Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

East and West: The Twain Shall Meet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

East and West: The Twain Shall Meet

Article excerpt

"Asia is one." It was in Rangoon, Burma, under the soaring golden spire of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda monument, that the truth of those words by art historian Kakuzo Okakura struck home.

I had embarked on my voyage of discovery throughout the arc of Asia - from Japan, to Southeast Asia, to India and Pakistan. It was the summer of 1955, just 10 years after World War II. The image most Westerners held of Asia was that it was a continent of strange religions and great poverty. China had disappeared behind the Bamboo Curtain drawn by Mao Tse-Tung and his Communist cohorts. Even Japan had barely begun its climb out of defeat and near-total destruction, and still lacked sufficient rice to feed itself.

I had come across Okakura's words years earlier, as a student. They were the counterpoint to Kipling's "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." How did Asia's oneness apply to Burma, or Thailand, or the Chinese of Taiwan and Hong Kong? (In those days before Henry Kissinger's trip to Beijing, mainland China was off-limits to Americans.)

Burma, like the rest of Asia, was a land of youth. I had taken an early-morning taxi ride to the countryside outside the capital. I heard a murmur of children's voices reciting in English coming from a straw hut by the roadside, and stopped the taxi to wander in. Sitting on rickety wooden benches were about 15 boys and girls, repeating in unison what their teacher was reading from a dog-eared textbook. It was the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." All I remember are those clear, high-pitched little voices shouting, "The wolf is coming!"

The schoolmaster, elderly and bearded, with glasses propped on his nose and wearing a wraparound skirt called a lungi, couldn't have been more accommodating. He stopped the recitation, gave his class some arithmetic problems, and graciously answered my questions. This was his school, he said proudly, and it was called St. Timothy's. He was preparing the children to go on to high school and, he hoped, to university. English was the language he used because it was the one the British had brought to the school system.

There wasn't much more to the conversation than that, but the children's scrubbed faces and eager eyes made a profound impression on me. Burma was enjoying a democratic interlude between British colonial rule and the military dictatorship imposed by Gen. Ne Win in the early 1960s. It was an old civilization, but a young country. The average age of the Southeast Asians, including the Burmese, was something like 15 years.

Back in Rangoon, I took a trishaw, a Burmese pedicab in which the passenger seat is beside the pedaler. I didn't speak the language, but somehow the trishaw made me feel I was more a part of the life of the streets. Men and women were shopping at market stalls pungent with smells of unfamiliar spices. …

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