out again to retrieve the cup.  I looked at the ground so she couldn't see my tears.  But she kept saying something to me over and over.  I finally looked up.  I must have looked a sight.  I watched her expression turn from polite friendliness to horror then to tenderness in the space of a second. She understood... I struggled not to feel ashamed.  Surely she must have understood my determination to act strong, like a dedicated craftsperson.  But deep down, I felt expose and overly sensitive.  What I believed was our female pact, to suffer in silence, made me cry even more."
I think many of us woman migrant/expatriates can relate to this experience though our reactions and actions might have been different.  When entering another culture a woman has to find a way to fit that does not do deep damage to her deepest self.  Buck was fearful from the very beginning that she would be treated differently because she was a woman and she went to great lengths to prove that she could keep up with the men.  Being yelled at, for example, was (she was told) a good sign: "You'll be lucky if your boss yells at you.  That means you're being treated like one of the guys, not an outsider." Buck wasn't asking for positive special treatment, but here was a situation where she was experiencing negative special treatment: isolation from the crew. 

Was she treated this way because she was a woman, a foreigner, or just the lowest person in the hierarchy?  Buck didn't know a culturally appropriate response to what was happening. And that is a situation I have encountered many times in my workplaces in France.  What actions can you take and which options are not acceptable?  Only time and observation can give you answers.  Watch what men and women actually do (and not what they say) in order to solve the riddle of gender relationships in the host country workplace.

A really fine book.  I have not written nearly enough about the gardens and how hard it is to make a Japanese garden look "natural."   There is every bit as much work as there is in a formal "unnatural" garden like Versailles. 
"We picked up every last pine needle by hand.  On top of that we cleaned up a gravel area around a sitting bench, per Nakiji's request. All he had to do was point and grunt. I knew instantly that the area wasn't up to his standards, that I would have to grab a bucket, move the rocks aside, square foot by square foot, dust the ground and replace the rocks."  
The great Japanese gardening classic (Sakuteiki) says  that nature is the guide but the act of creating a garden is one of interpretation, not re-creation. Gardening is a craft and an art. And I think there is an analogy here to integration.  The culture is the guide from which we take inspiration but we ultimately are the interpreters.  I like this notion much better than the one that says culture is static and something to be bullied into learning by rote. Because as every landscape, every garden, is unique, so are we.

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