Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hollywood Short Hand for "Exotic"

I've mentioned before that people here (in the US) ask me about Japan like I know everything. The same thing happens in Japan when I go home--I somehow become the spokes person for the US pop culture. One friend of mine once said, "Have you ever noticed that characters on American movies and TV often eat out of Chinese food container with chopsticks? Why do you think that is?"


Turns out it's true. Ever since she told me this, I can't help but to look for it and if you are watching a drama, you will inevitably run into a scene where (often white) people are poking around Chinese containers with chopsticks. This must be the Hollywood code for "we're urban and stylish and we eat with foreign cutleries." But this is also not too exotic since, as my father-in-law put it, no matter how rural, you will find a Chinese food restaurant in this country, which is a totally separate blog about Chinese immigrants. Everyone loves Pizza too--but Chinese food must look better on film.

This looks odd to a Japanese person because most of these actors seem to be struggling with chopsticks. "Why don't they just eat things with forks?" I think is where my friend was headed. And I didn't really have a good answer for her.

On a slightly different note but on the same topic, I have noticed that American film and television series don't really put any emphasis on food. As you can see, I've written a lot about food on this blog in a five posts I've put up. This is not because I have some sort of food obsession. Well, OK, may I do. But what I mean is that I come from a culture that REALLY enjoys eating. We are proud of our food. We put a lot of energy into making things taste good all the time and in every place. We love to get together over good foods, love to take trips just to eat things from a certain region, and in most news related or variety show, you see food segments and separately, there are numerous cooking shows (as evidenced by Iron Chef, which ran on a major network for 8 years to very high rating). And we don't separate those out to something like a Food Network Channel. This is all regular, prime time TV. And not just Japanese food. We love ANY food. In Tokyo, you can eat just about anything. My husband who has been to Japan seven times with me said that he has never had a bad meal in Japan. Sure, he's had to eat some weird crap labeled "delicacy" but even then, he could tell that it was prepared well. I would like you to note that this is coming from a man who used to not touch mustard as a child--not even the container.

Anyway, with all this interest in food, it's natural that this culture would seep into the fictional life style. In Japanese television drama or film, you will find scenes that involves eating. Guaranteed. And actors don't just poke around. They EAT. I mean they eat a lot. There was a legendary Japanese novelist and teleplay writer named Kuniko Mukoda and her scripts were almost always about family affairs. She captured complicated nature of family dynamics that often took place in '40s and '50s and she would have these great family dining scenes in which intricate dialogue and pauses would take place while they ate. I went through a phase of watching many of Ms. Mukoda's work, and I once read that she was known for having a menu in the script, like "a left over curry for breakfast." Like rice balls, curry is also thought to be the Japanese soul food. That specificity and familiarity made the scene even better both for actors and the viewers.

I find these cultural portrayal of food interesting. I feel like Americans have love and hate relationship with their food. Things come in huge quantities and while there are so many choices, the flip side is the constant reminder to be thinner--"here, eat all this stuff, but stay at 100lbs." My father once innocently said, "Why don't they eat less so they don't have to work out as much? They look so unhappy." He was saying this as we walked pass a gym where you could see people on treadmill. I told him it wasn't that simple--but it was to him.

So look next time. See if you can spot the Chinese container on TV. And after you do that, go rent "Tampopo."


  1. Seriously, if I never see another bowl of tiny pink squid with mustard and wakame, I'd be okay. Although it did make me run to Royal Host for a BLT (sort of) and to the discovery that even the Japanese take on American comfort food is pretty awesome.

  2. I use chopsticks because it makes me eat slower. Otherwise, I wolf down my food, and then I have to look depressed on a treadmill.

    Also, P.S. Stina and I cracked up at the typo in the first line of the last paragraph of your most recent blog. Check it out.


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