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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wistful for Wisteria, and Some Rather Sobering Thoughts on the Oil Spill

We long-term expats are permanent malcontents, always wishing we were somewhere other than we are right now. I guess this explains why, these past few days, I've been feeling wistful for wisteria--those long purple pendants of sweet-pea-like flowers that climb along brick walls. June is of course the peak month for wisteria in England, my first home away from home.

1) I'm remembering a particular Victorian house with thick and gnarled vines of wisteria framing its front door, in the town in East Anglia where I once lived. I became obsessed with this house and would often fantasize about living there and leading a storybook life. This fantasy never diminished, even when I learned that its real-life inhabitants were terribly unhappy (they were among the first couples amongst my set to divorce).

2) Some people have salad days, but I have wisteria days. This blog doesn't really need another metaphor, but there is something about the wisteria plant, its mixture of whimsy and hardiness (wisteria grows quickly and aggressively, living for up to 100 years), that suggests the kinds of qualities I had to draw on in the early stages of living abroad, so far away from my family and everything I'd known. Playful, curious, enthusiastic on the one hand, and full of fortitude and powers of endurance on the other.

3) Wisteria is quintessentially Victorian. I'm fascinated with Victorian times, which produced the metaphor of "seeing the elephant," around which this blog is built. It was the German Dr. Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold who brought the first wisteria and hydrangea plants to Europe from Japan. (He went to Japan in 1822 to gather information on that closed-off country.) Thanks to him, Victorians could adorn their houses with wisteria.

4) Like the heroine of Alice Walker's book, over the years I have come to embrace the color purple. England may be known for its roses and Japan for its cherry blossoms, but I remember them for their wisteria and hydrangea respectively (that Dr Siebold had good taste). Don't get me started on hydrangea (or ajisai)--I'm even more passionate about that plant than about wisteria, if that's possible. I miss my beloved ajisai as well--it's the flower Japanese people most associate with June (it flourishes in the cool and humid conditions of the rainy season, or tsuyu).

5) Memories of natural beauty help to counteract the sadness that I feel while being bombarded with images from the the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Is this what I came home for?
When I first saw this picture, I actually wondered if it was an elephant? It's a seabird of course, but species becomes indistinguishable once a creature is drenched in oil.

At the same time, I've been thinking that we world travelers are somewhat culpable in this disaster. Let's be honest: we have something in common with oil excavators. As recounted in a previous post, "seeing the elephant" was originally used by those who rushed to California in hopes of striking gold and getting rich quick. Oil, of course, is black gold.

While we may not literally seek gold or oil, we expat types tend to follow the money, going abroad to seek adventure and fortune, hopping on airplanes that leave a large carbon footprint without so much as batting an eye. We may not have chosen to live in the United States, but our actions, too, have played a part in driving the relentless demand for black gold--which fuels (quite literally) our adventures.

I am grateful to Matthew Rees for supplying a relatively recent photo of English wisteria.


Madam said...

Ah ajisai, yes indeed. Sorry I missed your message, but I like the photo you have here.

D said...

"We long-term expats are permanent malcontents, always wishing we were somewhere other than we are right now."

That is so true.

Ajisai. Will I sound like some sort of nut if I say I don't really get the ajisai passion? I mean, I like them, but I not to the extent Japanese (and obviously some other folks) are.

(Sorry, I deleted and reposted because I cannot get anything right the first time.)

ML Awanohara said...

I agree, the Japanese passion for ajisai--not to mention the fact that I as a foreigner ended up adopting it--could be construed as odd.

Other ajisai-loving gaijin will need to speak up for themselves. For me, it's a rather personal story. One June many years ago, some friends and I inadvertently stumbled upon the Miegetsu Temple in Kamakura (, a mecca for ajisai enthusiasts.

Venturing into the gardens, we were unexpectedly transported into a world of vivid blues, pinks, and purples, I hadn't seen the like of before or since.

What is more, when we got there, it was raining--but then the sky suddenly cleared. So we had the place to ourselves--a rarity in a country where (as you know) everyone flocks to see flowers.

My passion for this flowering plant has been unwavering ever since. I don't even call them "hydrangea" any more as I identify them so closely with Japan, particularly with the month of June. Natsukashii!

I'm not a gardening expert, but I understand that the greatest species diversity is in eastern Asia (Japan, China, Korea). So maybe the ajisai is the "elephant" as far as flowers go?!

A Fellow Traveler said...

How funny you should mention Siebold! I am one of those who's most happy when traveling--and just back from travels that included the charming Dutch university town of Leiden, which contains--rather inexplicably, since he was German--a museum dedicated to Siebold! This must have been a man whose life was shaped by having seen some elephants which he apparently never wanted to leave but was forced to, having been exiled from Japan, beloved Japan, where he had a wife and daughter. Going through rooms full of Siebold's collections, I could easily feel the magic of those years when the world was so new to travelers. Everything about Japan fascinated Siebold, cultural artifacts, works of art, flora and fauna. We forget that there was a time when the peoples of the world, located on distant continents, were just beginning to learn about one another. Looking at Siebold's treasures one can so easily sense how impressed he was by Japan's society, its craftsmanship, a hitherto unknown civilization. Siebold's thirst to learn more about this still-mysterious country led him to his gravest error: he began to collect maps of Japan enthusiastically, with the help of Japanese friends. When this was discovered by the Japanese government, still extremely self-isolated from the rest of the world, Siebold was charged with spying, and he and those who had helped him were held for over a year in prison. Remarkably, he was finally released when Japanese judges determined they did not have enough evidence to keep him or his Japanese associates in prison (and this in 1829!), but he was exiled from Japan and had to leave behind his family. It was 1859 before he was allowed to return to Japan, and by then both he and his Japanese wife had long since given up on ever being able to live together again, and had married other people.

So tragic that cultural misunderstandings and political suspicions should have cast a man in love with a new land as a menace, and caused him to lose the place that had become his second, chosen home. Sometimes seeing the elephant has its bitter moments.

Look up the Siebold Huis here: , including a special exhibit on Siebold's Flower Garden.

ML Awanohara said...

Thank you for reminding us, Fellow Traveler, of the dangers of viewing the Elephant rather too closely and with piercing accuracy. Even to this day, there are incidents of governments kicking out foreigners (in particular, journalists and academics) whom they perceive as knowing too much.

And how tragic in Siebold's case that he ended up having to abandon his Japanese family, owing to such prejudices!

Still, his travels weren't wasted when you consider that the plants he brought back to the West have brought untold enjoyment to people over here, myself included. Indeed, it was thanks to wisteria that I ended up seeing the UK in purple-colored much preferable to rose, in my humble opinion. :-)

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