I make it a point of pride to be the kind of expatriate who adapts to the country they’re living in, and for the most I believe I do fairly well, if the frequent comments from my coworkers along the lines of “You are such a classic Japanese lady,” and “You’re more Japanese than I am,” are anything to go by. But there are invariably times when I get tripped up because I just don’t have the automatic cultural knowledge that they do.
Case in hand. We had a culture fair and there was to be no school lunch. So a sheet was handed around for the teachers to choose the boxed lunch they wanted. Both from the same restaurant, both 500 yen. Lunch A was tonkatsu – a piece of breaded pork with cabbage – and Lunch B was hanbaGU – which is not to be confused with hanbaGA as we know it, but is merely the patty usually with a watery sauce of grated daikon and mushrooms. It’s a staple of school lunch, and one of the side dishes of Lunch B was egg which usually gives me a headache. So I put a circle next to my name in the Lunch A column, and gave the clipboard back to N-sensei.
She gasped. “You chose Lunch A?”
“Um, yeah.” I said. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“No, no, nothing,” she said, unconvincingly. To the room in general, “she chose Lunch A!”
“Okay, I’ll change it!” I said, making a grab for the clipboard.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, side-stepping. “Imagine that, Lunch A…”
“Really, what’s wrong with it? They cost the same…”
M-sensei, the head of the second years, suggested, “Look at who else chose Lunch A.”
I managed to look at the clipboard. In the same column as me, there was also the Principal, Vice-principal, M-sensei, and K-sensei. All older men with large builds.
“Lunch A is just a little heavy,” N-sensei said delicately. All of the female teachers, and all of the young male teachers had therefore automatically realized that Lunch B was more appropriate.
“But you can eat it with us uncles,” M-sensei said, starry-eyed. He dotes on me in the way that my older male coworkers often do, and I’m pretty sure he just filed away another trait of mine that he finds adorable. ALT Emily, talks like a mouse, eats like an elephant.
I contemplated changing my order, but had written in pen and had run out of white-out, so I would have had to scribble it out which would have looked even more incriminating. I resigned myself to eating like an uncle, and determined not to make the same mistake again.
That vow didn’t last more than a day. We were offered our choice of special dessert, a pudding in either pumpkin or peach flavor. I like pumpkin under some circumstances – particularly in pie – but this is the country where large chunks of the green-shelled variety are usually found in savory soups, so I had my doubts about the quality of a dessert. And peach is perfect in practically every form, so I checked my name there.
“You chose the peach!” N-sensei exclaimed.
Oh seriously, what this time? You can’t claim that pumpkin is lighter than peach.
“Not the pumpkin? But it’s fall! If you’re talking about dessert in fall, you’d have to choose pumpkin.”
No, see, I choose what I personally like and have a taste for, not what is appropriate for the season or day or position at school. If it’s going in my mouth, I want it to be something I want. I can remember at summer camp choking down a slice of cheesecake – a dessert which I have always loathed – because everyone else was saying how delicious it was, and I wanted to fit in. But I think I’ve grown past the age where I’m going to eat something I don’t want just because everyone else is.