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Totoro's Smile

I have just returned from one of the main lecture halls here in Grayville, today's site of serious academic exchange, famous politicians' debates and university professors' lectures offering the latest in scientific facts worthy of the excellence cluster we wish to be, at least for a day.
As I waited for the door to open so I could set up my presentation and Yoshi next to my laptop, I could hear students laughing about its title "Godzilla Rising". It made me smile because, one, the title proved to be a good choice right there as it got people's attention and, two, ... Japanese popular culture, really? You can study that? What's the point? ... the questions hit the bull's eye.
For about 90 minutes, strangers and students I have know for some time escaped into a world of manga/anime, cosplay, idols and "pokemon"sters. 90 minutes in which the police in Paris was trying to recover the wounded and dead people from the most recent terrorist attacks. 90 minutes in which some refugees struggled to move into secure places, others - students, too - worked for a less-than-minimum wage to make ends meet right here in Grayville.
Our shared 90 minutes - our musical memories of fictional characters we love, the sudden reminder of how we overspent the little pocket money we had as kids on Yu-gi-oh trading cards, the nodding as we realized that in cosplay we can question world "order" and norms and cross cultural borders in more than one way - seem to pale against the darkness of our daily (political) affairs.
Yet, in those 90 minutes about 30 strangers forged a mutual bond of appreciation for the OTHER, of respect for what seemed alien and distant. Being different, perhaps from their peers, and seeking to understand why Pikachu is, well, so extremely kawaii (and yellow and useful as an educational tool), brought us together - and one or the other, as I noticed from their questions, closer to their decision to explore Japanese culture right there in the land of the Rising Sun, crossing borders, continents and oceans on the way.
Yes, we were privileged to spend those 90 minutes together in a warm room with full bellies and a place to sleep. Yes, popular culture is a far cry from Nobel Prize science and elitist academe. Yes, Japan has its dark sides also.
But what I saw in you, my guests, today is the desire for respect, shared and received, a passion for nature's spirits no matter how enticing those game consoles may be, and a willingness to reach out to our fellow humans in the world.
Across-the-cultures contact is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to frown upon. It is a way to enhance our common humanity.



Totoro, you see, is smiling.




PS: I took this comment off-line for a few days. I did not want to exploit the terrorist attacks in Paris for arguing the importance of intercultural exchange by living popular culture. But this article in the NYT convinced me that the sparkle I saw in my guests and the joy I felt over their shared enthusiasm over something that some would consider alien, worthless or even dangerous is, in fact, something to behold. FEAR is what threatens our humanity now. (Nov. 16, 2015)


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