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Yesterday we drove up to the tiny town of Scarperia that sits in the Mugello, an area of the countryside up behind Fiesole from Florence. My mother-in-law is originally from the area, before her family moved into Florence, and she pointed out the church where she was baptized on our way into the center. There was a market flooding the little streets and tents of clothes, kitchen tools, fruits & vegetables, and honestly almost anything else you can think of spilled out onto the sidewalks and the piazza. Inside one of the buildings there were tables with vendors selling truffles, jars of honey, chestnuts, cheese, salami, soaps, and jewelry.

I wanted to write about the man selling truffles, his personality echoing up to the rafters, but it was too quick of an interaction and I wasn’t focused on the details, too infatuated with the scent coming from the baskets set out in front of him. Then, we walked into Palazzo dei Vicari, and they say it’s a palace but it is absolutely a castle, built for a captain. The outer facade is plastered randomly with different colored crests, looking like a military uniform, and inside the walls, the building only seems more menacing. I walked over to the well in the courtyard, expecting it to be sealed shut like almost all around here have been, but instead I stood up on the stone and looked over the edge and saw only a metal grate, and beyond it a straight drop down into the darkness, with a little shine of something wayyy down at the bottom.

So immediately, my mind decided to flashback to the storybook that was up at The Farm about a boy falling down a well, called Tikki Tikki Tembo – specifically to a cut-away image of the poor kid sitting in the bottom of the well in with water up to his eyeballs, and I realized this was the first real well I had seen with water at the bottom, and I could visualize the cut-away of the palace and the hill we were on and how far down into the ground the well went, all because of a storybook I read twenty-five years ago. So as we ate lunch in the local trattoria my mind was bouncing from Italian to the name of the “Chinese” boy in the story that I must have read thousands of times: “Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo.”

Of course, that made me look up the story again when we got home. Here’s a short summary of this book for those not familiar: In “China,” the tradition was the firstborn son had a long honorable name, the second had a short one because he didn’t matter. So when the second son fell in the well (this was apparently a common occurrence – I have no idea how because if that grate wasn’t on top of that thing yesterday there’s no way in hell I’d even get close to it), it was easy to explain when Tikki was hollering that his brother(Chang) fell down the well. When Tikki falls down the well later, Chang can’t say his name right, so he almost drowns before anyone in charge understands what he’s saying, and so that’s why Chinese people all have short names now…the End.

But what I’m finding is that MANY things from my childhood were/are also mired in cultural issues. Tikki, for instance, was one of my favorite stories, but now I look it up, and I realize immediately, with the help of other posts, that the book wouldn’t be written today and is deemed controversial for many reasons; because it was written by a woman from the US that had just overheard the story when she was younger, then took this story from another culture, wrote it and made a mistake with credit to the wrong culture for the story, didn’t use the right language, just kind of made it up, and the illustrator also got a few things wrong, etc, nevermind the entire backstory is racist/stereotypical on “Chinese” cultural norms.

Now, it was written in another time (60’s I think) and I really appreciated the story as a child, and I now, today, see where there was certainly a bit of white privilege or cultural appropriation or whatever that specific thing should be called because I honestly am not sure what category it’d go in, but that means that I recognize that and now won’t pick that book for any like it for the next generation. Instead, they’re getting books written by international authors, in all languages, translated, etc! Because here’s the thing, Tikki didn’t pop back in my head at thirty because it was racially ridiculous, it came up because I looked down a well and the “google photo” of my brain said “well! Here are all of the wells you’ve ever seen!” and that one was a really cool illustration and story as a kid, and so it stuck with me.

If that book had been written by a Japanese author that used the correct name of the original folktale it’s supposed to have come from, or if it was another story altogether, I would still have loved it just as much, if not more, especially if it was learning the pronunciation in another language. So somehow, a source of water for a medieval town in Tuscany brought me to write about cultural appropriation and Japanese culture, and this is why if I don’t plan out my articles, they will become sagas.

 

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