I have been thinking a lot about stereotypes lately, probably because so much of my attention has been concentrated on Japan, where the World Rugby Cup is being played. Japan is possibly the one place in the world above all others that is known by western stereotypes. As I was growing up in the 1930s, the stereotype being sold to us was of the Yellow Peril, poised somewhere above us in the North Pacific, ready to swoop down on us at any time; Unfortunately, this turned out to be a stereotype made to order --- for Japan did obediently swoop down towards us with their fanatic militarism. They never quite reached as far as us, but they made quick work of the British possessions throughout the Pacific, and made it as far as Darwin, Australia’s northernmost outpost, which they attacked a couple of times, and the image of Japan transmitted by their behaviour during the war was of a cruelty almost beyond anything known from previous wars.
With the end of the war, and the makeover of Japan into an obedient American satrap --- another stereotype, this obedience --- the stereotype changed dramatically. Suddenly, the Japanese, on whom the world’s single most unholy attack had been launched, not once but twice, by our virtuous side, suddenly, along came this new Japan, with its array of high quality goods replacing the tripe they used to sell when just building up their industries before the war, suddenly this was a new Japan, friendly, cured, mysterious of course in many ways, but capable of many of the finest feelings known to human kind.
I will never forget the surprise I felt when I next ran up against some modern Japanese in 1978, when I happened to be passing through Vancouver airport on my way to China, and I found myself suddenly surrounded by some recently-disembarked Japanese tourists. Clearly the old stereotypes no longer applied to these spectacularly dressed strangers in Western-style suits and dresses, the young women in tight sweaters and jeans, their chests emblazoned with cheeky messages like “Come and get me,” or “Ready and waiting,” the young men resplendent in tight white suits. Where on earth did these new-style Japanese come from?
By this time I should have been warned, because I had already had the experience of visiting that Germany, with its race of aggressive militarists I had always been taught to hate, only to find that when I talked to people of my own age in the camping grounds, I discovered to my astonishment that they were just like me.
Later I had the experience of defying the stereotypes when I drove down from Winnipeg, in a third-hand Austin A30, about the smallest car on the road in the 1950s, towards Mexico. All along the way, people we spoke to warned us against going in such a car into Mexico, a country well-known to be full of bandits, as the Americans described it, ready to pounce on the unwary traveller at any moment. It was hardly a surprise when we discovered that the bandits were mostly siting along the roadside sleeping under those great straw hats they wore, and that whenever we had occasion to try to talk to them, we found them wonderfully friendly and responsive.
Of course we clung to some stereotypes ourselves. I remember as we were returning north from Mexico City we stopped off one night in Mazatlan, one of the major ports of the Mexican Pacific coast. We stayed overnight in the Hotel La Siesta, whose neon-lit sign across the front needed a bit of work. A few letters had given out so that it was showing only HOT L A SI S. The next morning, as we sat outside our bedroom on the upstairs balcony looking into a courtyard, watching the languorous movements of the maids as they went about their work in the most leisurely fashion, accompanied by ceaseless talk and laughter among them, it was more or less inevitable that the hotel became for us, The Hotel Hot Lassies, forever emblazoned in our memories by that name. And the Mexican chambermaids immediately recalled as Hot Lassies --- our own stereotype, ready-made.
It was almost fifty years before we found ourselves driving north again along the Pacific highway, and there, sure enough, stood the Hotel La Siesta, this time with all letters working. We simply had to stop, take a room in spite of the price having moved up beyond our reach (but just for the one night, for old time’s sake). While there we visited the memorable restaurant that had fed us such a beautiful meal on our first visit. By this time the restaurant had the unforgettable name of El Shrimp Bucket. We had not realised the first time around that Mazatlan is the central Pacific port for Mexico’s shrimping fleet, so the shrimps served were almost right out of the ocean. Although Mazatlan was still the same sleepy Pacific coastal town it had always been, we discovered that the whole region had grown ten times in population, with the erection along the coast of the so-called malecon or boardwalk around which were gathered a huge collection of high-rise luxury hotels, each one with their fancy price. We moved into a cheaper hotel halfway between the old town and the new, but our delay was simply to enable us to return to El Shrimp Bucket where they prepared the most delicious shrimp dishes we had ever eaten or ever expect to eat. Unfortunately for any of my readers who may have developed a secret desire to sample these wonderful dishes, the Internet tells me El Shrimp Bucket was open in May of this year, but a later aficionado said he had to return several times before he could be convinced that the restaurant had closed, definitively, closed for good. But the memory of those delicious dishes will be with me as long as my memory lasts.
Meantime, back in Japan, my favoured All Blacks team, always anxious to be liked, pulled off a big one when, obeying the stereotype, they paraded around the ground and bowed to the huge audience, as an expression of respect for their culture.
After the next game they earned more respect still when they approached the team from Canada that they had just beaten to a pulp, to invite them to visit their dressing room so they could get to know them a bit. For me, that was a big one: an act of good sportsmanship, without which it isn’t even worth playing these silly games.
Stereotypes can sometimes produce amusing, and heart-warming, results. I will never forget the occasion on which I was flying from Melbourne, Australia to Rome, by an Alitalia plane that was fully booked. The gate was crammed with Italians whose families had somehow made it through all discouragements so that they could farewell family members, and friends. All were talking, and, being Italians, the noise they made was overwhelming, Eventually, sitting alone, among this cacophony, I was surprised that a hush descended on this crowd as an announcement was made, first in English then Italian. ”We are ready to board the passengers now. We will board by row numbers…. Those with seats in rows… Rows number 52 to 62, please make your way to the gate…”
The rest of the message was lost under a huge explosion of noise as every person, passengers and family members alike, rose as one man to rush forward to the gate, where they overwhelmed the attendants, and began, waving tickets and boarding passes, to press up against the still-closed door, shouting and yelling, all of them, the more so as they discovered it was not their turn and were rejected.
These Italians! You gotta love ‘em.
Ah, wot the hell! wot the hell. C’est toujours gai, la vie, toujours gai, no?