Wednesday, March 26, 2014

AmeriCAN, not AmeriCAN'T

Before I get into a post I made a few weeks ago, I'd like to share this semi-unrelated infographic about some differences between Americans and Japanese people:

 Japanese Peoplee.YAmerican PeopleA Fun Comic Introducing some Interesting differences Between Americans and the Japanese.B *. A 1:7)1 'I  v'iA'The BASICSJapanAverage Height: 172 cmAverageHeight:158cmAverage Weight: 64 kgAverage Weight: 53 kgAverage Lifespan: 78 yearsAveragelifespan:86yearsAverage

Hope you enjoyed that. (Note: I have no idea how accurate it is and I have yet to find the source again.)
In other news, I made a revelation today. That revelation is, I’m not Japanese.

…Most of you have probably already gathered that. But please, hang with me here for a moment.

See, for years now I’ve taken a lot of pride in being tolerant and open-minded of other cultures, especially Japan. Since studying abroad here two years ago, I had decided to try everything; be it participating in a tea ceremony or eating seafood that was still moving. And I have. I have done a lot of those things. I have eaten cow tongue, cow organs, cow glands, raw eggs and raw horse meat. I have eaten fish eggs and fish semen and fish eyes. I’ve eaten all KINDS of animals I’ve only ever seen on the Discovery channel; squid, octopus, sea urchins, clams, some of which were still alive upon consumption; and some of which were entirely raw.

So then today at school lunch, these little fish appeared, mixed with some beans. This is not the first time they’ve made an appearance:


they're the ones on the bottom far left.

But here’s the thing: I just can NOT eat something that still has a face. I spent some time picking the fish off my plate, and the rest struggling to explain to my co-workers that I just can’t eat food that has eyes while they chow down on one of their favorite meals. I have tried the fish before, they taste kind of salty and fishy, probably as expected – but to think about those little eyes and sharp fins sliding down my throat inevitably makes me gag to the point that swallowing, no matter how much milk or drink goes with it, becomes impossible. Just looking at them on my plate or someone else’s makes me feel queasy, like I felt like throwing up.

I tried to chalk it up to it being a weak stomach, but fact is, if that were the case I wouldn’t have been able to eat half the stuff I’ve tried in this country so far. And it took me a long time to reason out what was happening. And my conclusion is this:

I am a product of my country’s culture.

Compared to Japan, our consumption of fish is pitiful. Maybe in Wisconsin we’ll have the Friday Night Fishfry at local restaurants; but you can bet if someone got a fish with its head still attached, there would be a complaint. In Japan, people eat fish nearly every day – often twice a day, because fish can appear at any time of the day, including breakfast (sidenote: going to a drinking party and staying the night at a hotel, having a wicked hangover the next day [I always feel it in my stomach, not my head] and coming downstairs to breakfast to find fish and raw eggs waiting for me…it wasn’t going to happen). We normally don’t eat food with the head still attached.

This just in: sources say that fish are friends, not food.

In fact, whenever it does happen that the meal I’m staring at is staring back, I always imagine cartoons from when I was a kid. Like, a cartoon character is cooking something, and it goes horribly, horribly wrong, or a character receives a meal he is disgusted with; it’s happened in lots of loony toon cartoons, but almost EVERY time there is a fish head, or some fish eyes in the meal that is being perceived as gross and inedible.

And that kind of mindset has been instilled in me since I was born, completely subconsciously. It’s only with hindsight that I realize that due to my American diet I’ve been raised to like milk and cheese, to eat meats for protein, to have cereal for breakfast. These realizations happen because in Japan, it is not uncommon for people not to like milk, which shocked me (Japanese people often eat fish for calcium); the meat in their diet is quite minimal compared to the States, and as a whole, nobody really eats cereal here (probably because they only really have unsweetened cornflakes as an option, and a sugary cereal doesn’t sound appetizing to most).

I have adjusted to an ENTIRELY new diet than the one I was raised on. The sweets have less sugar, I’m eating fish, rice, and soup nearly every day, and still there are days I find myself eating things and have no idea how to say it in English or even know what it is. And most days, I’m really okay with that because Japanese food is DELICIOUS.

But then today, those little fish with their little eyes staring up at me appeared at lunch, and I found that I was extremely frustrated with myself for being unable to eat them, for being unable to partake in Japanese culture, for disappointing my coworkers because the thought of eating heads and little bones and scales disgusts me.

It’s deeper than just culture or the fact that my food doesn’t usually have eyes; it’s that, any time I see a face, it is almost always a living one or representing a living thing. I have subconsciously created a relationship with faces and living creatures. And there’s that small hippie part of me that sees that face and instantly remembers it was alive, part of this world, that it felt pain, and there’s something super uncomfortable and unsettling about that. I’m sure most people, save for farmers, would agree that if you saw your dinner’s head while you were eating it’s body, you’d have a loss of appetite (which is why pig roasts never sounded appetizing to me, either).

On the other hand, I’m probably just too sensitive.

First world problems in  Japan - I WANT CHICKEN-FLAVORED FOOD   BUT I'M ONLY SERVED FISH First World Problems Cat
First-world problems in Japan

And then, as I was driving to work, I realized that I am American. There are lots of days that things I don’t normally eat appear and I eat them happily. But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, there are some customs that go entirely against my culture and the way I was raised, and if I keep fighting that and forcing down the little fish eyes while resisting my gag reflex, that eventually, I might come to resent fish, and then Japanese food, and soon I’ll resent all of Japan because I didn’t give myself that little space that I needed, space between me and the school lunch staring at me.

So I forgave myself today, and accepted that there are some things I just can’t do. I can’t keep trying to convince the people around me that I am practically Japanese (I get told that I'm more Japanese than  Japanese people a lot, with a love for and knowledge of Japanese culture and language, often participating in that culture and eating all kinds of Japanese food), because the blonde hair and blue eyes probably gives me away, anyway. But most of all, I have to stop lying to MYSELF. It’s one thing to enjoy a culture; it’s another to submerge yourself in that culture and prevent yourself from resurfacing and getting a breath of familiar air once in a while.

So there it is. Today, I learned that I was American. But that’s exactly why I’m here; to teach my native language, our customs, our differences, and to learn from them. Because since I was little, I always heard, “It’s good to be different.” It’s the way we become more open-minded, the way our tolerance grows, the way we begin to understand each other as people and not as nationalities or races. Although they appear to divide us, our differences strengthen us. They are fascinating. They make us question each other and ask “why?” and from there we can only get answers and learn more.

So, yeah. I’m not Japanese. I’m different.

And that’s a good thing.


  1. Oh man, one of my strongest memories of my homestay experience in Japan many years ago was attempting to eat a pile of little eels all fried together. WITH THEIR LITTLE EELY FACES STARING AT ME. I powered through some of it, my eyes watering, but was unable to finish, and lo, I was mortified. I knew it was rude, but I've NEVER liked seafood. Not any of it....turns out I have an allergy to something deeply of the sea, which I learned whilst in face swelled so badly I couldn't see, hahaha. SERVES ME RIGHT, EATING ALL THOSE FACES. They got revenge on me.

  2. haha Allyson...before I came to Japan, the idea of seafood really grossed me out, and even today if I think too much about fish or go to aquariums, I actually feel nauseous (noticed it when I was thinking about getting a pet fish, was looking at some online and started feeling queasy, I still don't know why)...most seafood I can do these days, and a lot of it IS delicious, but I have to start drawing lines at the faces. It's just too much.