Saturday, April 17, 2010

Just Keep Driving

Not too many people realize this, but in Japan, we drive on the left side of the road. This is something to do with the British influence on our culture--we have a mesh of European influence that also seems to surprise people when they find out. As for example, we have many many bakeries with French style breads. So many and successful that one of them opened a franchise in Paris.

Anyway, we drive on the left. So naturally, we walk on the left, look for the traffic first on the right before crossing the road, etc. When this is ingrained in you, it's hard to correct. Even after 25 plus years, I have a hard time. When I come face to face with another pedestrian, I avoid left. They avoid right. We do the dance. I do it EVERY TIME. I tell myself "go right, go right" but my body just goes left. Then the person I am approaching senses the weird tension and focus on my face and they just stop because they don't know if I am going to attack them, which complicates the matter even more. Then we do the dance and I just run away shouting "so sorry!!!" I'm a total SPAZ.

Much like any other Metropolitan cities in the US, Seattle has a Chinatown. Officially, it's "International District-Chinatown" that used to be Japan Town back in the days until the WWII internment camps wiped out the neighborhood. Now, it is a collage of all Asian cultures and it's a great place to eat. However, the traffic is a MESS because--I hate to say it--but Asians can't drive or walk. Seriously, I don't know why they don't just put traffic lights at every corner because 4 way stops are just a circus. Asians, no matter where they come from, just step out into traffic whenever, blow through stop signs, and park randomly. They (I'm saying "they" like I'm not one of them) go 35 miles an hour on the on ramp of the highway and go 50 miles an hour in the fast lane. Every time my husband and I pass a bad Asian driver, we scream in unison, "you are not helping the cause!!!" I don't know it's because there is a longer history of us walking than driving or it's driving on the other side of the road thing, but I have to say, this stereotype is 90% accurate. For Japanese people, I can attest that pedestrians win. Even in a crazy city like Tokyo, people on foot will stop traffic to get across the street--and they win, because there are so many of them. The key is to act like, "I don't see you, so you won't hit me."

My mother is 82. She is very active, independent and always comes to visit with an international license when visiting so that she and my father can go about their days without relying on me or my husband, which is lovely--and frightening. Once, she went out shopping and when she returned, she couldn't parallel park in front of our house. She came into the house asked if I could park the car for her because she couldn't quite get the angle right. I go outside to find her rental car almost perpendicular to the parking spot, the back wheel on the curb, with the trunk open. The trunk was open because after she gave up, she figured at least she could unload her goods. This is also the same woman who scratched her car ALL THE WAY AROUND without getting out of her parking spot at her own house in Tokyo because she couldn't get the "angle right" to back out and kept turning in a small space, THE WRONG WAY. My father was laughing so hard when he was telling me this on the phone I had to ask him to tell it twice to fully understand what he was saying.

I also spent 13 years in Boston. I realize every big city on the east coast prides itself on having the worst drivers in the country, but Bostonians are seriously intense. They are aggressive, mean, and honk the horn if you even THINK of making the wrong move. If they encounter a bunch of Asians crossing randomly, they will just hit them and then scream out the window for being a "f*cking re-tahd" with the middle finger strongly pointing upward. It would not be pretty.

As for my driving, I try to be good. I don't have a single moving violation to date and my husband, who is an excellent and critical driver seems to think I'm alright. It's my personal quest to reverse the stereotype but as ponder my DNA and Boston driving experience, I'm not sure how successful I will remain as I get older. I'm seriously considering making a bumper sticker that says, "I'm Asian. Please forgive."

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."