By Sara Aoyama
If there is one thing that a beginner has, it is
questions! Yet, in the martial arts we are often told
we should not ask questions. But that doesn't mean
we should just accept what is said to us without trying
to understand it further. We still need to pay attention.
I was living in Kyoto in the mid-seventies. I had
just graduated from college, and was teaching English
at an English conversation school across the street
from Nijo Castle. Kyoto is a college town of sorts,
and many of the students at this school were college
students. They had all studied English in middle and
high school and many were English majors in college.
Lessons were given in small groups of one to four
students at similar levels, because most of them just
needed a chance to practice speaking with native speakers.
But occasionally we also got a student who was at
a lower level. Mr. Sakamoto was one of those types.
I wasn't sure he'd even graduated from high school,
as education is only compulsory through middle school
One day, I was working alone with Mr. Sakamoto on
a lesson about colors. It was a boring lesson and
I was only half paying attention as I asked him question
after question. He'd already answered that the sky
was blue, grass was green, his jacket was brown, and
his hair was black. It was an easy lesson for him,
for a change. Running out of questions from the textbook,
I moved into food colors.
"What color is a carrot?" I asked, just
barely paying attention and sneaking a look at the
"A carrot is red." Mr. Sakamoto spoke stiffly,
"No. Carrots are orange."
I replied without giving it much thought, and barely
looking at him. I did see something cross his face,
but he went back to his usual look of resignation
when I corrected him. I thought nothing more of it,
and continued the lesson.
Fast forward to about a month later, when I was exploring
the city on my bicycle. North towards the mountains,
I came to a huge outdoor farmer's market. Walking
through the market, I suddenly saw a display that
caught my eye with its vivid red color. Drawing closer,
I saw baskets filled with....yes.... carrots. And
they were bright ruby red!
It was one of those pivotal moments we sometimes
have in our lives. Instantly, I thought of Mr. Sakamoto.
I stopped dead in my tracks, feeling ashamed, mortified,
and finally very stupid. Why hadn't I paid attention
to Mr. Sakamoto? Why hadn't I taken the time to ask
for clarification? Why hadn't I realized that I was
living in a foreign country and that what I had experienced
in my life up until this moment wasn't necessarily
going to hold true everywhere that I traveled?
The next time I saw Mr. Sakamoto, I tried to explain
to him that I was so very sorry, and that I had seen
the red carrots and that he wasn't wrong, and that
it was I who was in the wrong, but that I'd really
never seen a red carrot before. But his English wasn't
good enough to understand what I was saying, and my
Japanese was not good enough to communicate with him
either. He smiled, though, and seemed to understand
that I had seen the carrots.
Red carrots are a specialty of Kyoto, and known as
one of the "Kyo yasai" or Kyoto vegetables.
Since most carrots in Japan are orange, it still seems
like "orange" would be the most natural
answer to the question of their color. But I don't
know anything about Mr. Sakamoto. Perhaps he had grown
up on a farm where they specialized in red carrots.
Or maybe he truly did make a mistake.
But it taught me never to presume. To keep my mind
open and not think that I have all the answers. To
ask more questions and make sure that I have it right.
To be a good listener, and always to let others know
that I'm willing to listen and learn.
Now we can see all colors of vegetables and fruits.
But in 1978, the sight of a red carrot was unusual
enough that it is something I have never been able
to forget. It was a good lesson to me about paying
attention to even the simplest things.
About the author:
Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University
of Kansas, majoring in Japanese Language and Literature.
She spent over twelve years living in Japan where
she dabbled in a number of other Arts such as Ikebana
(flower arranging), Cooking, and Shamisen. While living
in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects
of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro,
Vermont where she started training in Shorin-ryu Karate
at the Brattleboro School of Budo in May, 1998 after
watching her son train for three years. She works
asa free-lances as a Japanese-Englishtranslator. Most
recently, she is the translator of "The Art
of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD.
Previous "Beginner's Mind" columns:
To Your Body"
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