Definition of multi-culturalism


A wonderful moment in London last Summer, while visiting a close family member and his boyfriend. It took place in a small but smartly-minimalist flat in South Ealing, which now sports an extension with a newly-built Japanese tea-house in the attic. Our host, a Japan-obsessive who is a highly qualified tea master and now gives classes, including to Japanese people living in London, was keen to show off and use his new teaching facility. Before dinner and drinks we had been treated to a tour of the cleverly-designed room with its sliding screens, clean white walls, single vase with one season-specific flower below a hanging scroll in an alcove, and ribbed, corn-coloured tatami matting. Also present at dinner, visiting for a few days, were his close friend, who is Hungarian, and his girlfriend. These friends had met, in fact, while studying tea together for a year at a school in Kyoto. After several gin and tonics and then several glasses of wine, somebody suggested giving us a tea ceremony, as it is traditionally a welcome ceremony to honour guests. I’m not sure the ritual is normally offered in this peculiarly British way, while half-cut and over-excited, but off they stumbled, and there was much fumbling into full ceremonial kimonos, followed by a giggling and tripping procession up the winding wooden stairs into the attic.

Fernando, our host’s boyfriend (a wiry, shrewd and dry-as-a-bone Aragonese he met when visiting me years ago in Ibiza), tottered up the stairs after me, huffing and puffing at the ridiculousness of it all. I heard a couple of ‘joder’s (‘screw this…’) By now he has come to live with his partner’s obsession with Japan, even find it endearing, though I would hardly say he shares his enthusiasm for geishas and Tea. Mind you, in return, his partner tolerates his own obsession with Eurovision, so I think fair’s fair. The ceremony was incomprehensible and somehow touching in its generosity and sincerity. The Tea Master sat to my right, giving us a slightly slurred running commentary so we knew what we were supposed to do next, and why. He instructed us to sit any way we liked as long as it was comfortable. I took up the meditation position, legs crossed and back a little slumped.

‘No, not like that, darling, come on.’ The Tea Master told Fernando, who had thrown himself onto the matting in the corner, one leg slung out into the expanse of fresh tatami, the other curled under him, leaning back onto one hand. ‘That’s a little too informal, come on, at least sit up straight.’ A Spanish sigh, the rolling of eyes felt rather than seen, and Fernando shuffled into a more ‘respectful’ position.

The bowl of vile, frothy green tea was eventually passed round. After we had drunk, we were supposed to pass it on to the person to our left, or, in Fernando’s case, as he was last in line, to the Tea Master to my right. My little Spanish friend sipped, and pulled a monkey-face.

‘Now you bring it back to me.’ He was told gently. ‘No, not walking, don’t stand up, not yet, just bring it over as best you can and lay it in front of me. ‘ Another sigh, and Fernando, gripping the bowl before him in both hands, set off shuffling, in a hunched-over gait, on his knees. As he passed me he raised his eyes, we made eye contact, and he almost lost his balance. I had to look away and he knew why. I could not look at him a second longer, otherwise the peace would have been shattered by laughter, possibly emitted from my nostrils. He was like a Calcutta beggar with the bowl aloft, his back bent, his knees painfully scraping the rush matting as he clumsily tried to ape the fluid, elegant Japanese movements of the Tea students. And he was doing it on purpose.

This was my favourite moment of multi-culturalism, this Spanish huffing and puffing, but despite the rolling of eyes, a willingness to participate, with good-natured, gentle piss-taking in the midst of the rather earnest and mysterious Eastern ceremony, conducted by his inebriated British partner and Hungarian sidekick, the joke shared by the loosely-related Brit who has swapped places with him, coming to live in his country while he goes to live in mine. Everything about it was sublime – the cherry-picking of complex other cultures, the economic and social immigration performed like a trapeze artists’ somersault in mid-air as Fernando and I exchanged countries, the incongruous surroundings, Kyoto in a suburban flat in London in late summer, the evening sunshine slanting through the windows and the white paper screens, and above all the ability to love and laugh at someone at the same time, while only half-understanding them.

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