The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

The Face of Ignorance

My shoelaces were disintegrating and I faced the daunting task of obtaining replacement in Tokyo. The city has just about everything on this planet to buy, including toe socks with a different manga character printed on each toe, but shoelaces are in short supply. Having visited shoe stores, basement shoe repair joints, and the ubiquitous 100-yen shop, I was about to give up, when I spotted one more shoe repair place.

I was given a royal treatment. The guy in charge was overflowing with enthusiasm about shoelaces. He did not have the coveted type in stock — apparently short, white shoelaces are exceptionally rare in Japan — but he had two gigantic catalogues of shoelaces from which we could order. He spent over ten minutes explaining the advantages of the various solutions to my problem. I settled with a handsome-looking replacement and placed the order. Then he spent a few more minutes apologizing that I had to wait for four days to receive the order. He spent a total of half an hour with me, and I paid the equivalent of two dollars. Clearly he was not driven by time-profit ratios.

This chap belonged to a breed of men who give a damn. If he pays so much attention to shoelaces, imagine what he would do if there was an entire shoe to repair. To me, he represents the opposite of ignorance.

Tokyo city scape

A non-ignorant shoe repair man lives somewhere out there.

Infinite ignorance is what hits me every time on those rare occasions when I return to the barren wasteland where I was born. On my last visit, I chanced upon a spot that had mesmerized me with its charm nearly two decades ago. It is a small memorial around the tomb of a famed dervish dating back to four hundred years ago when the city was under Turkish occupation. The tomb was surrounded by gorgeous roses ,and small fountains cooled the hot summer air. Well, that was a long time ago. Now the roses had withered away, weed had taken their place, the water was still and algae-infested. But hold on, there was progress! Two security guards were installed there, and they were bored out of their retarded brain. They were listening to the radio and did not even bother to return my greeting. They also felt it was below them to water the roses. The country is like that: nobody cares about anything. The nation is turning into an ignorant army of security guards.

Ancient fountain in the face of ignorance

A dried out fountain facing ignorance and withering roses. At least it is still there.

You can argue that poor payments do not give sufficient motivation to care. Certainly, `caring’ is not the first word that pops into my mind when I think of India. People there are always delighted to piss right under the `Do not urinate here’ sign. Yet, some poor souls at the bottom of the pyramid can surprise you. The chai wallah who roams the train station bothers to memorize the train schedule, so he can dole out advice along with a cup of fresh, steaming chai. He manages to find dignity in his profession, although he probably makes less than two dollars a day in profit.

Do not spit

That sounds like an invitation.

At the other end of the spectrum, I am always surprised by how ignorant affluent people can be. It is easy to pick on universal transgressers who feed shark’s fin soup, embezzle public funds, or profiteer on palm oil plantations. My pick, however, is the archetypal expat in Singapore who descend from heaven to receive a perfectly outrageous compensation package in exchange of their unparalleled expertise. They inhabit the island for two or three years, then vanish as if they were never there. During their stay, they do not even bother to learn a single phrase in Singlish. Their financial standing puts a wall between them and the local culture. Arguably Singapore is a magnificent place for unmitigated superficiality and unbounded materialism, but there is more to the country if one makes an effort to find out.

Despite efforts to the contrary, I often find myself guilty of ignorance and I wish I had the kind of drive as the shoelace guy did. I wish I could be content with my place in the world and make the best of it like the chai wallah. Yet my attitude is closer to the Eastern European security guards, ignorant to the beauty around me and shutting the world out. If I had the financial resources of an expat in Singapore, I would be just fine, but since I don’t, I must try harder.