In 1984 and 1985, I was a young woman in my early 20s with a B.S. in Biology. I worked as a foreign fisheries observer on Japanese and Soviet fishing trawlers that fished off of American waters in the Bering Sea, off of Alaska.
I would live aboard the boats for 3 months at a time, monitoring their catch. This was before email, cell phones and even fax, so while I have never actually set foot on Japanese soil, I felt like I did indeed live in Japan, in deep cultural immersion for about 6 months of my life during those years.
I was the only woman aboard the Japanese ships. I remember being ferried out to meet my first boat, the Anyo Maru, which was either out of Honshu or Tokyo (my memory fails me on such details). When the crew saw that I was female, they all cheered!
The boat was relatively small and there were 21 crew members. On that boat I was initiated to miso, green tea (ocha), sushi, saki, karaoke, and seaweed snacks for the first time. Along with the cook’s version of what they thought an American girl would like to eat—mini pizzas, p.b. and j. sandwiches, etc. I took a break from what would be a 20 year foray into vegetarianism and ate fish. I learned the hard way not to clean my plate of all the food, or they would think I wanted more and would refill my plate completely. I gained 10 lbs on that first trip.
The toughest thing for me to get used to however was the cultural difference in their emotional expression vs. a more western version. (The Russians by comparison were completely opposite. When they were sad, mad, glad, you knew it.) The crew members always smiled. I learned later that when they were upset with me about something I did or reported, they would blink a lot. Tricky for me, a sensitive girl, to see them smiling, but to feel an entirely different emotional energy coming from them.
Later in life, I learned that this is a cultural norm. Often a businessman will say one thing for instance, and do a hand signal to indicate the opposite. It must have been a challenge to have this American girl on board who had a different set of norms, not to mention the obvious gender challenges. Around that time I cut off most of my hair so I would not attract the wrong type of attention.
One of my favorite memories was this: I had brought a spiral bound yoga book along with me, so I could find a way to exercise while at sea. Along with jogging on deck with my walkman, I would bring this book into the galley to practice. This was before I started going to yoga classes as I had spent the winter in a remote area of New Mexico doing bird research. And yoga studios and teachers were much more difficult to find back then. But I somehow always knew I wanted to do yoga since I took one class from a waitress at Yellowstone Park one summer while I was working for the concessions and felt, for the first time ever “normal”, or at least what I though “normal” should be, meaning calm, clear and centered.
Anyway I digress, so I go into the galley with my book and started practicing, mostly the forward bends in the book.
There were no triangle pose, etc. And one by one the crew members started coming out of their bunks and started practicing with me. They were all laughing at how inflexible they were from years at sea being mostly sedentary. But they would try to do whatever I did. I started to fear for them when they tried to force themselves into asanas they should not have. Me: “No! No ! You will hurt yourself!” Them: laughing and doing it anyway.
My heart breaks for this tragedy that has befallen such an elegant, graceful nation, and for these kind , generous and innovative people. I wish I knew some elegant profound phrase in Japanese that would most properly express this feeling, but my Japanese is rudimentary at best.
In fact, I am at a loss for words.
Tara Skye Goldin lives near Boulder, Colorado in a solar powered house in the suburbs with her husband, seven-year-old son, and a six-pound Chihuahua mix. She practices naturopathic medicine in Boulder, hikes and skis in the mountains, and goes to Mysore classes at the Yoga Workshop when she can. She recently started singing again which should signify something, but she is not sure what.