Saturday, 1 November 2014

Comfort, Food and Culture Shock

In Norwegian "appelsin" is orange. My sister was a bit embarrassed by how funny I found that.
My son asked for his third helping of dinner the other night, then asked if I knew why he was eating so much. My first thought was worms, but I kept that to myself and asked why. "食欲の秋!" He replied, "autumn appetite". Apparently I'm not the only one who loses my appetite in the hot sticky summer; Japanese even has a term for the return of one's appetite with the cooler weather (other autumn terms are  読書の秋 and 運動の秋, referring to the desire to read books and exercise... you can guess which one of those most appeals to me). Glorious though it is to be cooking and enjoying yummy food again, it has gotten me thinking about the link between food and comfort, particularly since my parents recently visiting bringing with them a suitcase of comfort foods from home. While these days if you live in a big city in Japan it probably isn't hard to find at least some foods from your home country, when you are in the country side it isn't as simple as driving to Costco. The internet gives us many more options than we would have had in years past, but it is hard to explain the pleasure of your first Arnotts Mint Slice in three years. And, of course, there's the fun of talking about food with people who may appear to share your language but in some ways really don't... just try getting Americans and Brits to agree on what a biscuit is! Kirsty has a great post about it with an interesting political twist at the end (do read the entire post):
It was my first introduction to the fabulously popular international game of  Name That Food. A game which is closely related to the slightly more frustrating past-time of hungry travellers Find That Food.
I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life playing both games in various forms around the world. If the game stretches out for too long it usually ends with me doing an interpretive dance/game of charades while standing in a vegetable stall. Do you know how hard it is to mime an eggplant?
Over the years I’ve enhanced and developed my culinary vocabulary. Capsicum to peppers. Zucchini to corguettes. Spring onion to scallion. Rock melon to cantaloupe. Eggplant to aubergine. Jam to jelly. But there is also the world of the unknown. Right name, wrong food.
In North America I quickly learnt that gravy was not gravy, biscuits were not biscuits and jelly, jam and jello could have me requiring a dark room and a panodol – except there was no panadol. In a cafe in Canada the little travellers searched for the bubbles in the lemonade I’d ordered, “oh this is home-made” I explained, “it’s not fizzy drink, it’s kind of like lemon cordial. I’ll ask what they call lemon fizzy drink.”
“Ma’am, I don’t think we want to go there today do we?” the waitress replied.
Beyond simply missing familiar flavours, though, when you are still struggling with reading Japanese it can be a real challenge just to feed yourself. One friend purchased a can of what he thought were kidney beans and used them to make tacos... they were azuki, incredibly sweat red beans used in deserts. I've many times experienced a particularly awful mix of hunger, helplessness and panic that comes from perusing the menu of the fifth restaurant in a row and realising that here, too, there is nothing vegetarian and my lunch break is almost over. Eryk has a great post on this:
I heard so many stories of newcomers to Japan having breakdowns in the grocery stores, panic attacks from cramped spaces and the true vulnerability that comes from an irrational fear that obtaining food had become impossible. It is a primal place, the grocery store, despite its illusion of order. We are hunting and gathering here, and we have learned to read these aisles the way our ancestors could read flora and fauna. The labels are our environment, the brands and colors marking which mushrooms we can eat, which plants are poisonous. In the grocery store, I was a Canadian Goose set loose on a tropical island. I knew that this was all food, but I had no idea what I could really eat.
For me, culture shock has been the experience of going from being an articulate, self-confident member of society to an incompetent outsider without the ability to express my ideas and feelings fluently. Food has been a big part of that, not because I can't find my favourite flavour of potato chips but because my inability to do something as basic as feed myself unassisted reinforces to me how profoundly my sense of self is challenged by my shift from independence to dependence. Furthermore the "common sense" and ideas about logic I inherent from my home culture often don't make sense in Japan, and the frustration of being unable to communicate something that seems obvious to oneself leads, probably more than anything else, to some of the more hostile thoughts expats experience about Japan. In my case this is often tied to food. In my university days I visited the same cafe several times a week, and always ordered a hot sandwich that contained an omelet, bacon and lettuce. Each time I asked for it without the bacon, and each time I was served by a different staff member we had to go through the same lengthy argument about whether this was possible:

                                      "But it comes with bacon."
                                      "I'll pay the same amount, I just don't want the bacon."
                                      "But it is a bacon sandwich, I can't make it without bacon."
                                      "Look, make it like you always would, but when you get to the bit where
                                        you put the bacon in, just don't."
                                      "I'll have to ask the manager."

Every. Single. Time. Sometimes the staff member would flat out refuse, stating categorically that it was impossible then furiously back-tracking when I pointed out that I had ordered the same thing about a hundred times, so that seemed unlikely. Others tired to intuit what I "really" meant, and would dice the bacon and mix it into the omelet. Others served it on the side. What to me seemed like a simple request that was self-explanatory caused a great deal of stress and confusion to the cafe staff. "Culture shock" is a concept and experience that is widely misunderstood, as Sarah passionately expresses in this post:
 It seems to me that seeking out cultural differences and appreciating them serves no purpose other than to create a comforting distance between the two cultures being compared. It also seems to be something that Japanese people like to do frequently. It's reassuring. It defines the person who is differentiating as being on one side of a divide, while I (the other) reside on the other side. Separate. Isolated. Different. Its a frustrating situation to experience and after constance bombardment, it begins to wear down on your defences. Just as McNeil sad: "When people constantly point out differences, it feels almost like you're isolated, like you're being pushed away." 

Its a little disconcerting when you make a huge gesture like moving across the globe to live in another country so you can work at a school, and your co-workers fail to understand the stress this can take on an individual, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I could experience periods of high stress, even distress, known as "culture shock," but rather that this "culture shock" is the experience of petty and sometimes offensive cultural differences which can also take the form of cultural stereotypes.
I've written about the same thing, actually, although from a slightly different point of view:
The trope of “she seemed so totally different from me, but then we discovered that we both loved ice-cream, so I guess really we’re the same!” is incredibly frustrating in its trivialisation of difference. An American kid eating a sandwich while a Japanese kid eats an onigiri isn’t emblematic of cultural difference, it’s window dressing. The differences that cause conflicts, misunderstandings and international tensions are differences in world view, different priorities and different ways of assigning responsibility. Bread versus rice is not why the world is more suspicious of post-war Japan than it is of post-war Germany.
One girl had done a short home stay in New Zealand. She related her surprise when her host mother told her to turn the lights out and go to sleep at eleven pm. Thinking that this was a peculiarity of her host family, she checked around the town and discovered that in fact, going to sleep by eleven was normal for thirteen-year-olds. She pointed out in her speech that it would be impossible to complete the daily schedule normal in Japan without staying up until one or two am at least. If one were to unpack this, some really deep-seated and interesting differences in educational systems, the role children play in society and beliefs about health, wellbeing and parenting would emerge.
 Food taps into something behind the rational, a deep place of raw emotions. The comfort of whatever it was your mother fed you when you were a sick child has as much to do with your memories of nurturing and care as with any health benefits of the food itself, whether it be chicken noodle soup, okayu or in my case ladyfinger biscuits. Or perhaps I should say cookies? It stands to reason, then, that the inability to understand the available foods or obtain food that makes sense to you provokes the very opposite of "comfort". If you are newly arrived in a strange land, dear reader, be kind to yourself. It passes. You'll figure it out. What seems strange and unfamiliar now may become your go-to comfort food in a few years! To return to Eryk:
I was recently in Paris, where I don’t speak a word of what they’re talkin’. I didn’t understand why I had to pay 18 euros for a ham sandwich (and not even get the top slice of bread). It was a beautiful city but it was also impenetrably dense with a culture and customs I couldn’t grasp. I knew how to eat brie and baguettes, and did so until I was sick. I spent one day walking around refusing to eat until I found a place that made sense to me, my blood sugar contributing to an internal monologue that would have had me banned from most online forums.
I ended up walking into a Japanese restaurant, where I was greeted with irrashaimase, and I could order the food in a language I understood in a manner I understood and could make small talk with a waitress from Hakodate. I ate a plate of yaki soba in Paris, and made everyone smile when I said gochisou sama deshita.

This post is my contribution to the J-Bloggers' Carnival. Please visit and check out all of the wonderful participants!
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  1. I am so glad that there are more people out there that share my feeling! Until now I thought I was the only one feeling unhappy about not being able to find my beloved food in Japan. I actually reached to a point where I'm considering going back to my home country for few months just to barricade myself inside a nearby supermarket and spend all days doing nothing but eating!
    And the "non-bacon sandwich" story... I experienced it too in several places. At first I thought the waiter was just not very smart, but the incident repeated with different restaurants... *facepalm*

    1. Oh man, I have had basically that same conversation in so many incarnations... including the "yes we have oyakodon on the menu but no we can't make you tamagodon" even though it is the exact same thing just without the chicken! I hope you can participate in the next carnival, I'd love to share one of your posts :)

  2. I just want to point out that "appelsin" just means orange, not orange juice.

    1. Thank you Elin, duly noted and corrected!

  3. In my late teens my mother had a midlife crisis of sorts and dragged us all back to her home country of China. Even though, as second generation immigrants, we had some prior experience with the culture, the American in me had intense longing for mac&cheese, cookies (yup), and steak. We got some expensive hard white australian cheddar and instant chocolate chip cookies, but it just wasn't the same...

    1. Oh yes, the whole immigrant experience is another can of worms, hey? Thanks for commenting!

  4. Glad to learn a new Japanese expression. =) I'm wondering why it's 「食欲の秋」and not 「秋の食欲」 though.

    1. Good question... I can't answer, but I do know that there are a whole bunch of something-somethingの秋 sayings, so the pattern gets plenty of repartition ^_^

  5. Interesting articles and successful always to you , we were visitors from indonesia


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