Posted by: MC | March 18, 2011

Ice Cream with a Korean American Nuclear Physicist

St. Patrick’s Day began with a cultural experience.  I’m visiting rural Wisconsin.  I like it.  I like the people.  I’m learning from them.  The culture I encountered yesterday morning is not unique to Wisconsin, but it had its own uniqueness.

At 7:30, nearing my favorite coffee shop, you know, the Sweet Spot I mentioned some weeks ago, I hear crowd noise from the very small downtown area (two and a half streets, two and a half blocks).  Half a dozen people were in front of a bar yelling to be heard, one man’s diatribe had the rhythm of a machine gun – a few conventional words sparked in a rapid fire contagion of expletives.

This was the deal:  Rural university town.  A commercial agreement had been crafted by several bars in the tiny downtown.  They’d sell a green t-shirt for $20.  The buyer (i.e. anyone in a sanctioned shirt) would then have access to beer at any of the bars all day.  The rest of the deal:  On Mar. 17, day began with doors opening at 6:00 a.m.

Flash forward 12 hours.  I am at the home of the University’s Chancellor invited to join the Music faculty of 30-some people for dinner.  Pulled pork, green salad, coleslaw.  And ice cream.

One of the Music faculty is an uncommonly gifted pianist.  She is Korean American.  She and her colleagues were thrilled with the actually astonishing fact that, in these dicey and contentious economic times, the Chancellor and Dean had determined how to get a much needed set of new pianos for the program.  When you think about it, that is an enormous investment in art.  These days that’s worth big celebration.  Ice Cream was the thing.

The chit chat fell into usual clusters.  The pianist’s husband, a Korean-American man in his 60’s, reached his hand toward me and introduced himself.  “I am a retired professor.  A scientist,” he said.  “I study nuclear physics.  I have been so concerned with what was overlooked in the nuclear power plant situation in Japan.”  In measured ways, he spoke of containment failure, of the way things could have been prevented, of efforts that might be useful right now.  He described the untenable situation with all power sources eliminated in the triple blow of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency.

His concern and sadness were clear.  His frustration with seeing no way of assisting the process was palpable.  He shifted the conversation.  “The thing that causes me most concerned, however, is the lack of U.S. media coverage on the reactions of the Japanese people.”  The Professor continued, “There has been no social disorder.  None.  People have been refusing care when they feel they are the least bit able to make do so those in more need may be attended.  We are not hearing about this.”

Korea has a difficult history with Japan.  The Japanese colonials of recent centuries in Korea have been as destructive as any among historic conquerors.  This did not seem the least bit salient in the Professor’s sentiments.  I asked if it might be possible that we in the US tend to think that globalization and western influence have left the people of the world more similar than different.  I wondered if it could be that something in the dominant US media could not even see the quiet cooperation of the Japanese people.  Quiet cooperation in our prevailing paradigm is not newsworthy.  By now, given our habits of individuality and sensationalism, it may not even be visible.

I felt the sadness myself.  On the EX:Change trip, and as I go through the 100 voices again and again in preparation of the book manuscript, I hear a consistent longing among Americans for cooperation and community.  We yearn for the model the Japanese people are giving us as they draw on their deepest character to survive these unspeakable crises.

The tough juxtaposition of my day:  I can’t help wondering if we are learning, sustaining, teaching ways of numbing ourselves (symptom:  tiptoeing the line of alcohol poisoning in the name of major playtime for St P’s Day).  The numbing serves two functions (at least).  First, we aren’t together enough to notice public and economic circumstances until they’ve gone too far into bad, and the few winners emerge as monarchs masquerading as corporate CEOs.  And second, we give up on the possibility of connection, the antidote to the crazy fear and loneliness that get us into the “playtime” that distracts and perhaps even damages us in the first place.  This is the connection I hear the 100 voices valuing so profoundly.

Here’s some good news.  The recent protests in Madison, WI stand as an exception to the first story.  The reminder from the Professor offers an antidote to the second.  Maybe there are ways we are listening to and learning from the quite people of Japan.  It sure seems that we want to.  Oddly, re-learning connection will take a decent measure of courage on the part of Beer Pong practitioners and most everyone else in our country.  I keep coming down on the side of believing that kind of courage will out.  We’ll see.

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