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Mottainai

A post on LinkedIn referred to nine Japanese concepts – one might call them virtues if so inclined – that were part of Japanese culture. I shared the post and I thought it might be fun to write more personally about each of these concepts. The ironic part is that this particular concept had been misnamed in the LinkedIn post so you may see the definition but not the word Mottenai.

Mottainai
Don’t be wasteful.
Everything deserves respect and gratitude.
Recognize the value in what’s around you and don’t waste it.

I will be quite frank with you: it was this definition that inspired me to write some personal stories.  While I was ironing an old silk ribbon.

That is the post-Christmas Eve tradition in this household: mom – that is me – rerolling ribbons from the presents, and, no, I don’t iron those.  But I do flatten the festive cardboard boxes that recently held new pieces of clothing, along with the now empty gift bags.  And probably smooth out some tissue paper.  I have a big plastic bin where Christmas wrappings are stored from year to year.  The new paper that wrapped a big box this Christmas may wrap a book next year and very small boxes in 2024.

It is not that the house doesn’t have new gift wrap.  I think I saw at least five rolls in the garage, still with cellophane around.  I probably bought the gift wrap after Christmas a year – or two or three – ago.  But reusing Christmas wrapping takes me back to my childhood Christmases where we – the children – were free to browse the big box of last year’s wrapping for what we needed for the very secret presents we wanted to give.

Then one evening very close to Christmas, my mother would take out the new rolls and the fresh ribbon and the big scissors – and close the door.  And we knew magic was happening at the dinner table while we were supposed to play in our rooms or sleep.  No way!  We spent half the evening sitting on the stairs fantasizing about what was happening on the other side of that door.  The next morning, the sharpest corners and the most magic bows adorned the heap of presents that were stacked in the corner.  So very hard not to go snooping…

In Denmark, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th in the evening.  On Christmas Eve, after church, we and the heap would drive the 20 miles to my grandparents’ house to celebrate with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  We would count all the lighted trees in front yards and on balconies on the way there – and sleep like dead on the way back.  From the duck and the rice pudding.  From the dried figs and dates, the marzipan and the nuts, the clementines and the cookies – and one Christmas from having emptied dad’s glass of port.

My grandparents had a big house with a spare sitting room that normally was closed off all winter.  It had an old-fashioned coal oven – the rest of the house had central heating but not this room.  A wide opening led to the “normal” sitting room, and in winter this opening was boarded up and covered with heavy green portieres.  Except on Christmas when the boards had been removed and only the curtains kept curious eyes out.  After dinner, my grandfather would disappear into the inner room, and everybody lined up in front of the curtains according to age.  When grandpa had lit all the candles, he drew back the curtains and the enormous tree was displayed for the first time.  Then we would all join hands and walk around the tree, singing way too many carols and hymns while admiring all the ornaments and glancing towards the presents hiding under the tree and all around the room.

As heat rises, the candles at the top would burn down first.  Thus, the tree part of the evening would usually end once the lowest candles had thrown magic shadows of pine twigs up on the ceiling.  Then we would return to the other rooms, eat goodies to our heart’s content, and play with our new toys.  I honestly don’t remember ever going home, but, by some magic, every year I woke up in my own bed, dressed in my own nightgown on Christmas morning.

Sure, Christmas Eve was a big splash, but even that didn’t allow for waste.  All the dried apricots and the raisins, the grapes that didn’t get eaten before getting spots, and the pigeon apples, went into my grandfather’s Christmas wine.  At that time, it was illegal in Denmark to make wine from anything but what grew in the country, so, technically, imported Christmas goodies were contraband for winemaking.  With all the dried fruit sugars it turned into something resembling white port.  Who knows if that was what my sister drank sitting on dad’s lap while he was talking to his aunt?

Enough about Christmas – it’s January.

Let’s just acknowledge that chop suey is a delicious meal that means “odd ends and pieces”.  Our version is called “tipped-over fridge”.  Don’t be wasteful.

In the post on LinkedIn, the above definition was paired with the name ShuHaRi which is something else, so I went searching for the right name for this “don’t waste” definition.

And, as important, I didn’t want to let an inspiring story prompt go to waste…

ShuHaRi roughly translates to ‘to keep, to fall, to break away’ or ‘follow the rules, break the rules, transcend the rules’.

I think that deserves its own post.

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Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamphttp://www.usdkexpats.org/
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website USDKExpats.org. Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. A great message, Charlotte. You paint beautiful pictures with your words.

    We have taken to using and reusing gift bags at Christmas and avoiding fresh wrapping paper. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, irons the tissue paper and makes it available for next year. Sometimes we forget to remove the tags from one year to the next. For example, my m-i-l might have received one of the gift bags from a bridge partner. That always engenders interesting conversations and laughter. “Who is Cynthia?”

    I routinely stockpile foam and plastic fillers for future mailings, as I hate to put that stuff into the garbage because it just winds up in landfills.

    Great writing. More, please.

    • Glad I am not the only one around who does this. And the gift tag mess – yes! Been there, done that. Then gofts go the thr wrong person who is one big question mark of why they should need this. Or even worse, is really happy but it was not for him/her.

  2. What a lovely story, Charlotte!

    I really feel priviledged to peak at your childhood Christmas traditions. Christmas candles were long gone here before I came along (a little scary -must need tp pay closer attention).

    We still have a bag of old christmas wrapping and many ribbons -one that I wear as a necktie next Christmas.

    I love the concept of honoring that which surrounds us. There is a little danger in the – “I’ll just save that -you never know” orientation. Every now and again I must clean out or I’m in perpetual audition for a starring role in the TV show “Hoarders.”

    Glad you saved this story though.

    • The necktie made me laugh out loud, Alan. And having just helped my kid move, realize how much truth is in your last paragraph – I am not quite ready to let go of his stuff (what’s up with that?) Well, Goodwill will be happy.

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