Monday, March 07, 2005


At what point do you put down your pens, paper, textbooks and glasses and say: That's it, I'm finsihed, I'm done.

With learning, that is.

Growing up, you're constantly, almost relentlessly, learning -- how to go to the bathroom, how to make your bed (still haven't mastered that one yet), how to count to ten, how to tie your shoes, how to shift from printing to writing, how to drive a car, how to write a test, how to write an essay, how to do a job interview, etc., etc., etc.

Then come the certificates. The licenses. The pretty little pieces of paper that certify that you, who were previously an incompetent moron, are now, officially, a learned person. You can do something; you have abilities. (That old, politically incorrect childhood taunt, "What are you, a retard?", esssentially means: "Don't you know how to do this plain and simple thing? Don't you have even a little bit of abillity?)

Once you're out of school (high school or college or university), there's the tendency to think: That's it. I'm out of here. Leave me the La-Z-Boy and the remote and let the sloth begin. I know all that I need to know to function in society, so leave me alone. Conan's on in five minutes.

The surprising thing about living abroad is realizing -- slowly, then rapidly, then daily, then minute-by-minute -- how much you don't know.

I landed in Japan's Osaka airport to a bunch of chirpy young Japanese airline employees trying to tell me, in Japanese, that my luggage had been damaged, that it wouldn't be with me on my flight to Tokyo. I had no idea what to do, or how to do it, and no Japanese language ability to back me up. Welcome to the real world, Spence.

I received my first phone bill in Tokyo and realized: Damn, I don't know how to pay it.

"How do I pay my phone bill?" I asked my manager.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I mean, what do I do? How do I do it?"

She rolled her eyes.

"You go to the convenience store, stupid!"

(Her name was Mikako, this manager, and her dream was to go work with whales out in California as a marine biologist. Wonder where she is now.)

The convenience store? It's true. All your bills can be paid at the convenience store. My phone was always getting cut off because I never paid the bill, and when I finally did pay the bill, at the convenience store, it was instantly reconnected. How was this possible?

The point is, when you live abroad, all the little things are not so little after all. How to buy a bus ticket, how to greet someone, how to not royally piss somebody off -- these are the things that define the way we live, and we have to learn how to get them right.

You're always learning, in other words. That's important, I think, to look at something new, different, strange and incomprehensible -- and then slowly, piece by piece, try to force it to make sense, at least to you.

Nobody's watching. Nobody will be there to applaud you. There will be no pats on the back, imaginary or otherwise. No framed certificates.

But you will have learned something you didn't know yesterday. And that's become more important to me as time goes on, now that I realize the limits that yesterday does, indeed, have, and the promise that tomorrow can offer, if you're willing to swallow your pride and tackle something new.

Or at least try, before reverting back to the remote.


Muktuk said...

I love this post. I like reading your cognitive process, hearing you work things through with slight amazement and awe.

One of my favorite Rumi quotes - "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment."

Learning is never done. Learning is not restricted to any medium. I feel as if it's more of an appetite and you will naturally draw things to you that will teach you.

Scott said...

I like that Rumi quote. Although, I think I've been stuck with bewilderment from the beginning, with not much cleverness to sell!?!

How do we draw the things that we need to teach us? Can it all be willed?