Posts Tagged ‘living in japan’

The Pain of Buying

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Living in a country where the people don’t speak your language is a very isolating experience. Suddenly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food at a counter become nerve wracking ordeals fraught with social peril. This is especially the case in a country such as Japan, where social customs are so important. There are patterns of behavior which are expected in so many situations, and deviating from these paths caused lots of trouble for the many flustered, inflexible Japanese people we met working in shops, restaurants, banks and post offices. Did you know that the Japanese language has an entirely different vocabulary in situations such as dealing with a fast-food register operator, because of the social hierarchy of the customer being “above” the employee? This is called “keigo”. The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. So not only is it difficult for foreigners such as myself to navigate their way through this seemingly endless minefield of faux pas due to their ignorance of the expected modes of behavior in a situation, even for those visitors who speak some Japanese they can still be screwed because customer service employees often seem to be speaking another language. They worked so hard to efface themselves in my presence and what they actually ended up doing was making it much harder for me not to cause them embarrassment when it was obvious I had no idea what they just said.

Ok, so this is a problem. But it isn’t an insurmountable one. Just pick up the vocab they are using, go away and study it, right? Then find out what the correct response is. Well…

Knowing the correct response doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, and in fact can fool the clerk into thinking that you can actually speak Japanese, eliciting another language puzzle. It’s like an onion: there are layers, and peeling each one back makes you cry.

The Meat of Japan

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So for those that do not know, the Japanese have slightly different priorities to the west when it comes to cooking meat. Generally in Australia the best meat has very little fat. Japanese meat is often cut in what would be considered unusual ways for us and contains much more fat, marbling the flesh. Personally I am a fan of Japanese meat: it is tender, juicy, and falls apart in your mouth. Ingrid is definitely not a fan, but we all know she is a racist!

I had a lot of fun explaining to my school kids how we eat kangaroo meat in Australia. They wouldn’t believe me. It actually took quite a lot of convincing, diagrams drawn on the board, and descriptions involving a generous helping of broad, expansive hand gestures (sell it, Alan, sell it!). Several different kids in different classes asked, “what part of the kangaroo do you eat?” and I would delight in telling them anything I felt like at the time. “Oh, the ears are the best” or “tail-steaks”. They were almost all of them so horrified. I mean, it’s not like I said something like “Just the Joey. We only ever eat the Joey”. I’m not sure if the fact that it is one of our national animals that made it so hard for them to accept the idea but the cuteness factor of the kangaroo certainly had a huge role to play. I decided to test this theory not because I am a sadistic bastard but purely in the interests of increasing the pool of general human knowledge. “Has anyone here eaten rabbit?”, I asked.

Bit of background information may be required at this point. Rabbits are very uncommon in modern Japanese cooking, at least in any part of the country I have ever been to. However the rabbit is very common in Japan as a pet, and in particular every elementary school I taught at kept a hatch full of rabbits as school pets. I think my descriptions of rabbit stew earned eternal hatred from some of the students, their little eyes burning holes in my back while I wrote English vocabulary throughout the rest of the semester. To their protests I simply replied, “But they’re SO GOOD!” with what I hoped was an innocent and wide-eyed expression.

Talking to them about kangaroo kebabs I was met with incredulity. Introducing rabbit stew into the conversation earned me their revulsion, but they no longer doubted the veracity of my tales of kangaroo meat. At the point where I earned a certain amount of cred was when I would start talking about koala steaks.