“Look for the Small Things” A Storyteller Opens His Eyes to the World
At 3:00 AM I wondered why I was waking up in Tokyo Japan to see an open-air fish market. Why in the world would I bring myself out of a cold slumber to watch cold dead fish being sold on a cold dead floor? I know back in the states I would never get up at that time to see the shipment of fish coming in the back door of the local Red Lobster Restaurant, what made today different?
I asked this question to a teacher who witnessed a Japanese Fish Market and he said, “You’re a storyteller, right? I don’t want to spoil it for you. All I will tell you is look for the small things, don’t miss the small things.”
Upon arriving via taxi, subway, and after a brisk jog, at first all I noticed was the smell and sight of fish. However, when I did more than look, but experienced the wonder of it all, this sight took on new meaning.
In little vats of every shape and size there was a vast array of fish and sea life. From the small octopus to the sleek eel to unknown creatures still submerged in water, it was a mosaic of beauty. This scene was coupled by watching the workers, young and old labor at remarkable speeds to make sure the fish was presented well. Tired weathered hands showed new hands how to take care of sea life and one could easily tell who had sea legs and who did not. A careful glance would have made this place a passing encounter, but traveling as a storyteller “looking for the small things” made it a memory, a story to be shared.
When we travel to countries unknown, where languages are not the same, we need to remember not to travel as tourists, but as storytellers. A storyteller is someone who tries to be aware of the small things all the time. Instead of being the person who sees dead fish in a pan, instead, take the time to learn the culture, ask questions, and most important, listen to others.
This is the lesson that I learned when I had the opportunity in October to travel to Japan for three weeks with the Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholarship program. Since I was traveling as a teacher and professional storyteller, I worried about how to find stories? Would language be too much of a barrier? I soon realized it was the stories that found me. Some stories appeared in all kinds of place. Some came disguised as kernels of knowledge, some as simple whispers by local people, and some just a small vein of information to be discovered later.
Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Travel is a necessity for a storyteller, it is a sure fire way to help us learn the folkways and folktales of the people. Here is some advice that can help a storyteller when he or she is traveling in a different country. There is so much to see, feel, and touch, but only if you are prepared for the beauty of the culture.
Do not judge another culture or custom based on your own.
When I was in England, I actually had the misfortune of hearing others drone on about missing Taco Bell, but I was in England where Shepard’s pie, Welsh rarebit, and other delicacies could be sampled. In Japan, others questioned why people would eat raw fish? I say, immerse yourself with new eyes and even a new appetite. It is from this experience that I know the richness of sampling sushi, Yakitori and Shabu-shabu. It is so with people, experiment, take risks, and indulge in the culture that you have traveled so far to see. Whet your appetite and savor the richness that come from listening and sampling the harvest of the land, culture, and people. Instead of depending on Fodor as your guide, let the native people be your guide, they are the greatest ambassadors of their culture and ways.
Writer James Michener said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people you might better stay at home.” Even if you don’t speak the same language, you have stories to tell. With a little non-verbal cuing and with a sincerity to share, you will be amazed at how much you have to offer each other.
Listen to Others
As a storyteller once told me, “I tell hundreds of stories, but what makes me a good storyteller is I listen to so many more than I tell.” A good storyteller knows when to be quiet and listen. It is from samples or tidbits of conversations that storytellers receive the best stories. Take the time to listen and yes even struggle. You will be surprised by the awesome tales they may occur or at the very least, friendships that are formed. I spent an entire day with a Japanese university student who spoke little or no English and we shared everything from music to school tales to the wonders of our cultures merely by listening to each other relate in a new way.
I had the good fortune to stay with a Japanese doll maker. When given the opportunity to stay inside with her for a quiet evening or go out on the town, I chose to stay. It was that evening that spoke the loudest. I sat for hours as she quietly took out her over 150 handmade dolls and told me the stories that each doll represented. She shared the story of the Geisha of the celebrated Kabuki and Kogen Theater actors and even of the ostracized villains of Japanese culture and heroes like Benka, a small warrior with a big heart. .
Tell With Sensitivity for the Culture.
I have to admit that after being in Japan for three weeks, the old folktales have new meanings. When I hear or tell Urishama Taro I can not only use my memory of what I have read, but now I can couple that with stories of what it meant to Japanese adults and children. . Customs like the importance of taking off your shoes or drinking tea have special significance in Japanese stories; I now look at the old and new stories with new eyes. I need to stay true to the sensitivity of the stories and the people who tell them.
There is always a background when telling a story. Take the time to study it; it will help enlighten your telling. Some stories in certain circles are sacred stories; respect the religion and ideas behind the story as well as the stories.
Lastly listen often.
The Japanese is known for gift giving, not only for the gift but for the way it is presented. On one particular day I watched shop keepers graciously give 100 year old kimonos and family hanko, a form of stamp that carries more weight than your signature, simply because they wanted the gifts to be passed on. One person said to me, “Kevin, everyone with us has a gift, when will you get one?” I told her, “I have been given the best gift, and the stories behind each personal gift you have.” I sat and listened how the kimono had been passed from grandmother to grandmother and admired the story of how the hanko was formed and what legacy it held. People will provide their stories, only if we take the time to listen to them.
As we travel, we travel as storytellers. With that comes responsibility to listen and “look for the small things,” because believe me they make for one giant and beautiful story. I hope your travels are as pleasant as the people you meet.
**I would like to thank storyteller Jay Stailey for helping me embark on my trip to Japan.