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Sliding Down the Balustrade

John Berger

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Published: February 25, 2014 at 3:46 AM [UTC]

Here's a memory. Allie and I arrive at the Suzuki Institute building in Matsumoto, entering through the side doorway, greeting a few familiar faces. I glance into the office and wave a hello to a couple of friendly staff members. We have arranged to meet our friends here, and step into the lobby to wait.

As we sit, I glance up at the stairs that lead to the upper floors. A very young Japanese child is sliding down the outer balustrade from the first floor landing, a height three of four metres above the marble floor of the lobby! At the lower end of the balustrade is a large drop down to the floor. We immediately sense the danger, not just from falling over the balustrade onto the stone below, but when she reaches the end. She will slide off the end to the hard floor, injuring or even killing herself. As I rush over to catch her, I open my mouth to shout an alarm.

I am too late and the child arrives first, but to my utter surprise, she stops just before the end, turns and lowers herself carefully onto the lower step and starts climbing the stairs again. We stare in amazement. Two parents chat nearby, completely unconcerned by the young child's game. No-one takes any notice - except us. I feel a little foolish as she slides down again, giggling in enjoyment.

I had noticed young unaccompanied children walk along or near unfenced canals, gaping unguarded excavations and busy roads without sidewalks when we arrived in Matsumoto. We saw them travelling without adults on trains and buses. Back home it would be considered dangerous, or at least risky, but here it's commonplace. After a year there, our children do it without a second thought.

I guess these differences work both ways. Some of our everyday actions, such as hugging your family and friends, are rare in Japan. (And not as dangerous.)

Thinking about it, I realized that there is something important happening from living in these contrasting environments. In an earlier email to Teach Suzuki Violin members I examined the culture effect. Move to a different place or a new group of people, and after a while you take on the local culture. Associate with a circle of hard-working successful people and before long you adopt the same aspirations and achieve the same results. A child who joins a violin program where the students study well and make rapid progress, quickly catches up to their peers.

We have more control over it than we imagine. Although it's not always possible to move to a better place, we can change our child's and our own environment - by creating a learning habit of a new valuable skill; and by connecting and associating with people you admire and respect.

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