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THE COMMONS ROOM

LUNCHING ON
INTERCULTURAL
UNDERSTANDING

Stepping off the elevator on the fifth floor of the old Medical Arts Building, I wander a maze of corridors looking for student health services nurse May Watanabe and the conference room where her regular Eat 'n Meet International Bag Lunches are held. Suite 500, says the paper in my hand. But when I finally get there, a sign propped on an easel directs international lunchers vaguely in the direction of the ceiling.

I plod down another corridor, hoping--although I'm early--to spot an Asian, African, or European-looking face to follow. Instead, I come across only white-coated workers urgently rushing past many carefully shut doors. Soon, still lost in the wilds of Student Health Services, I am back at the elevators. The second time around, in desperation, I barge into an office that seems less busy than the rest and am finally directed not to the conference room but Watanabe's office.

Seen through a glass partition, May Watanabe is intently bent at her work station, evidently preparing a specimen to be examined there at her microscope. But no, as she looks up and greets me as though I am not a stranger but an old friend, I see that she's only slicing carrots that she proceeds to stack carefully on a paper plate. I help her carry these and other healthy munchables into the elusive conference room.

By then it's just before noon, and Watanabe can't stop rearranging her paper plates of carrot sticks, grapes, bananas, and prune bread, obviously worrying, as every hostess is wont to do just before the doorbell rings, that nobody will come to her party.

"Midterms are this week," she frets, fiddling with the red-framed glasses she wears as a sort of utilitarian necklace on a brass chain outside her immaculate white lab coat. "And it's raining."

The week before, similarly waiting for her first guests, she had despaired--unnecessarily, it had turned out--that record wind chill factors would keep everyone away. But no matter what the weather, an amiable group of students, faculty, and staff turns up for bag lunches held here most every week over the past four years.

"May?" From the hallway comes the echo of lilting voices. "May?"

More lost first-timers, I guess, as I crane my neck and motion for the three hesitant students to come inside.

A bright-eyed young man and woman, followed by a fellow looking mysterious in a fedora, peek into the conference room. "Is this the place?"

"You came!" Watanabe jumps up, and suddenly the energy level soars as she helps them off with their parkas and they mill about before choosing seats and digging in their backpacks for their bag lunches.

The students move fast, talk faster, and, as they punctuate everything with a laugh, the conference room has become a party. It turns out that these are students from Mexico who have come to the bag lunch for the first time after attending Watanabe's once-a-term evening potluck supper at a local church the weekend before.

"We had a great time at the dinner," says Myrna, an English and mechanical engineering student whose pony tail wags with near-constant enthusiasm."And we met such terrific people. At home in Mexico, you never met anyone but Mexicans. But here you can see people from every country."

Meanwhile, the fellow in the fedora is explaining, in a flat Midwestern accent that sounds most definitely American, that actually he met these new friends at the potluck dinner. Although he was born in Mexico and his mother is Mexican, he doesn't know a word of Spanish. He's majoring in Chinese.

At once, for me, his life story sets off one of the hour's guessing games.

Looks can be deceiving. So who really comes from which country?

At that, as the room is rapidly filling with a dozen or so others, in sweeps a short round dynamo. She is carrying a sunny yellow umbrella, has a violently violet scarf wrapped around her neck, and is wearing a day-glo "I love Pittsburgh" sweatshirt.

Asian, I guess, possibly--with those round apple cheeks--Chinese.

But no, upon spying the Mexicans the young woman who will be introduced later as Elisa immediately launches into such spirited, staccato, evidently native-speaking Spanish that my every cultural stereotype is shattered.

Unbeknownst to me, at least then, this particular intercultural get-together has already achieved its purpose.

May Watanabe is a third generation Japanese-American born in Chico, California, 73 years ago. She and her family were among 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants detained as "security risks" in internment camps at the outbreak of World War II.

Since then many--Watanabe included--have denounced those concentration camps as a dark stain on America's history.

"It takes a long time," she finally wrote, discussing the experience in her college alumni magazine more than a generation later, "to recover trust when one is judged and condemned on the basis of prejudice without a chance to respond or defend oneself."

Specifically, in Watanabe's case, it took many years to deal with the feelings about her year's imprisonment at the Tule Lake camp in California. After her release, she quietly went on with her life. She earned her nursing degree at Syracuse, married, and had two daughters. Over 25 years ago she came to Pitt.

Yet according to one of her daughters, it wasn't until Watanabe's own mother died decades later that she finally began to exorcise that devil in her own memory. The painful process began, her daughter writes in that same alumni magazine, "somewhat timidly but with a focus I had never seen previously," until finally "a growing number of disjoined but powerful fragments of memory have emerged in place of the familiar 'I don't remember.'

"I applaud my mother for the courage she has shown to remember-- slowly but surely.... As she approaches her seventieth birthday, it is mystifying and glorious to me to see my mother recover and awaken parts of her that she had lost to numbness or buried in quiet for many years."

Reading all this later--Watanabe herself never mentioned the concentration camp and simply slipped me a photocopy of her alumni article--I see a previously unsuspected significance in these humble bag lunches.

Deep inside, "Watanabe says, looking around the Pitt table where students and staff are companionably chatting, "I feel maybe there is something good about these get-togethers. Only with repeated contact between people can you develop relationships that are meaningful.

"As individuals, if we can begin to appreciate one another and find a certain commonness, in time we can start to teach our own children to be broader."

She is interrupted--neither for the first nor last time--by Elisa, who looks so Asian and talks so Latin. "I like to say I was made in China, finished in Costa Rica, and exported to the US," she laughs, explaining that until she came to Pitt to study English she had always lived in Central America with her Chinese parents.

A linguistics graduate student and habitue at Watanabe's gatherings, Elisa remembers she was "so lonely last year" until at these bag lunches she met women friends from India, Germany, and America .

But perhaps of more lasting importance was Elisa's encounter and subsequent friendship with a young woman from Japan. "Because of many things that happened in their lives, especially during World War II, my parents brought me up to hate the Japanese." Elisa's voice rises with passion.

"My mother always said never have anything to do with anyone Japanese. And then, here was this Japanese girl. I liked her. And I thought, why do we have to hate them? We have to fight these stereotypes and work for a better world. May is helping people to understand."

At the far end of the table, another Asian girl agrees. Kate is Chinese and from Hong Kong, and she says that her parents, too, taught her that Japanese were the enemy. Yet she had arrived at this particular lunch with Machiko, a Japanese girl she met around this very table and who subsequently became her friend. "I feel," Kate says, "that without nationalism, the world would go a lot better."

Listening to all this is a tall, slim, grave young man. Unlike the others, who are polishing off sandwiches and working their way through tubs of take-out salads and slurping gigantic colas, he neither eats nor drinks, only listens. Tariq is a business student from Saudi Arabia and is fasting during daylight hours for this holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

Under cover of the hubbub, Watanabe tells me how happy she was to see him at her potluck over the weekend. "It was his first time with us. We've had 60 to 70 people from nearly 25 countries, hut we don't get as many Arabs as I'd like." (She wishes more Africans would turn out, too.)

Tariq's silence, meanwhile, seems to have piqued Elisa's interest.

"I had the idea," she tells him, "that, in addition to the Japanese, Arab people were bad, too. But what did I know? In the movies, all the time the Arabs are the bad guys. Then I met this one Arab, a boy named Abdullah, here.

"He was nice. Lonely, I thought. He had trouble meeting people until he came to our lunches. But now he doesn't come anymore." She laughs. "I guess he's not so lonely anymore."

Uncertainly, Tariq smiles, and his discomfort reminds me of long, hot afternoons during the years I spent living in the Mideast.

Sitting cross-legged on sun-dappled carpets, never did I altogether understand what was being said, and always I was grateful when some friendly soul would inevitably smile and set me at ease. I can't resist returning those favors by coming to Tariq's rescue.

Elisa listens intently when I tell her it's no wonder that Arab students are lonely here. Everyday life in Arab villages is a constant round of gossipy visits. Hardly anyone is ever alone for long. And all the time they talk, these most hospitable people like to eat and drink.

Tariq looks surprised but pleased at this unexpected endorsement, and I search my memory for a telling detail that will tease Elisa and the others into wanting to get to know him better.

And then I remember the rice. South Americans and Chinese love rice. So I smack my lips in reminiscence of sitting on the floor, Arab- fashion, eating the world's best pilafs.

The secret, I finally learned, is a buttery crust at the bottom of the cooking pot. As a guest, I was always offered the mouth-watering, crunchy bits. Unfortunately, restaurants don't serve these home-cooked pilafs, and I always burn the butter when I try to replicate the dish.

"I cook this!" Tariq at last is smiling. "I cook this rice!"

"The best rice?" Elisa says to Tariq. "Well, I'm a good cook, too. How about you cook Arab, and I'll cook Latin, and we'll invite lots of friends? "

Watanabe, too, gets enthusiastic. "We could all do that. Everyone show how to cook their own food. If we could only find a big enough kitchen. "

But the hour is coming to an end, and classes are about to begin. Chattering nonstop, some old friends, and some who have just met, begin making their farewells.

Yet just before Elisa hustles out the door with her new Arab friend, Watanabe calls him back. She understands that because of his religious beliefs he can't eat until evening, yet she can't resist pressing him to take a banana along with him.

Tariq grins. "At home, too, never do we want our guests to leave with empty hands."--Laurie Devine


LIBRARY CALL NUMBER:
TGIF. ASAP

Overhead conversation between students walking past Hillman Library late one Friday afternoon: "Are you going...in there? Now?" one student asked as her friend peeled off toward Hillman's glass doors. Her friend looked startled. "Well, only to the bathroom ...." "Okay, then," the first student replied. "You had me worried."--Mark Collins



A LIFE IN PRINT

"And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land."

So begins the Old Testament's Book of Ruth. The book is propped open to its first page in Hillman Library Room 363, the Special Collections Reading Room.

I am alone, but for a single librarian ruminating at his desk, at a springtime exhibit of more than 130 books chronologically arranged in a row of glass cases. I begin with Ruth (1935) and travel to The Pittsburgh Bibliophiles (1987) .

This journey of more than half a century represents a lifetime of craftsmanship by Thomas C. Pears III, a marvelous Pittsburgh printer and book designer. Although he contributed not a word of text, these books--as artifacts--are his. Each page, each mark of type, bears his unique imprint in this work that was his life.

Tom Pears died in 1991, bequeathing to Pitt his entire library: the books he brought into being, as well as his working library--the books he lived by. The collection comprises a thousand volumes. In truth, it comprises a good deal more.

Pears was a specialty printer. His tool of trade--the hand-fed Washington job press--was his medium, his muse, his refuge. Just a handful of years ago he was producing books in almost Gutenberg fashion: hand-setting the type and hand-feeding paper into his press. His books were meant for beauty, meant to last forever. His profession may not survive this century.

Born in 1911, Tom Pears grew up in Pittsburgh's Regent Square, where his father served as minister of Waverly Presbyterian Church. Printer's ink, as the saying goes, coursed through the boy's veins. From his childhood home, he published his own newspaper, the Park Place Herald, at age 14.

Pears majored in English at Princeton University, graduated in 1933, and returned to Pittsburgh working under his uncle Harry Pears at the printing firm Davis and Warde.

Three years later, in 1936, the University of Pittsburgh Press was born, and Tom Pears was a favorite printer for the next several decades. His many books for the Press include: With Rifle & Plow (1938), Whiskey Rebels (1939), Troy and Her Legend (1948), Map Maker & Indian Traders (1949), George Washington in the Ohio Valley (1955), Penn's Woods West (1958), The First Biography of Joan of Arc (1964), The Compleat Angler (1970), and Outposts of the War for Empire ( 1985). Year after year the American Institute of Graphic Arts honored much of Pears' work among "the 100 best designed books."

In the early 1940s, when union rules restricted his freedom and long hours in the print shop, Pears purchased a small hand-press for use in the basement of his home.

After he retired from Davis and Warde as executive vice president, the company moved his job press into a mezzanine atelier, where Pears continued for years as a private printer. There he explored bolder, more abstract expression, and experimented with silk-screen techniques. But this was the exception to his more traditional tendencies.

As I examine the titles in the Special Collections Reading Room, I discover a curiosity or two, such as: A Century of Saving Dollars 1855--1955. This tale, surely from another era, "being the true and unusual story of how the Dollar Savings Bank pioneered in making thrift practical for Pittsburghers." And I am amused to see two wildly dissimilar texts cheek- by-jowl in the Pears' oeuvre: Reading Finnegans Wake and Howard Heinz Endowment--A Report of Its Works.

Character, they say, is destiny. Departing the exhibit, I reflect on those virtues that distinguished Tom Pears' body of craftsmanship. His metier was unassuming and unpretentious craft. His aesthetics were clean, deft, subtly pleasing to the eye. His books reflected heartfelt reverence and graceful artistry, not a one lacking in attraction. Yet always there is understatement, there is quiet respect.

"Book design should be invisible, that was Pears' philosophy." So asserts Charles Aston, director of special collections at Hillman Library.

Aston met Pears years ago at a meeting of the Pittsburgh Bibliophiles, an avid group of book collectors and aficionados. Says Aston, "Our fascination is the physical book, in all its aspects."

The Pittsburgh Bibliophiles was founded three decades ago. For a quarter of a century Pears printed and designed all of that organization's books, reports, and meeting notices. Today the bibliophiles continue to meet monthly on the Pitt campus.

Aston says simply, "Tom helped me a great deal. We became good friends." He adds, "Pears had no sense of himself as a serious collector. But he was a serious printer and designer. He loved his work with books."

Later I talk by phone with Isabel Pears. She tells me what she believes to be her husband's greatest honor. The story concerns the London Bibliographical Society, whose membership has long included some of the finest specialty printers in the world. In fact, the Society had never in its history commissioned the design and printing of a book to anyone outside its circle. The lone exception: Tom Pears of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. The book: The Missiale Speciale, an important piece of scholarship elucidating how to trace the age of paper by its papermark.

Tom Pears' favorite piece of handiwork? Isabel is reluctant to choose a single example. But she does admit of his pride in designing and printing The Wildflowers of Western Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Basin, an immense tome published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1953 and featuring hundreds of watercolors. The book took four years to complete and is an exquisite joy.

It is troubling to speculate on the future of specialty printers. This is a craft of manual skill. It is very costly. It is very slow. It has become superseded in so many ways by computerized typography. Meanwhile, we live in an emerging age of cyberspace information superhighways.

And yet. And yet. Perhaps there is something that will endure in the artful expression of fine type on fine stock by adroit human hand and intelligence and care, something tactile and meaningful to human life. Examine the life and legacy of Tom Pears and you can believe so.

Back to the exhibit in the Special Collections Reading Room. Back even, to the beginning of Pears' journey and the Book of Ruth, also a story of quiet virtue and faith and enduring inner strength.

Taped to the wall near Ruth is a picture of Tom Pears in his printing shop. He is an elderly man, yet seems blessed with vigor. His hair is snowy white. If you look at his face closely, he appears to be winking, at peace with himself, his countenance a well-made open book.-- Tommy Ehrbar


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