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I remember the day when I decided to make the picture in Japan, an April day a year ago, a day like this one upon which I begin the story of my return to Asia. I have always known that the return was inevitable, not a permanent return, for I am too happy in my country to live elsewhere, but a return, nevertheless. One does not live half a life in Asia without return. When it would be I did not know, nor even where it would be, or for what cause. In our changing world nothing changes more than geography. The friendly country of China, the home of my childhood and youth, is for the time being forbidden country. I refuse to call it enemy country. The people in my memory are too kind and the land too beautiful.
China is not the whole of Asia, however, in spite of being most of it. There are other countries to which I could return—Japan, India, Korea and all the rest. Japan, I suppose, is the one I know best after China. Logically, the return would be there, but when? I am not a tourist. I do not enjoy visiting a country merely to see the sights. Nor do I enjoy visiting as a special person. When I return to Japan, I told myself, it will be for a project, a piece of work, something interesting to do, something that will explain why I cannot accept all the dinner invitations, weekends, entertainments which hospitable people offer to friends. But what project? A new question was added to my where and when.
Quite unexpectedly one day it was proposed to me that I go to Japan to work with others on the filming of my book, The Big Wave. The work would be something new and therefore exciting. I am long past the conservatism and caution of youth. I have arrived at the adventuresome age and The Big Wave is an adventurous book. It involves a remote fishing village, a tidal wave, a volcano, none of which I had seen for decades, and which I hankered to see again. The questions were answered. As to where, it was Japan; as to when, it was now.
No, not quite answered, for there was my family to consider. Some of them were old and some very young, a large family spreading over generations and into ramifications. Could I, should I, leave them all at such a time? We went into family consultation. Apparently I could and should. The family doctor assured me that there was no reason to delay going. The children, grown and half grown, were hearty and healthy. And he? He was as he ever would be always now. If I waited for the final possibility, it might be years. Six months ago I could not have left him. But in the brief interval there was for me all the difference between day and night. He had slipped into a world of his own. I had not yet learned to bear what was and must ever be.
"Go," the doctor said. "You must have a change. You have a long road ahead."
"Go," my responsible daughter said. "I will look after everything."
Thus encouraged, contracts were signed and tickets bought.
The book, of course, had to be put into new form. The Big Wave is a simple story but its subject is huge. It deals with life and death and life again through a handful of human beings in a remote fishing village on the southern tip of the lovely island of Kyushu in the south of Japan. The book has always had a vigorous life of its own. It has won some awards in its field, it has been translated into many languages, but never into the strange and wonderful language of the motion picture. To use that language was in itself adventure, not words now, but human beings, moving, talking, dying with courage, living and loving with even greater courage. I am accustomed to the usual arts. I have made myself familiar with canvas and brush, with clay and stone, with instruments of music, but the motion picture is different from all these. Yet it, too, is a great art. Even when it is desecrated by cheap people and cheap material, the medium is inspiring in its potential. When artists are great enough, we shall have many great pictures. I was not under the illusion of greatness but I hoped that we could make a picture true to the people of whom I had written.
We set forth on a morning in May. Japan had been a near neighbor all during my years in China. When I was a child, if we sailed from Vancouver or San Francisco, then Japan was the last stop before Shanghai, the gateway to my Chinese home. If we sailed from Shanghai, then Japan was the first stop toward my American home. It had been, too, a country of refuge when revolutionary wars drove us out of China. I once spent many months in a small Japanese house in the mountains near Unzen, and Unzen is near the southern part of the island of Kyushu, near Obama. I had taken a motor trip in that same year around Kyushu, and had stopped briefly in Obama to bathe in the hot springs there. In mind I now saw my fishing village somewhere in that region of glorious seacoast, green mountains and smoking volcano.
"I shall recognize it the moment I see it," I told my family. "It will be a little village hugging a rocky shore, a sandy cove between mountains, a few houses of stone behind a high sea wall. I see it as though I remembered it, although I do not know its name."
If Japan had been near and familiar in the past, this time it seemed just outside the gates of my home in Pennsylvania. We entered a jet in New York, two hours or so away from my stone farmhouse, and were airborne in a matter of minutes. I reflected upon the incredible span of my life. Though, God willing, I have decades more to live upon this beautiful globe, yet in experience of life and peoples, I began in the middle ages. As a child I traveled by wheelbarrow, sedan chair, mule cart or in a boat pulled along a lazy canal by men walking the towpath. I was twelve years old before I saw a railway train in China and fifteen before I rode in it. Ships I knew, for there were ships on the Yangtze River to take us to Shanghai and thence across the Pacific or up the river to Kiukiang and the mountains of Lu, where we escaped the torrid summer heat of the plains. I did not see or ride in an automobile until I was in college and after that not again for years until I returned to live in my own country. Then I became a modern woman and traveled by air as a matter of course. No, wait—I once took a disheveled little airplane to shorten a journey to Rangoon. Otherwise it would have been a matter of eight days on a slow boat. And once I flew from Sweden to Copenhagen on another journey. Yes, and still again, I flew from Ceylon to Java, descending once into the wet jungle heat of Sumatra. Years later, my first trip by jet was in Europe in the incredibly swift and silent jet aircraft that flies between Copenhagen and Rome. My interest in science has kept my curiosity keen in the development of jet and rocket, and anything slower than a jet makes me impatient now—I who began my life at a speed no greater than four miles an hour by sedan chair!
When the jet lifted me from the earth to the sky that May morning in New York I confess, however, to an elation all but unique. The huge metallic bird girded itself for flight, its engines roared, the creature trembled with its own inner power. Part of the elation was perhaps a reckless awareness of my own complete helplessness as we soared into the upper air. I had committed myself to the machine. I could not escape, I could not descend. No decisions faced me, for there was no way to go but up. An old Chinese proverb says that of the thirty-six ways of escape, the best is to run away. I do not know what the other thirty-five ways are—curiously enough, I never thought to inquire in all those years in China, I suppose because the obvious answer would have been that they were unnecessary, since one can always run away. This is no longer true, however, in our modern age. When one commits one's self to an airborne craft and the door is fastened against earth and home, there is no escape even by running away. The result is a strange sense of peace—desperate, perhaps, but peace.
Such random thoughts fluttered through my mind that morning while through the tiny window I watched the globe circle away from me. When—and if—I returned to it hours later, the wide continent of my native land and the blue stretch of the Pacific Ocean would be between me and home, although in my childhood our ship took weeks to cross that same ocean and our train another week to cross the continent. Yet this new world has never seemed strange to me. Speed has become a matter of course as well as of necessity. We floated over a sea of silvery clouds, and I settled back in my chair to work on the script of my picture.
The Hawaiian Islands are stepping stones between Asia and the United States. I remember them as islands of hope when I was a child and traveled in ships. Ten days from San Francisco to Honolulu or eight days from Yokohama to Honolulu was the expectation. But eastward or west, I was always eager to reach the islands of eternal green, where coconuts could be had for the picking and garlands of fragrant flowers were everyday greetings. Speed of aircraft has deprived us of something of the excitement of the great ship easing into dock after the long voyage and the sight of crowds of friends waiting, or even the sadness of the last moments of farewell, and friends waving from the dock as the great ship pulls its anchors aweigh for the long voyage ahead.
In our jet aircraft we came down smartly and sharply in Honolulu, not a moment late, and were met by efficient persons and taken to our hotel for the night. I had decided on the stop, not only because I wanted to see Honolulu again but particularly because I wanted to drive once more along the jagged mountains behind the city. I wanted to sees the surfboard riders glide in on the waves. Above all, I wanted to feel the atmosphere of Hawaii as a free state now in a free nation. I had a fancy that to belong to a nation, as an integral part, must mean subsidence of island discontents and grumblings—not that there was ever much grumbling in Hawaii, where the air is always warm and rain and sun fall daily on the just and the unjust alike and often at the same time. No, it would be a matter of spirit.
It was night when we came down and the moon shone on the white surf and the dark sea. The hotel was a royal one and as we crossed the immense lobby to claim our rooms and settle ourselves for sleep, men and women were still coming and going, people of various races and costumes. None was strange to me except the women tourists in Mother Hubbards, those garments devised by sensitive missionaries in the early days when, like Adam and Eve in their Eden, the Hawaiians did not know they were naked. The missionaries knew, of course, and enjoying the vagaries and waywardness of the human heart, I have sometimes wondered whether it was the early missionary men who commanded the lovely naked women to be covered, lest saints yield to the devil within us all, or whether it was the missionary women in their long skirts and sleeves and high collars who knew they could never compete with the smooth brown bodies wearing nothing except a gay bit of cloth or wisp of grass about their loins and a red flower in their waving black hair. Only God knows, and He keeps such secrets to Himself—with a smile, perhaps! Today by the whimsy of fashion the girls of Hawaii wear smart western clothes and the tourists wear flowing Mother Hubbards and again the Hawaiian women have the best of it.
The air of Hawaii is divine, no less. I lay in my comfortable bed and slept and woke to breathe in the soft pure atmosphere blown in by a gentle wind from the sea and slept again until the sun was flaming into my room. I rose then and bathed and dressed and breakfasted alone on the small terrace outside my room. The outside air was exactly that of my own body. I felt no break into heat or cold. So an unborn child must feel the sheltering waters of its first home. It is an indescribably smooth fluidity and the result is well-being, a total absence of conflict with environment.
Already there were surf riders enjoying the morning swell of the waves, and men and women in all but nothing were sauntering on the beach. And I was quite right about the spiritual change. The waiter who brought my breakfast moved with a calm and a confidence which signified an inner content. We conversed briefly on the subject after I had remarked that when I visited Honolulu before it had not been the capital of a state.
"Everything is better now," he told me.
"How is it better?" I asked.
He shrugged expressive shoulders. "It is not a question of food or clothes or anything to hold in the hands. It is just—better altogether. Now we are belonging. Now we can speak. Madame, the marmalade is very good—fresh orange, fresh pineapple. I advise!" "Thank you," I said, "and I think you are right. Everything is better."
I reflected upon this wisdom after he had broken my egg into the cup and poured my coffee and had gone away. Exclusion is always dangerous. Inclusion is the only safety if we are to have a peaceful world, inclusion in a national commonwealth, inclusion into an international commonwealth of nations. I believe that every nation should belong to the United Nations as inescapably and irrevocably as a child is born into a family. Resignation should be impossible. If, in a fit of pettishness, the child withdraws or even runs away, he is still a member of the family. The basic relationship applies on a world scale to the family of nations. Anything basic is simple and comprehensive. It is only the simple that can be large enough to comprehend all confusions.
I do not love surfboard riding. The sea and I are not enemies, but we are, let us say, wary friends. I have had encounters with an angry sea, and even with a friendly sea, friendly in the way that a lion can be friendly, felling a man with a playful pat.
Once, on an August day in Martha's Vineyard, he and I were swimming in the surf. There had been a storm a few days before and though the sky was blue that morning, the sea was rolling in on magnificent waves.
"Take my hand," he said, "we'll be strong enough together."
We were not strong enough, even together. The sea caught us in its huge paws, we were swept off our feet, swept out and out until we were choking and blinded and half drowned. Still hand in hand, we were thrown down at last upon the sand and so escaped. What I remember was the total helplessness of those moments in the wave, when we were at the merciless disposal of insensate power. We walked up the beach in silence, he and I, grateful for life and wanting no more of the sea that day.
I had no inclination, therefore, to go surfboarding alone in Honolulu.
Nor is it any use for me to imagine that I can enjoy myself in a crowd. Autograph hunters are everywhere in the world, and not liking to appear ungracious, it is best for me to be solitary. Alone, therefore, I enjoyed my terrace and the view of sea and mountain. I read the local newspapers, always an aid to understanding, and let the day slip past me until luncheon with friends and a drive in an open Jeep around the islands. Waikiki is for tourists, and it is only when one leaves it that one sees the other beaches, sheltered in coves, where the people who live in Honolulu, or nearby, gather their families to play and picnic. The road is excellent and it hugs a gorgeous shoreline. We stopped often as we drove to watch the crash of heavy surf against the black rocks of ancient lava and again, as in so many times in my life, I lingered to marvel and to admire the strange steep cliffs of those dark and abrupt mountains facing the sea. It is incredible that human beings could climb those upright shafts of lava rock, or that there are caves and crevices between them. Yet men in other ages have so climbed and into the caves and crevices they carried canoes and boats to become the tombs of their famous sea captains. Today other men climb to bring down the vessels again and clean them of ancient dust and put them into museums. I was reminded of Norway and the great ships in museums there which also were the tombs of the men of the sea. Here in Hawaii the feat seems incredible because of the smooth steepness of the clifflike mountains.
It was dark when we went back to the hotel and the evening newspaper carried headlines of a vast earthquake in Chile. I read of the disaster and grieved for those whose lives were lost.
Excerpted from A Bridge for Passing by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1962 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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