Like White on Rice

Almost a year ago when I came back to Japan for the first time in over 3 years, I wrote about having to adjust to several aspects of the culture. Work hours, language, you name it. After 8 years away, for better or for worse I had become Americanized and some things about the Japanese culture were so blatantly foreign, even shocking to me.

This time feels less like a holiday and more like real life – in a good way. It feels like coming home from a long summer in America and settling into the daily routines. I know the system here.  I feel like I can express my personality like never before. That’s the part of learning a language (or in my case improving a language) that is fun. And in the oddballs, dead-beats and misfits that make up many a hotel staff, I feel like I’m accepted as one of their own, perhaps especially because I don’t quite fit in here either.

It is an interesting phenomenon. Whether I’m in Japan or America I always feel like somewhat of a foreigner. In America my foreignness is more subtle and I can hide behind knowing about the culture. In Japan it’s unavoidable. When I meet people in America, I sound more and more foreign as the conversation goes on. In Japan, I am less and less foreign. Neither is better, I just find that Japan allows me certain privileges and advantages that I might not have in America.

There was, however a situation last week when I learned that I still have a ways to go. Let me set this up by saying I’ve eaten a lot of rice in my life. I have to admit that being here, I get a little sick of eating it 3 meals a day. Growing up, my siblings and I would make fun of my parents for not knowing the different between good and bad rice. Brown rice was even worse. Hard, dry, tasted like cardboard. So some Japanese friends took me to a restaurant in Obuse, Japan that is famous for cooking their rice the way they did hundreds of years ago. My Japanese friends were all commenting on how good it tasted, and although I agreed that it was good, I couldn’t necessarily say it was better than any other rice I had eaten. Alas, I will never be fully Japanese. And that’s alright, I’m learning that it’s more important to be me.

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In other news, the video of winning nationals came out! Check it out when you get a chance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crx15UdTpQU

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Farting on Elbert

I just finished one of the most ridiculous, memorable and difficult weeks of my tour guiding career and I wanted to share some stories from this experience.

Japanese people are sometimes so… well, Japanese. Mannerisms, ways of doing things, habits. It’s so distinct and noticeable and sometimes hilarious.

For example, before and after any amount of exercise, Japanese people always want to do a group stretch. Now this wasn’t a problem when we started climbing Flat Top Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park at 5:00 AM. Returning at 2:00 PM, however, was a little different. Oblivious to passers-by, the Japanese tour guide decides to do our group stretch in the middle of a busy walkway. Right as we are doing a stretch where you thrust your hips around in a circular motion, a shuttle bus pulls up right behind. Since I’m the closest to the bus, the passengers get a full backside view of my thrusting buttocks. Sometimes you just have to ignore what other people are thinking and go with the Japanese flow.

Then there is the fact that everything in Japan is individually wrapped and packaged. At a supermarket in Estes Park, the attendant and I somehow got to talking about how she had just moved from Boulder where they used far fewer plastic bags. Just as we’re finishing this conversation, the Japanese tour guide decides that each sandwich needs its own bag: 9 bags for 9 sandwiches. The attendant is rolling her eyes and I can faintly hear environmentalists crying in the distance but all I can do is watch disapprovingly.

There is also the lack of appreciation for good beer. Asked to recommend a good Colorado beer the first night, I went with Blue Moon. It’s a local beer and I think it’s pretty darn good. Snubbing their noses at this, they fell in love with the high quality choices of Coors and Bud Light, ordering them at every restaurant. Again, all I could do was chuckle and drink my Fat Tire or Colorado Native as they talked about how much they loved their piss water. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.

Now for the naming of this post. Since this was a hiking tour of Colorado, the highlight of the trip was climbing Mt. Elbert, the highest 14’er in Colorado. Leaving our hotel in Leadville at 3:00 AM, we hiked much of the 4-mile ascent in darkness before watching the sunrise across the mountains and finally summiting. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect.

Sunrise on Elbert

Sunrise on Elbert

I’ve always heard that Japanese people consider burping to be ruder than farting. I initially doubted this, as I had never heard Japanese people burp or fart very much. Everything changes on the mountain though. For some reason (maybe the night before’s pizza), everybody experienced abnormal levels of gas, and the tour guide (the worst of them all) instructed them to just let it out. “Better out than in” is roughly what he said. And oh did they let it out. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a prolonged, continuous chorus of flatulence; at one point I was actually jealous. And that was just the men! Like most places (I would imagine) the women did not partake. What was really strange was the lack of reaction. Every time someone farted, I expected a courtesy chuckle or a snide comment. They just ignored it and continued on as I listened in amazement.

Our Gasy Group

Our Gasy Group

Ultimately, I think the way people travel reveals a lot about them. The Japanese tour guide was often so obsessed with keeping things the way they were in Japan that he forgot to let the guests enjoy the way things are in America. In Estes Park, he asked the hotel manager which television stations were in Japanese. Hmmm, sorry buddy Japan is not the center of the universe. He made me ask for the bill at the beginning of each meal in order to “not keep the guests waiting”. And instead of eating local food, we went to Thai or sushi places and had Japanese “Obento” lunches. That’s fine, but when I was allowed to take them to BBQ or local steakhouses they loved it. And food is just one part of it: To me, travel means letting yourself adjust to all aspects of life in another place.

The night before they left redeemed it all. Talking about American culture during the trip, I had explained that hugging was just as common as shaking hands. Since ceremony is everything in Japan, we all got in a circle and talked about how great the trip was and how good my Japanese was and how thankful we all were. Towards the end, in accordance with American culture they each wanted to give me a hug. I proceeded to give 8 people a series of the most awkward, arm-flailing, bent down hugs I have ever experienced. But the fact that they were willing to try something new and appreciate what Americans do made it worth all the effort. That’s what it’s all about.

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Apples in Nagano

After returning to the States, I’ve been reflecting on my trip and what it has meant to me. I had such an incredible time that part of me didn’t want to get on that airplane. I met new people and reconnected with old friends. I was in stunning nature and snowboarded over 30 days. I ate delicious food. Something about Japan is still home for me.

I’ve been trying to think of a word that accurately describes and sums up my experience in Japan. In writing this blog, whether in Africa or Japan, I always attempt to communicate the ethos of a place, the fundamental feel that makes it what it is.

That’s why growing up, I hated simplistic questions like “tell me more about Japan, which place do you like better, or what are the differences between Japan and America?” I hated them because if they really wanted to know I would tell them everything (no matter how long it took). But if they just saw me as an exotic novelty, a white kid who spoke flawless Japanese, I had better things to do. I always had an elevator answer prepared, something to the tune of “I like Japan because people are loyal” or “I like America because my family is there” just to give them a satisfactory answer. While those things were true, they didn’t even come close to being complete. There are so many subtleties and nuances to any place: describing it completely takes seeing it in person. On top of that, there are so many subtleties and nuances to being human: finding out who a person is takes more than learning that they grew up in Japan for 16 years.

So the word I would choose to describe Japan’s ethos is あっさり (Assari). Although it doesn’t have an English equivalent, the word generally means subtle or nuanced, beneath-the-surface, not too strong, not overly flavorful. As my definition suggests, the word is often used to describe food. Cake in Japan is not sickly sweet with extra frosting on top, it’s sweet enough so that you taste other flavors besides just sweet, it’s あっさり。Fuji Apples, the food I was most excited about eating, were crossbred by Japanese researchers in the 1930s to create the perfect apple; I believe they succeeded. Japanese food culture is about variety and not letting any single flavor overpower the others.

While the word is generally used to describe food, language cannot be separated from culture and the words we choose to describe food might just describe our personalities as well. Much of Japanese culture is what goes on beneath the surface. Not being too straightforward or impolite, not being demanding. What’s left unsaid might be as important as what’s actually stated. “Reading the air” is an important skill in order to adjust yourself to the mood of the room.

Like any culture, there are positive and negative aspects. Loyalty also means it takes longer to build trust. Talking to strangers in Japan is weird whereas in America I don’t think twice about it. Hospitality and generosity are strong values but opening up about personal matters doesn’t come as easily.

My experiences in Japan have taught me the importance of seeing people as the complicated, nuanced beings that they are. There is always so much that goes on beneath the surface, wherever you are. Caring about people means really listening and wanting to hear their story, no matter how long it takes.