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Paying Attention

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 in Japan.

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 clock.

"A carrot is red." Mr. Sakamoto spoke stiffly, but surely.

"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.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

awarness, presumption, training, beginner, beginner's mind

Read more articles by Sara Aoyama

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