IT would happen again and again during the six years I lived in Japan. I'd begin to feel smug, confident in my knowledge of where to wear my shoes or use the nine-syllable form of thank you, when something would show me, like the rudeness of a well-focused camera, that I was a gaijin, a foreigner, a newcomer to this old culture.
I strolled confidently into my weekly flower-arranging lesson in my teacher's summer studio, a tiny apartment in a high-rise building in the Roppongi section of Tokyo. I was relaxed.
I'd been a student of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana (Sogetsu School of Flower Arranging) for a year and a half. I knew my role perfectly. My sensei (teacher) would demonstrate the construction of an arrangement from the official textbook. I would imitate her. I'd become quite good at it. Arrangements in shallow dishes, arrangements in tall tubular containers, baskets, bowls, even flat lacquered boards; I could do them all. I was confident. Smug.
But one day my sensei handed me a bundle of flowers and said, "You're ready to create your own arrangement." She smiled. "Pardon me?" I stammered. No demonstration? No textbook measurements? Is this a lesson? What does she mean my own arrangement?
I could see from her face that questions were out of the question. I tried to clear my own face of confusion. I looked at the bundle of purple chrysanthemums, white marguerites, and long thin aspidistra leaves and wondered how to begin. Just when I'd figured out how to be a model Japanese student, the rules had changed.
I measured and cut and pushed the stems into the pin holder, pulled them back out, recut, and started again.
My mind went back to the philosophical foundations of ikebana. Shin, the primary stem, represents heaven. Soe, the secondary stem, represents Earth. Hikae, the shortest, is man. When the three are in harmony with each other, the arrangement will have beauty.
I stepped back, finally, finished.
My sensei's face was expressionless. "As you can see," she said, "the flowers become very tired-looking when they are handled too much." The flowers, I thought, are in harmony with their arranger.
Eventually I learned to create my own arrangements as easily as I once imitated my sensei's and the textbook arrangements. I earned an elementary-level teacher's certificate, and then a secondary-level certificate. By this time I'd been studying ikebana in Tokyo for four years. It was time, I decided, to attend the teachers' seminars with the Sogetsu School's headmaster, the iemoto.
If I had any doubts that ikebana was more than putting flowers into a vase, they evaporated in the lobby of the headquarters building of the Sogetsu School. A modern 10-story glass and steel structure located in the heart of Tokyo, it houses the school's offices, classrooms, book and supply store, auditorium, and coffee shop.
On this day, the huge multilevel lobby, with its granite floors and waterfalls whispering into small pools, was decorated with arrangements that shared a common element - metal. Many of the arrangements would be called sculpture in the West. Here, they were ikebana. They were the work of the school's master teachers. The iemoto, Hiroshi Teshigahara, had named metal as the theme of that spring's seminars.
On the sixth floor, I happily paid the equivalent of $50 in seminar fees. I was confident, satisfied to be a part of all this. I hurried with 80 other student-teachers to complete my arrangement within the hour allotted. We were given a wide choice of fresh materials, from blossoming tree branches, reeds, and all manner of greenery to flowers.
The choice of flowers was so extensive, in both color and variety, that I stopped for a moment, overwhelmed. But only for a moment. The best materials disappeared rapidly into the hands of the more experienced seminar attendees.
At my place along the rows of tables, I noticed that the woman next to me had brought wire to use as an element in her arrangement. I vowed to do the same next month. For awhile the room was filled only with the metallic sound of clippers snipping off stems. No one spoke.
When the end of the hour was announced, we hastily cleaned up and stood next to our work to await the arrival of the iemoto. Suddenly he swept into the room, fastening a tiny microphone to his shirt.
As he passed, each student-teacher bowed. They looked like dominoes falling in his wake. I was so stunned by the grandeur of the iemoto's entrance that I stood as straight as an unhammered nail as he passed me.
Using a short wooden pointer, he critiqued one after another of our arrangements. We had to step forward, bow and face him as he discussed our work, then bow again as he left. The other student-teachers clustered around, leaning forward to hear.
When he reached my space, he glanced toward me. I realized, too late, that this was my cue to bow. My heart thudded wildly inside my chest, and I strained to concentrate on his words.
He pronounced my work "very Japanese." I allowed myself a sign of relief. Appreciative giggles rippled around the room. Abruptly he moved to the next table. Once more I'd missed my cue to bow.
At the end of the critque period came a lecture of adapting ikebana to modern life. Then the iemoto descended the podium and began his exit. I was ready. I stood at attention, my eyes fixed on the row of people between him and me. As he approached, I tensed forward. But he stopped. In front of me.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
For one panic-stricken moment, I thought I'd parked in a restricted area. "In the building?" I asked.
"In Japan," he said.
"Oh! Four years."
"What level teacher are you?"
His head dipped in the faintest of nods, he turned suddenly and resumed his exit. I'd forgotten to bow.
For the fourth time in two hours, I had failed at one of the basics of Japanese etiquette. Standing at nearly 5 feet, 7 inches and the only Westerner among 85 people, I had not been blending into the crowd in the first place.
We lived in Japan for two more years, and I continued to study ikebana. I even learned to bow at the appropriate moments in the lesson. But more importantly, I learned to accept as inevitable my status as a gaijin, a foreigner, a newcomer to this old culture.