Nestled in the lofty, green hills of Ito, our room had a beautiful view of the sea. The bay was dotted with the warm glow of fishing boat lights, set under a sky splashed with stars. The crisp smell of bamboo wafted up from the garden, where a series of waterfalls cascaded down. The faint chirping of crickets brought life to an otherwise still night.
I retreated inside at the call of our server—dinner was ready. A long, low table sat at the center of the room, over the tatami-mat floor. Behind the table was a small alcove with a flower arrangement under a traditional Japanese ink painting. Our server, Miyo—a young woman clad in a cherry-pink kimono with a white, peony-patterned obi—brought in our first course.
Japan was such a nice escape from the crowds, pollution and noise of Beijing. In my week there I cheered on the Yomiuri Giants—the “Yankees of Japan”—in the Tokyo Dome, watched Hayao Miyazaki’s newest film, “The Wind Rises,” in Roppongi and paid a visit to the memorial shrine of the Tokugawa family at the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Before heading down to Ito, I even had 5:30 a.m. sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market.
As our second course—an assortment of seasonal vegetables and seafood—arrived, I began to tell my friends, an American couple visiting for a week, a bit about the dishes in front of us. Our meal, called kaiseki, was a multi-course (five in our case), small-plate meal of traditional Japanese cuisine. Later, inspired by the artistry and delicate balance of flavors and colors present in our dishes, we got onto the subject of work-life balance.
This topic has become an increasing concern of mine since deciding to pursue a career in medicine. Medicine is a field that ostensibly tips the balance in favor of work over leisure: being extremely busy is normal, even glorified. I remember shadowing a surgeon in Wisconsin who easily logged 15 or 16-hour days. Even the ER docs that I shadowed in Boston—lucky members of a “lifestyle specialty”—spent 40 hours on shift and 20 hours doing research every week.
I have already struggled with work-life balance in Beijing. My daily two hours of Chinese lessons and 10-12 hour workdays have taken a toll on my health. (As has the Beijing air.) But I don’t seem to be the only one struggling. My friends in Tokyo, many of them at top Japanese conglomerates, work 12-16 hour days. Duke friends, many of them now working in New York or D.C., share similar stories of long hours, little sleep and lots of stress. Busy is a global phenomenon.
Every once in a while it is good to question why we do things. Being in Japan at that quiet seaside ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), removed from the hustle and bustle of Beijing, certainly put me in an introspective state of mind. I asked: Why is it that I work so hard to be so busy all of the time? And why is it that being busy is not as much fun as it used to be?
For me, some of the answer lies in societal pressure. I am busy because I am expected to be busy. A physician once told me that if you’re not working at least 12 hours a day, then you’re not doing meaningful work—part of me thinks he’s right, the rest of me thinks he’s crazy. That is the part of me that thinks we all have much to learn from kaiseki dinners. (And now you most likely think that I am crazy.)
I wish I could share a picture of our kaiseki dinner with you. It was a total work of art: pink and white sashimi on a blue-glazed plate, lobster sprawled out on a bed of flowers, delicious tea in a rustic cup. In each dish and every item the passion and toil of a master chef or master potter is evident. Passion is one of the first things we lose when we make ourselves busy for the sake of being busy, for the sake of meeting societal expectations, for the sake of simply paying the bills.
And mastery—mastery is lost on the busy. It takes time, patience, faith—but what busy person has those? What busy person has time for a kaiseki meal? Five-course, three-hour dinners sound like the luxury of the ridiculously rich (true it will set you back at few yen) or the outrageously lazy. So what is a person with outrageous ambition to do? Perhaps the best they can do is to find some middle ground between the passionate, masterful, artistic kaiseki and the dull, soul-shriveling busy work that many of us want to avoid but unfortunately wade into.
Paul Horak, Trinity ’13, is currently conducting research as a Peking University Young Health Economist Fellow in Beijing, China. This column is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.