Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What to Speak

As I have lived in the US for over 25 years, I now dress like I'm from here. And because of this, wait staff at Japanese restaurants and other Japanese retailers often begin conversations with me in English. OK, so maybe it's because sometimes I am with my very white husband and not-very-Japanese-looking daughter. At any rate, I am a stickler for wanting to speak Japanese to a Japanese person unless we are in the company of non-Japanese speakers, so that has become a mission.

Here is the game I play: if they greet me in English, I answer in Japanese. This then will turn the rest of the conversation in Japanese. However, sometimes, they don't hear my response or think that I spoke English ( I will later blog about what people hear when they expect a specific language out of a person, no matter what) and continue to speak to me in English. If I have my daughter with me, I then will use her by speaking to her in Japanese very clearly. If two or three of these attempts fail, I just give up and act like I'm from here.

The hidden trick to the game: to know FOR SURE that they are indeed, Japanese. There are a lot of Koreans and Chinese folks who work in Japanese restaurants, and sometimes--yes, even for us--it gets confusing. Often, they have distinct enough accents that I can tell, but sometimes they speak a couple of Japanese phrases well enough that it throws me for a loop. I order items from the menu pronouncing the name of the dish precisely to see their reaction and if that does nothing, I once again give up and just stick to English. It gets all weird though if I realize half way through the conversation that s/he is Japanese.

The thing that is the oddest is at a Japanese book store. Now, I know FOR A FACT that they are all Japanese there--they kind of have to be to have the knowledge of the books and be able to look things up. Even then, sometimes I would go there, buy Japanese books or magazine, and they still speak to me in English. "Really? Why would you chose to speak to me in Japanese if I'm obviously going to read all of this?" I want to say. But instead, I answer them in Japanese.

This all sounds like a lot of work, but it actually isn't. It's all part of my routine and pretty effortless--AND makes me laugh a little. I suppose this stems from me trying to hold onto my nationality, and the words of my mother when I was leaving home which was, "don't forget where you come from. Don't lose the Japanese part of you." I was confused by this remark and was somewhat irritated that she would say that when all I wanted was to immerse myself in all things American, but as these things go, that stuck with me. I have made concerted efforts to try to hold onto my native tongue by reading and hearing it (through video and pod casts) even during periods of times when I didn't get to speak it for months at a time. I didn't want to be labeled when I visited and speak like a "returnee," (a term for someone who went abroad and returned) which is to jumble both languages and speak awkwardly. As I wanted to be totally fluent in English, I also wanted to remain fluent in Japanese, which is harder to do than you might think. So I force total strangers to join in my personal quest. Because sometimes, that's what it takes.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Japanese people are coo coo for thank you gifts. If you go to a wedding in Japan, you get more than a small match book with names of the couple and date of the wedding (not that there is anything wrong with that). You get a gift. I mean, a substantial gift that would require them to put in a shopping bag. Some of them even give you a catalog from which you can choose an item. Even if you go to a funeral, you get a gift--like a handkerchief (note: people in Japan carry handkerchiefs so this is something everyone uses). It's a joke that we can all continue to give each other gifts until we died.

I recently sent a care package to one of my closest friends in Tokyo who is caring for her dying mother. I've known Kayo since birth and though we never attended the same school, we have been good friends and we've kept track of each other. She is one of the first people I call when I get home and we make sure to see each other. Unfortunately, she is facing what most of us in our age fear and dread which is having to take care of our parents, seeing them fade away while working and raising our kids. Kayo holds an executive position at SONY, has a daughter who is 5, and is commuting to her mother's hospital to see her and talk to the doctor and drops in on her helpless father who feels victimized by all this. She has a husband who is highly capable, as well as a father in law who is very involved with her daughter, but because her older brother lives far from Tokyo, she is burdened with most of the decision making and responsibilities. My mother who has visited Kayo and her mother told me that Kayo was nearing a breaking point from stress, which broke my heart.

This is when the distance becomes frustrating. If I were there, I would go visit her mother, maybe take her daughter to play with my daughter, or do any other number of things to help. But I can't. So I decided to send her a package--American style. Care packages in Japan, though is common from mothers to their children when they move away, is not done all that often between friends, which is strange in a culture that LOVES to give gifts. The term "Care Package" doesn't even exist in the Japanese language as far as I know. I went and got her some spa items that she can use at home in a Japanese bathroom that is good for stress. I bought a cute outfit for her daughter, a nice coffee from Seattle's reputable coffee shop that is not Starbucks (because that exists in Japan), and a pashmina for her mother to use in the hospital. I wanted her to know that I was thinking of her and her mom. I didn't know if they would like any of this, but I felt like I wanted to do something.

This morning, about four weeks after I sent the package, I received a small package from Kayo. In it was a thank you letter from her and a separate card from her mother. She said that she was so deeply touched by the package and everyone loved their gifts. But this is what was amazing. Under the letters, there was a cute little blouse rapped delicately. This colorful cotton blouse flares out at the bottom, has cute puffed sleeves and has three little buttons, one of which is decorated with a tiny knit flower. I knew this was for my daughter and as I looked closely, I noticed that there was no label in it. It was handmade. I looked back to the letter and it said, sure enough, that she made this for my daughter. She said that she has been wanting to sew but hasn't had the time or the mindset and making this cleared the cobweb in her head. This was her thank you gift to me.

I almost cried. Then I felt kind of stupid for buying her kid an outfit from Old Navy.

I was blown away and humbled by her capacity to be this thoughtful in the midst of such hardship. I don't even know how she found the time or the energy and there she was, thanking ME for taking the time in my busy schedule to put a package together. And she did this in less than three weeks--I have yet to finish a quilt I started 4 years ago. I was so grateful for our friendship that started in our parents generation that is now carrying down to our children despite the distance. And I was reminded of the culture that puts as much thoughts in thanking someone as giving. Kayo could have just sent me a card or an email--but no, she went out of her way and gave a piece of her heart to me and my kid.

I don't imagine giving that blouse away even after my daughter outgrows it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Home is where the food is

There is a movie called, Spirited Away by a brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of my most favorite films in which the protagonist, Chihiro--an ordinary 10 year old girl-- is suddenly faced with a curse that turns her parents into pigs, and thrown into a world so strange so rapidly that all she can do is to try to survive without understanding what is happening. Then, about 20 minutes into the film, she is led by her guardian Haku to a safe place, for the first time. He hands her a rice ball to eat. Chihiro takes it, starts eating, and begins to sob uncontrollably.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I moved here when I was 15. I went to a boarding school in California, thousands of miles away from home. I spoke very little English, but having been raised by parents who were very international, bilingual, and survived World War II, I think I must have had the personality (or the stupidity) to just jump in. But during the first year here, I gained probably about 10lbs. I basically put on the "Freshman 10" in my sophomore year of high school. I was pretty skinny prior to that and being a dancer and all, I was used to that particular frame of mine, so this was a bit of a shock, especially to my mother who didn't see me for a whole year. "Well, you look...healthy," she said when we reunited.

In retrospect, this was a classic case of using food for comfort. Hmmm, let's see-I leave home, go to a new country that doesn't understand my language, meet a whole new set of people, get a room mate, eat in a cafeteria three times a day, and oh, sit in series of classes in which I would have to look up every other word, in order to even follow the question being asked, let alone answer any of them. No stress, not big deal. I was hungry all the time. And I tried and ate everything. And we snacked a lot in the dorm. And my exercise was cut down by about 80% coming from maneuvering around Tokyo every day to living on campus where everything was in spitting distance.

I missed my food. I missed having Japanese rice, my mom's cooking or anything that resembled Japanese food. My uncle would come by on some weekends and take me out to Japanese restaurant which was such a big treat. There were also a dorm staff who had a rice cooker and she would treat some of us to rice now and then. But that was it. I had no access to the things that provided me comfort everyday that I didn't even realize.

I totally get why Chihiro sobs in that scene. A rice ball, which is an equivalent of PB&J connects every Japanese person to their childhood when their moms made these for them. If someone handed me a rice ball after my first week in the US, I too, would have sobbed.

When I was a sophomore in college, I moved into an apartment. I then started cooking for myself. I got a rice cooker and with what I could afford at the regular super market, I started piecing together how my mother cooked. My mother is a spectacular cook. I enjoyed watching her cook, and because of that, always wanted to learn how. I started helping my mother when I was about 10 and she gave me responsibilities around the kitchen. I used to pretend I had a cooking show of my own. So with that, I relied on my memory of how things tasted, and I started cooking every day. Then my weight came off. It may also have had something to do with the schedule of a college student which included about 20 hours a week of rehearsals that included dancing as I was a theater major and living once again in a city. Regardless, the food gave me comfort in the right way and gave me back the body I recognized. I could still only afford to have sushi when my parents came to visit, but I was less desperate for my home because I could create that good, healthy feeling myself now.

I was starting to flirt heavily with my husband when I introduced him the book, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. During the course of the story, it talks about many great dishes but there is one in particular called, "Kastu-don" that is described in detailed. It's breaded, deep fried chicken breast marinated with eggs and broth, over a hot bed of rice. It's Japanese soul food. I was nervous about having him read this because he didn't know much about Japan or Japanese food and I
loved this book. My heart was going to be broken if he didn't like it. But he read it in about two days and told me that he really wanted to eat this. So I took him. We were living in Boston at the time and on the Cambridge side, there was a row of small restaurants in a basement of a building where they served foods like this in a most authentic fashion. I watched him eat every bite of it and when it was all gone, he told me that it was one of the best things he has ever eaten. I can't describe the relief I felt at that moment--this man that I was pretty certain I was going to marry just accepted my culture by eating it.

It's been over twenty years since I first started cooking for myself and I still cook almost everyday. It helps me to keep connected to my home, and now with a daughter, it connects her to it too. She seems to enjoy her rice balls, especially when it takes the form of Hello Kitty.

photo from http://www.imageshare.web

Saturday, March 20, 2010

That's not sushi

It is amazing to see how the perception of sushi in the States have changed since I first arrived in the US in '83. Case in point:
The Breakfast Club. Molly Ringwald opens up her lunch and everyone is grossed out. I remember feeling a little bid sad about it when I saw the film. I was a junior in high school, my second year here, and feeling self conscious of my foreignness. Like any teen-ager, I was trying really hard to fit in and learn to speak like a native--I actually worked my ass off so that later in life I can turn a phrase like, "ass off" effortlessly.

Anyway, I felt like I came from a place where our food was only understood by wealthy jet setters. But if you recall, the 80's was where the Japanese culture was making its way into the pop culture of the US. Business men bowing and camera flashing tourists became a staple of comedy films, "Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto" was in the top chart, and while vaguely offended, I thought "well, at least people know who we are." Many of my friends were interested in trying sushi but still the notion of raw fish grossed them out a lot.

Fast forward to 2010, and living in Seattle especially, sushi has become everyday stuff, which is delightful. But here is the stuff. There is now a pile of sushi places that are just terrible. And by "terrible," I mean not at all authentic. I mean you won't find these "tempura roll" type of crap in a sushi shop in Tokyo. I mean people from Japan would frown upon them. I get snotty when my white friends suggest a sushi place and say, "it's really good." I have a series of questions like:

1. Is the chef Japanese?
2.Is the clientele Japanese (fastest way to see if an ethnic restaurant is authentic is to look at the clientele)?
3.How do they cut the fish?
4. How does the rice taste?

I ask these questions with much passion and slight bit of anger that by this point, most of my friends are sorry they said anything at all.

Sushi is a cuisine. Like anything traditional in Japan, to become a sushi chef is a LIFETIME commitment. Most people start young, like 18 or younger, and for the first several years, you sweep and wash dishes. You don't even get to look at the fish, let alone touch the knife for quite some time. There is an artistry in making sushi, from how perfectly you prepare the rice, how fresh the fish is, and the balance between the cut of the fish with the rice-long cut of fish over a small amount of rice is considered perfection. And yes, the whole point of sushi is to eat the fish raw, and no, you should never eat sushi that are cheap. So sushi making is not like flipping a burger. It's done with a lot of training, and with national pride. We take it seriously (OK so flipping burger may also cause some national pride and seriousness, but you know what I mean).

A side note: the kind of sushi that are served in America is also what we call "Edo mae zushi" which is only served in the Tokyo area. If you go to different parts of Japan, sushi is prepared very differently. Also a side note: conveyor belt sushi is indeed very authentic. Apparently there are more conveyor belt sushi shops than a regular shop in Japan. Last side note: we don't have any restaurants that combine sushi with other stuff, like teriyaki chicken. Sushi places just serve sushi, noodle places just serve noodles, and same for the tempura shops. Every place sticks to its expertise.

Back to my point. When my husband and I go to a sushi restaurant, we sit at the counter (OK, so this is not so true lately with the toddler, but if were alone, this is what we do). The right way to have it is to chat with the chef and order one fish at a time. You don't order from the menu, you ask them what's good that day and make your choice from there. It's even more decedent if you start with some sashimi, as you drink your beer, then launch into the sushi. You then later have soup, if you wish, possibly with some shell fish in it. Chefs get excited when we do this, because Americans (unless they are really savvy) don't do this--I think that they don't know to do it. I have been told by sushi chefs that I order like a pro and it's a joy to serve a costumer like me, which makes us both feel like hot shots. And naturally, it makes us snottier. It is somewhat evident that the chefs' souls are dying a little bit to make this massive sized rolls with five things crammed in them and I am happy to make them happy--because their happiness bring me good stuff to eat AND you often get bonus items, just for being Japanese.

But here is the flip side. I have an uncle who lives in Oakland. In fact, he is my only relative in the US. He's lived in the States since the 50's and has obviously observed these things much longer than I. He once told me that the measure of a successful Japanese restaurants in the US is how packed they are with Americans. Because they are eating the foods that is foreign to them and enjoying themselves and coming back. He says it is easy to go after the natives, but a really good business men would figure out ways to get people in who didn't know these foods existed. So really, who cares if its REALLY authentic? It's giving chefs the opportunity to work abroad, get to know the Americans, and hence the cultural exchange is being made.

I see his point. Who cares?! But I do. A little. Well, maybe a lot. But then how many kinds of ethnic foods am I eating and loving without really knowing how authentic they are? See? It's hard to be me.

Photo credit: thirdnori.exblog.jp, edomaezushi-nikaku.com

Friday, March 19, 2010


It makes total sense. You have long hair that you just want to twirl it up and stick something in it to hold. Chopsticks seem totally like the most obvious answer. Totally. But my friend in Tokyo asked me once, "Why do Americans put chopsticks in their hair?" Then it occurred to me that we eat with those. And yes, that would seem weird. Since then, my eyes would obsessively catch women with chopsticks in their hair like it's my personal mission.

I have a friend who is from Japan and has lived here almost as long as I have and she uses chopsticks in her hair. "You're not helping the cause!!!!" I yelled.

I am a person of two cultures, to both of which I feel close. Some might think that I must have become completely Americanized by now, and though that is true in many sense, people don't realize that you become the "expert" of your home country when you live in a foreign land. People ask you like you know EVERYTHING. So in that sense, I have become more aware of my nationality by living away from it for all these years.

I am married to a guy so white he calls himself "pink." I like him because he had no prior interest to anything from Japan--including women. He picked me because of me, for what its worth, and not because of where I come from. He has since become very versed in Japanese culture and seems to understand my joy and struggle. We now have a kid.

This blog is about my thoughts and observations of the two cultures. Nothing heavy. Mostly stupid. If you find it interesting and entertaining, I am happy.