Archive for the ‘cultural understanding’ Category




Another article from my old China notes, which I hadn’t published before: Other trips came up, and these got pushed onto the back burner.

Note:  I have a lot of photos, so please be patient, scroll through and enjoy.

To get a feel for the way of life for the vast majority of Chinese people who live in cities you have to leave the modern city center and walk along suburban streets—preferably alone, so you get an unfiltered view! The cities are getting more and more westernized, with the same or similar chain stores as we find in USA, Europe or Japan (the homogenization of society). Other than the script, I could be anywhere in the world (almost), with the same type of tall skyscraper, with lots of glass etc.



Bike “taxis” waiting

To see how the ordinary Chinese live, spend a day just strolling up and down a couple of large suburban streets or even smaller alleys off them.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did, on a Monday, in Nanjing, a few years ago, and on another trip in Hangzhou, and it was great to begin to get a feel for the rhythm, the pulse, the tempo of daily life here. Here it does feel different—I know I’m not in USA or Europe. The character of the place is different. Another afternoon, Rod and I were able to just wander around too.

On my first walk, the wide 4-lane avenue (this might be suburban, but this is still China with its teeming millions) was always busy, mostly with cars, buses and taxis (people use taxis a lot), but very few trucks. Bikes and scooters have their own lane next to the pavement (sidewalk), as many people ride bicycles. Traffic was still chaotic but not quite as bad as in the city and the big intersections. There is a special sidewalk for pedestrians and it’s mostly lined with trees, so is quite pleasant.


Many of the “stalls” are actually conducted off bicycles


This seems to be a bike repair business


Corn and a series of hats shops

The street is lined with row upon row of large apartment blocks, which stretch like kids’ building blocks away from the street. Some are older, some new, most festooned with laundry from small balconies or from retractable clothes lines. Many of the flats seem to be grouped into complexes, with one main entrance off the street, often with a guard at the gate. And each complex seems to have a bit of a garden, a piece of lawn, a few flower beds, so it’s not a true concrete jungle, not just sterile concrete. I saw one old guy on his piece of lawn just behind the fence, doing a kind of tai-chi.


A tailor? An alteration service?



I saw quite a few people with small dogs

Some of the complexes are separated from the pavement by a fence and strip of grass. Others have the first floor directly on the sidewalk, and in this case the lower level is given over to small shops. Looking at these is when it gets really interesting. In the afternoon things get much busier after 3pm, after a kind of ‘siesta’ time. Mothers with babies in strollers or with kids appear, as do some people with small dogs. Old couples venture out for a stroll and young people saunter along. Many are out to do their daily shopping, which they carry home in 3-4 plastic bags.


But, birds are very popular too



Not sure what these are!

The mix of small shops is amazing. Except for a China Post, Construction Bank, and Bank of Communications, a Foreign Language Institute and an Office of Community Development, all are small enterprises as far as I could tell. For example:

–Barber shops and general hairdressers, with revolving poles—but of different colors to the west.

–tyres and fixing tyres, or bicycle repair

–a tiny pet shop, with two small dogs in cages


Rod checks out this shop

–birds in cages

–hardware, with a hard-packed sand floor

–little boutiques with old-fashioned mannequins

–a small grocery

–cigarette shop, which also sells boxed alcohol

–flower shop, carrying mostly fake flowers

–another boutique, with silky-looking slips (peticoats) hanging outside from the tree branches

–a couple of stores using the branches in front as a place to dry their laundry

–newspaper kiosk


Rod checks out another mystery

–real estate office

–a restaurant on the corner. The corner window is full of shelves with live chickens peering out. At the door is a make-shift tank (a large box lined with stripey plastic and a hose running into it continuously) with two swimming fish and 3 gone belly-up.

Interestingly, some of the small “businesses” are conducted from a parked bicycle! I was the only westerner wandering around. I got a few stares, a few smiles, a few hallo’s, and no animosity.


P7160081.JPGMy first actual encounter was interesting. In the China Post we managed by sign language and pointing and showing the amount on a calculator. Outside, I had no idea which box to post my postcards in. Two young girls came by, watched me a bit, then checked my postcards. They saw that they were to a foreign place, and pointed to the right box and the right slot, even pushed them in when I couldn’t seem to find the right angle (the slot must be very narrow: I still don’t know how they did it!)



Another bike repair outfit 


Tourists in a rickshaw

My next adventure was “Finding (the) Coffee and the Coffee Ceremony”. I saw a small place at the base of one apartment complex with a sign, “Tea-Coffee-Seafood” so I decided to peer through the glass doors to see if there was an espresso machine. As I leant forward, two young women in black opened the doors, smiled and beckoned me in. I walked to the front desk just by the door. “Espresso Coffee?” I asked hopefully. Blank stares.

I looked round to see if I could see any coffee P7010107.JPGmachine (I couldn’t) and one girl held a menu out to me, all in Chinese, pointing at one item, which sounded like “Mira Kahee” when she said it. I looked blank. Another menu, with some items translated into English, all rice or noodles. Next, she handed out an English phrase book called “English for Nanjing Citizens”, gave it to me and seated me on a nearby couch. I was sweating profusely, as it was really hot and humid (no a/c), as I paged through the book. This was a perfect example situation to see if these books work for this kind of situation/problem/real life incident. It didn’t. All the chapters about Mr. Jones (or Johnson) arriving in Nanjing, talking to the hotel clerk, going shopping, having dinner in someone’s home don’t prepare for this: a simple way to ask for black coffee. There’s no sample menu.


Furniture delivery it seems

I left without coffee but it was an interesting experience. The next day I returned (with Chinese instructions written down by some locals at the conference) and I got some black coffee. The people in the shop were so happy to oblige and there were happy smiles and much bowing! It was a happy experience.

The other main point about these walks I took was how many different types of transport I saw—fascinating. The best way to describe it is to show this series of photos I took.P7020005.JPG

Postscript today: What a great experience, and I feel very blessed to have been able to do this when we did. Life is not quite the same now! Not there, and certainly not anywhere right now, with the corona pandemic.



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This field is normally not for parking

Our Own Urbana Matsuri

I wrote about our local Matsuri last year (see here https://ourvisitstojapan.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/matsuri-in-our-home-town/). It was such a success that it was repeated this year, on September 8, 2019. I have a lot of photos, so please scroll through and enjoy!


People were fascinated by this entertainer


Get a tattoo, some calligraphy, or your face painted

As I said before, our Japan House is within easy walking distance of our house, which is great as so many cars need to park in the large field usually used for impromptu soccer and frisbee games. Plus, part of the main avenue in front of Japan House is actually blocked to traffic. Most people are quite happy with this, but one of the volunteers directing traffic told me that a few people get mad as they have to backtrack and take a small detour! It had rained in the night and early that morning, but luckily the weather cleared enough—still a bit cloudy but no rain.

A Matsuri is a fall festival, celebrated in slightly different ways in Japan, depending on the town. Our Matsuri seems perfectly adapted to our local community, with many food stalls set up by local eating places, some Asian but many not, but much of the food had a Japanese-sounding name.


I wonder what that tasted like?


I was happy to see that my favorite natural foods store, Common Ground, was there plus a local brewery called Triptych.



Different community or university groups have stalls too, from Yukata (summer cotton kimonos) stalls, to ikebana, to master gardeners, to a tattoo stall.



You approach the Japan House from the parking area and walk along a path lined with cherry trees, now strung with colorful lanterns and huge red origami paper cranes.



Japan House overlooks a small lake, roughly in a figure-of-8, around which a path winds. A bridge also crosses the lake at the narrow central point. Most of the stalls, seating area with tables and chairs, and stage, are set up on the far side of the lake, under the plentiful trees.



Kampai means Cheers! in Japanese

As I walked across the field, with throngs of other people, the throbbing sound of drums got louder as I approached the stage. It was a group called Ho Etsu Taiko,a Chicago-based Japanese drum ensemble, who were doing a great job and the crowd loved them.



A little later another group took the stage, a local Martial Arts Group called Kobudokan Dojo. They were demonstrating Kobudoand Iaido, different moves with swords—fascinating.




Going into Japan House. Many women wore a yukata that day

From the Opening Remarks at 12 noon, until close at 9pm the stage hosted all kinds of different groups, all free. For the food and drink stalls, and for the other outside activities (face-painting, bubbles, try ikebana etc) you need to buy tickets (cash only) from one of the many volunteers walking around.

Items for sale (clothes, wall hangings, bonsai plants etc) were handled by each stall.

Inside the Japan House itself people could attend a tea ceremony (a fee), or just wander around the rooms, browsing for some pretty knick-knack, or wall hanging, or real kimono, or lovely ceramics.


It’s all a lot of fun, noisy, cheerful, and very well-attended. I commend all the volunteers and the organizers: so many details, like the decorating and setting up all the tents, tables and chairs, extra lights etc; manning the stalls; directing traffic; driving golf carts around for those who need a bit of help; not forgetting all the hundreds of posters advertising the Matsuri that were put up a couple of weeks beforehand (which they will now need to go round a take samuraidown!).

We are really lucky to have a great resource like the Japan House, and all the cultural interactions and activities that it brings to our community. It makes us all richer.

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Kev and Rod braai in the Cape


If you’re ever in southern Africa this is one of the traditions you don’t want to miss. A “braaivleis”, affectionately called “braai” for short, (in Afrikaans language, braai= cook over fire, vleis= meat) is very special, a talkative, communal event, evoking feelings of camaraderie and stirring memories of togetherness at “braais” past.Whenever we visit South Africa, one of the first things we ask our families is, “When are we going to have a braai?” It doesn’t really matter what the season or the weather is.


Our family gather for a braai in East London


and it was great!


We braii in Hibberdene

“Having a braai” is more than just cooking food outside, it’s an event. Sipping drinks under a wide African sky, filled with stars that seem somehow clearer and nearer…the delectable smell of meat or fish on the coals drifting over the scene…cicadas “chirping” in the trees around. All this gets South Africans nostalgic.

The fusion of flame and meat, the sitting round an open fire or a grill, these are a way of life and popular around the country, regardless of race, language, creed or province. In fact, some say that while most countries have a national dish, South Africa has a national cooking method. But “braaivleis” is also not just a technique for cooking meat over an open fire: it’s a way of life, a national pastime that unifies an otherwise sometimes divided country. There’s a National Braai Day, on September 24th, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the patron. This is South Africa’s Heritage Day too; See here http://braai4heritage.co.za/. As Archbishop Tutu says, “We have 11 official languages in South Africa, but only one word for this wonderful institution. It’s braai in isiXhosa, braai in Afrikaans, braaii n English…it has fantastic potential to bind us together because all it calls for is that you come with your friends, your family, have a little fire and braai”.


Kev prepares the marinade for the meat


Mike mans the braai in East London


Kev and Rod braai in the rain at Umfolozi National Park

For many South Africans a braaivleis is a much anticipated weekend event. If folks can also have one during the week, that’s even better. In the summer, the braai will probably be in the evening, after sundown, the heat of the day a pleasant warm glow. But, in the winter it’ll likely be at midday, under the bright winter sun and a big blue sky. And South Africans are so crazy about having a braai that they will even do it if it’s raining—but then, of course, the eating will be inside!

The ritual begins… The hosts light up the charcoal, or wood, grill, perhaps next to the pool if they have one, with table and chairs on the grass or patio. They spread a bright cloth on the table, and bring out plenty of good South African beer (try Castle) and great South African wine, a dry fruity white to sip first, then a hearty red with the meal. And plenty of fresh fruit juices for the non-drinkers.



We set the table


Braai-ing in Kokstad

And what a meal it’ll be. If you’re really lucky you’ll have “the works”—lamb chops, beef ribs, and the absolute “must”:boerewors (in Afrikaans, boere= farmer, wors=sausage). ‘Wors’comes from the butcher in a long strip, which is coiled carefully on the fire without cutting. This unique sausage has more beef in it, a coarser texture and less fat than most, and a distinct flavor dominated by coriander. It’s wonderful, and South Africans out of the country say they dream about having worsagain. As part of the ritual the guests all make comments on the cooking process, as they discuss their lives and country politics.

Traditionally, the meat is served with “putu” (thick maize meal porridge cooked with salt and a little butter) with hot, homemade tomato and onion sauce spooned over it; a green salad; and garlic bread—very garlicky. Many families also put fresh whole vegetables on the fire, in addition to serving a green salad. Fruit salad, based on paw-paw (papaya), with cream is a good dessert, or perhaps chunks of sweet watermelon.




Cooking the vegs first

In some parts of the country people make “roosterkoek” (fire-baked bread), or grill snoek fish basted with apricot jam. Sosatiesare also very popular. These are pieces of marinated meat on a skewer. In Pretoria (my old home town) lamb and dried apricot sosatiesare common, but in the Cape the Malay people make great sosatieswith lamb in curry marinade. In Soweto “chisanyama” with a spicy “chakalaka” sauce are popular. Chisanyamais isiXhoasa slang for grilled meats, and usually includes chops, ribs, wors,and steak.

Of course, the braai-ers often disagree about some elements of the braai: what types of meats and in what combination; what types of wood or coal, and whether to use Blitz (firelighters); what types of braaicontraptions, from shiny new Webers to old tin drums (but, the almost 100% consensus is: NO GAS!); what marinades, if any. BUT, beyond these differences is still a passion for sitting around a fire, drinking and chatting for hours, while kids run around and play.


Wors and other sausages


Wors in a coil

Many people believe that this passion is greater in South Africa than other countries. But why? We may never be able to explain this entirely. It may be related to the great climate in South Africa, but it’s not just climate related, because otherwise Australians and Californians would also braai as much, and they don’t. South Africans of all races prefer to have ‘real’ fires (not gas), which take longer and encourage one to stand around and drink beer, poke at the coals, and discuss politics and the rugby team or other sports events. South Africans also tend to eat outside, not just cook outside and then retire inside to eat. The actual braai-ing is usually done by men (although that is changing), who have learned from their male family members. Immigrants to South Africa learn from their (usually) male South Africa friends, or even attend a special braaiclass (although there are not many of those).

What do you think?

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International Stereotypes of a Different Kind

The image that people have of a certain country or culture is often very stereotypical, and many people have ideas about a place even if they have never been there.

We found this really interesting T-shirt in Ljubljana, Slovenia. One of Slovenia’s tourist marketing tools is using the word “love” embedded in the country’s name. This T-shirt design has taken the heart and used it to create an image for the other countries depicted on it. A very clever idea.

Neither South Africa nor Zimbabwe is there, but Africa in general is, and that heart is probably fairly accurate for the indigenous people. The USA has a cowboy—what do you think of that?

Look at the other countries—we thought many were actually quite true at capturing what people imagine when they think of that country. For example, a koala for Australia, a sheep for New Zealand, a panda for China, or a bull for Spain. Some are not quite so obvious (to me anyway).

Is your country there? What do you think?



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A hamsa

The Hamsa and the Evil Eye

I’ve just returned from St Louis where I was for 6 weeks to help my daughter with a new baby. While there I remembered that we had bought her a hamsa from a shop in Old Jaffa (www.adinaplastelina.com ) while we were in Israel last year. It’s very pretty—a pendant on a ribbon—and I started reading up more on what its significance is.

These days, with so much strife and discord around the world, especially in the Middle East, it seems to me that it would be a really good thing for people to find similarities between groups, rather than differences. It seems the hamsa could be one such agreement.


Hamsa pendant


Typical Turkish-style “Evil Eye”

According to the leaflet that came with my daughter’s hamsa: “Known in Islamic societies as the Hand of Fatima, and in Jewish lore as the Hand of Miriam, the hamsa serves as an ancient talismanic way of averting the evil eye or, more generally, of providing a “protecting hand” or “Hand of God”. Some sources link the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah, or to the five pillars of Islam. In recent years some activists for Middle East peace have chosen to wear a hamsa as a symbol of the similarities of origins and tradition between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.”

This idea of protection from “the evil eye” is common in many countries in the Middle East, especially in Turkey and countries where the Ottoman Empire ruled, such as Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia. The concept is the same—wearing, or having, some talisman that will protect against bad things, or ward off evil—but the actual amulet is very different. The typical Turkish one is a flattish bright blue circular bead with light blue and white inner circles and a darker blue center, like an ‘eye’. They are made into jewelry, or into beads that hang in cars, over doorways etc. People have them in kitchens, on baby strollers, on motorbikes etc. We have bought quite a number over the years, in Turkey and more recently in Bosnia.


This kitchen is protected by a Mexican folk skull and a Turkish evil eye


This kitchen also has an evil eye

Here’s a short discussion about the Turkish evil eye:


For a more extensive history and meaning of the evil eye, see here:


How can we all rally, and have some kind of hamsa, or evil eye, or other protection from the evil in this world? A symbol that would bind people together? I’m just being idealistic, I know, but it doesn’t hurt to dream!




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Danny Hermann shows the group an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate

Danny Hermann shows the group an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate

Touring in Israel

Recently we were in Israel for a week and our hosts arranged a number of wonderful day trips. One was to Caesarea, the port city on the coast north of Tel Aviv that was largely built by King Herod the Great.

Our guide for our day trip to Caesarea was Danny Hermann, who calls himself Danny the Digger, as he is an archeologist. He started a PhD in archeology but didn’t finish as he got into guiding, and now he also teaches a course on tour guiding at a university.

Danny was a really good guide. He has an amazing amount of knowledge to impart and is passionate about his subject—the history and archeology of this land. He is Jewish, but talks equally easily about Christianity and the Islamic faith. He says he talks about biblical archeology, which is where you move from fiction to fact. We were very impressed as he handled a biggish group well; he stopped and waited for most people, spoke slowly and clearly and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. We would definitely recommend him.

Danny Hermann, info@DannyTheDigger.com, www.DannyTheDigger.com

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A fairytale-looking castle

A fairytale-looking castle

This is a castle they will never forget

Scotland has at least 300 castles, many of them in Aberdeenshire in the northeast of the country and many incorporated into the famous Castle Trail. About half have a ghostly reputation, or some ghost story associated with them.

At each castle we visited on recent trips to the area I asked about the ghosts. In the other castles, the guides gave the information, laughing and rather dismissive—but in Crathes Castle the guide was more cautious. She stated seriously that, “Even I’m not sure if it’s true”. I believed her sincerity.

Crathes castle, just 16 miles west of Aberdeen, with its round towers, gargoyles, and overhanging turrets, is evocative of our idealized image of a castle, complete with maidens in distress, dragons, and perhaps dark secrets and ghosts.

You can see the solid tower block very clearly

You can see the solid tower block very clearly

We entered through the new wing, rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1966, and passed into the original tower section, behind a small group of Japanese visitors. We toured the castle in a set sequence, and each room has a room guide, who gives much information about life in the old castle and the present Burnett family.

The land on which Crathes now stands was gifted to the Burnett family by the legendary Robert the Bruce in 1323 in return for their loyalty. Their badge of office, the finely carved ivory Horn of Leys, still hangs above the fireplace in the High Hall, the first big room we reached upstairs. The family continues to live on the estate, after deeding it, plus the castle, to the National Trust of Scotland. The present laird (lord) still comes in to update the family records and add to the photo albums. It’s an amazing thought that the castle has been in the same family all these years.

The tower is the original living section, compact, with thick walls and small windows, so it’s never very light. At the entrance are special double iron-grill gates, before a huge wooden door for added protection. Remember, this was built in the 16th century—a turbulent time. Steep spiral stone stairs in the corner turrets connect the floors, and we sensed that it wasn’t easy to get in and out of this place. Some of the rooms still have beautiful tapestries on the walls, some have oak panel walls and the original wooden ceilings and friezes, gorgeously painted with mythical scenes. Small lamps, which burned animal fat, were used, so living here must have been smelly, smoky and rather dark and stuffy.

The first ghost story is linked to the Green Lady’s Bedroom, one of the top bedrooms. The story goes that a young girl was a ward of the laird, and was made pregnant, supposedly by a servant. The laird ordered the baby removed. The baby died and the girl also died of a broken heart. Later, during remodeling, the hearthstone was lifted in her bedroom and a baby skeleton was found. Since then, people have seen the ghost of the girl, dressed in green, carrying her baby and crying. But, the room guide hastened to assure the group that this ghost hasn’t been seen for ages. I asked more questions and noticed the Japanese looking around a little apprehensively.

Crathes Castle's pretty gardens from one of the tower windows

Crathes Castle’s pretty gardens from one of the tower windows

A couple more rooms and we got to the Gallery on the top floor of the castle. The room guide told us that this is where there’s a second ghost in residence. Sometimes there are sounds of running and footsteps, even when there is definitely no-one up there. She smiled, “Even I’m not sure, maybe even I half believe”.

We were about to move on when there was a series of loud clanking noises, which reverberated through the room. I turned in surprise at the unexpectedness of the sound, but didn’t have any more time to consider my reaction. The Japanese all gasped and jumped, and when the noise came again, some screamed. There was mild pandemonium, as two of them shouted “the ghost, the ghost” and they all prepared to run, to scramble out of the Hall.

The room guide, visibly disturbed by the strong reaction, tried to calm them. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Please. It’s not the ghost, that’s water in the pipes. The pipes are old, and they do this sometimes”. The tension was palpable. We smiled, as it was obvious that the noises weren’t the sound of running footsteps, but I wasn’t sure the Japanese were convinced. They left, chattering excitedly, and I have no doubt that this is how the ghost story is perpetuated.

It is easier to believe in ghosts if you’re in an old castle, full of history and legends, dark passageways, and strange nooks and crannies.

This is the power of suggestion at work: how easily the group created a panic attack among themselves. This is definitely a castle they will never forget.



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