Food For Thought - East Meets West
A few weeks ago I visited Cosmo, the international buffet, with my Dad and some of his family. A fairly normal and very nice occurrence on the whole, but it was my waiting in line at the Teppanyaki bar which aroused thought and no little introspection. Teppanyaki is very popular, which is understandable. Scallops, salmon, squid, beef fillets, king prawn... all lead to a seriously big queue. It's at this point, queuing, listening to the the not only crackling of the east meets west fizzling fusion of flash frying fish but the east meets west fusion of both Punjabi and Wulfrunian accents, that I start to get rather irritated. There are much more efficient ways of doing this. For one, the chef only concentrates on cooking two people's choice of food at one time; he could, I reckon, be doing 5 or 6. Further to this you could well institute some sort of conveyor belt with two chefs spitting the process down and maximising the efficiency around about 5 fold. Amid this flash of frustration, I catch myself. I've completely missed the point of what is happening in front of me. Teppanyaki is an art form. The chef effortlessly slices, dices, seasons and a cooks each person's bespoke combination of fresh ingredients with a grace and flair that matches most of what you'll see on Britain's Got Talent. This quick thought pattern stirs up the memory of my friend Eliada once trying to persuade me of the importance of a video in an art gallery... a three minute loop of an egg being fried. How often do we take the time to watch our egg frying. Never. Obviously. It's an egg!
It's an egg! A collection of proteins and fats, made up of various acids, made up of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen & hydrogen, made up of neutrons, protons and electrons, made up of strings of somethingness held together by strings of nothingness all vibrating together in harmony to create the egg. Heat acts upon the macro collection of submicroscopic conjectures to change the colour, the consistency and taste into something so wonderfully palatable that it forms my breakfast most mornings. Why on earth wouldn't I want to watch an egg frying for three whole minutes? It's amazing! I return to thinking about the fact that my food is taking a while. What is more important, the art or the outcome? And it's here that my conditioned Western thought pattern is really exposed by the Eastern world flaming before me. What I've done is align myself with the thought pattern that I am so disdainful of... dualism. In the West we always want to separate things into distinct abstractions, little boxes of this and that.
For an Eastern mind, this is a daft process. We live life as one integrated whole, all that we do is rolled into one experience processed by our various individual senses and our collective relational conciseness as a human community. Whilst this holistic thinking is messy and complicated, it is deep and rich and meaningful in a way that conveniently boxed abstractions can never be. The teppanyaki is an immersive sensory experience, why am I trying to break it down into its 'constituent parts'? It's just such thinking that has made a mess of our theology, philosophies and probably our psychology. I've also abandoned the wider notion of community that surrounds the creation and enjoyment of the food, preferring a 'what satisfies me more' attitude. Again something more apparent in the Western world than the East, of which I'm well aware due to family background and my frequent travel. It's not that the Eastern mindset has it all sorted or that the prevailing word-views found in the East are more correct than those found in the West, but what this does reveal is that we really do need each other! In difference we find ourselves exposed. Our prejudices, our misconceptions, our weaknesses come to the fore as we are faced with diversity held together in the tension of our shared humanity. It is through the humility of the shared venture into diversity that we find the essential tenants of the human condition that exist in every person on every continent. It is this essentiality wherein lies the potential for long lasting unity and real growth. I've always been intrigued by the relationship between Thomas Merton and Tich Nhat Hanh. Catholic monk and Zen peace activist. The two belonged to very different traditions, different worldviews and lived out their lives in ways that may seem to have been polar opposites. Yet within these two distinct paradigms and indeed within each other they found a great connection and deep friendship despite having only ever met face to face once. They helped solidify each others thought life and each became champions of the others writings (although this was tragically cut short by Merton's untimely death). If you haven't read either of these seminal thinkers of our generation then get on it ASAP.
The more I experience difference, the more I am aware that I need it. I'm so aware that my friends in the Philippines challenge my assumptions, preconceptions & dispositions. They challenge me to be less task focussed and more people focussed. It's in this place that I'm also aware of the value I hold for them. To achieve some of the development projects we're launching we need some task focus and completer-finisher attitude, which they often lack. Together we learn, we grow, we give, we receive. If we are to to grow in what it means to be fully human we must continue to humble ourselves in order to receive the 'other'. In receiving the other we see ourselves more clearly.