Monday, November 30, 2009

There's No Place Like Two Homes for the Holidays

For years, I've tried to make my American holidays work in a foreign country. The alternative is to embrace the differences. I guess the answer is a mixed bag, with moderate success. I've attempted the home-made American as apple pie way of maintaining culturally familiar traditions in Japan. I've also tried the adventurous route of ordering from the ethnic menu by embracing the customs of my borrowed-home country. I've even sampled off the combo platter by trying to adjust to the Japanese stylized version of what I consider Western customs. There is no perfect recipe or magic ingredient that makes holidays abroad feel just right, but I've grown to like, and maybe even crave, the "melting pot" that serves itself up over the course of celebrations throughout the year.

Happy Serious New Year
Ceremoniously, holiday confusion kicks off with both sides on equal footing by ringing in the New Year on the same date, January 1. On one side of the Pacific, you put on your party dress, uncork the bubbly and join in a nostalgic chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" year with friends. On the other, you put on your most elaborately designed silk Kimono and make the first pilgrimage to worship at the shrine of the New Year with family? Although the calendar turns from December 31 to January 1 with one straight forward flip in both countries, the rituals within come with stark contrasts. Japan's New Year holiday includes the 2nd and 3rd, adding up to a minimum three day national holiday. I can safely say that more than a few Americans would love getting those mandatory extra days off post their New Year's Eve festivities. However, Japan's New Year's celebrations are more of a time of solemn prayers and joyous greetings: Families travel to see each other, they pay their respects at the shrine, and share the traditional and symbolic New Year's menu. As an American in Japan, this auspicious occasion is an eerily quiet time. Nothing is open, the streets are silent, there are no party hats, fireworks, or game day rowdiness heard booming out of big screen furnished basements or sports bars.

Above: The custom is to purify yourself
with "holy water"upon entry to a shrine.
Left, "praying" at 初詣,
the first visit of the New Year.

Merry Christmas Cake
Years of observation has shown me that the style of New Year and Christmas celebrations in Japan vs America are as night and day different as their day and night opposite time zones. Similar to New Year in Japan, Americans celebrating Christmas tend to travel to meet family, eat a traditional feast, and attend to Mass. Shops close, not many people are out on the roads, and it must have a pretty quiet, perhaps uneventfully peaceful feel from the eyes of an visiting Easterner in the West. However, Christmastime in Japan comes with the American New Year's party feel. It's date night. The big question for eligible bachelors or bachelorettes is "who will you be eating Christmas cake with this year?" Ahh, Christmas cake. The unique made in Japan ritual featuring elaborately decorated sheet cakes, ordered in advance from colorful catalogs from upscale grocery stores to 7-11 convenience stores for an anticipated Christmas Party. Nothing says, "Happy Birthday" or "Happy New Year" or is less representative of Christmas to me than the look of these fashioned desserts. I have been asked if seeing Christmas cake in Japan year after year makes me homesick.
Department stores, bakeries
and convenience stores take
Christmas cake orders take orders
from late November to make the
traditional 12/24 "party."

So, I have tried to explain (to any local that will listen) that the American way might be to bake and decorate Christmas cookies for the season, or a school or church fundraiser, as well as offer some kind of warm fruit filled or pumpkin pie for dessert after a Christmas meal. I could get homesick thinking about my Aunt Gert's authentic homemade cookies, or my Aunt Joan's home baked pumpkin pies. But store bought or convenient store manufactured Christmas cake? That's one commercial side of the holidays that Americans are not gobbling down.

Yes, Virginia, there are Two Santa Clauses
Alternate Santa #1, with most
popular Christmas Dinner menu
item: Fried chicken.
On the other hand, the iconic Santa that Americans commercially embrace on the annual visit armed with a wish list to the department store is not the booming business here. Instead of the big bearded Santa with rosy cheeks that promises good little girls to load his sleigh with an overstuffed bag of gifts and slip down the chimney on the night before Christmas, Japan's Santa has a young, thin college kid look about him under his ill fitting suit. He comes on a moped and rings the front door...bearing pizza.
Alternate Santa #2 with most
popular side dish option: Pizza.
Yes, highlights of the night before Christmas in Japan is to order pizza, pick up KFC (Coronal Sanders wears the hat -- he's got the look and he's no dummy -- knowing its his most lucrative month) followed by the traditional meal sealer, Christmas cake. Friends, not necessarily family, get together for these parties and toast with sparkling wine. There's no countdown or confetti, but it's a New Year's feel to me. December 25 is not a national holiday. And somehow by now I have adjusted to being able to go to the bank or a post office on a Christmas Day, maybe even a little more smoothly than I've come to accept the slight 150 pound Santa zooming to the door with a pepperoni and cheese.

Turkey(less) Day
I don't expect Japan to call a national holiday for the landing at Plymouth Rock, but I do try to keep the holiday feel in spirit and recreate a Thanksgiving meal out of personal ritual. The road block for me here is not the bumper to bumper traffic to get to Grandma's amazing lumpy mashed potatoes; rather, it is that there is no market for turkeys in Japan. They are unavailable, not simply sold out, plainly, not sold at the local butcher or even larger supermarket chains. They are considered "gamy," I'm told. The same people that give me this feedback, mind you, eat non edible things from the sea, raw horse meat, in addition to anything else available, living or dead, raw or cooked, and consider it a rare delicacy. But an oven baked, basted and stuffed turkey? Gamy. The Presidential pardon doesn't even do it for them. I think I'd have better luck trying to push turkey sashimi on the locals here to get it some respect. Even though Subway sandwich shops came to Japan in the late 90s, which is the only place I have seen turkey on a mainstream menu, a turkey and ham club on Thanksgiving is probably not what the Pilgrims and Indians were sharing when they ceremoniously broke bread in 1621, even if it was served with a side of yams and cranberry sauce.
Mircrowave oven roast bag, meat
thermometer make up a sample of the
necessities to imitate an American
style Thanksgiving.

Therefore, I've learned (sadly through forced training in my early days here of half faking that I understood what people were saying and stumbling my way through conversation) to doctor up what I can and make do. So for that coveted fourth Thursday of November, I create the bird look by baking a rotisserie-look-alike chicken. If I stab a thermometer in it and mount it gently on a hand made doily lined undersized dinner plate, with a good imagination it mimics a cartoon version of a turkey on a platter. This superficial do-it-yourself savvy transfers over to my Easter and Halloween concoctions as well. Why American Easter traditions have not caught on here is a mystery to me. The Japanese love cute and cuddly things (think The Land of Hello Kitty) almost as much as they love giving, receiving and eating upscale chocolates.

She Loves Me, He Loves Me Not 
Made in Japan "White Day,"
pay-back displays invade
department stores for March 14.

Take Valentine's Day the Japanese way, for example. It's a one way street. Women give men chocolate. Outside of actually giving cocoa fueled gifts to those they like in their lives, they are semi-required to present fancily boxed chocolates to those they work with. I choose "semi-required" lightly since there is actually a word for the custom: giri choko, literally meaning, "obligation chocolate." To reciprocate, they have created a comeback occasion called White Day, a month later in March. On White Day, if you are male recipient of chocolate, you return the chocolate gift favor to the generous giri choko ladies of February 14.

Long Distance Easter Bunny 
Even though there are no required duties that surround the customs of Easter baskets or Easter egg hunts, they are packed full of cute chocolate marketing activity potential. A country that has embraced Peter Rabbit and Miffy for all ages really could use the uplifting Easter Bunny in its bank of copy cat (in this case, copy rabbit) traditions. I haven't let a year go by without decorating eggs. Eggs, which luckily don't come from turkeys, are aplenty in Japan, and thanks to the popularity of sushi in Japan, vinegar is easy to come by.
Local eggs, imported Paas dyes; local friend,
"imported" American
The dye? Well, I take the laziest route possible for this one, and leave it to the Easter Bunny, or at least who really played the Easter Bunny in my house growing up. My Mom makes the trip to the grocery and gets a couple of Paas packets. Easter Bunny A tag teams Easter Bunny B and my Dad jets it off from the post office. I still believe, and I'd like the Japanese to adopt some of the sweet, if not fantastical, magic as well.

It's the Great Green Pumpkin Charlie Brown
Halloween has been catching on more and more. It's finally easy to spot decorations hanging around more than just the standard marketed to foreigner shops in recent years. Even though Beggar's Night is still in the developing country stages, in fall, standard candy sold in any store may have a Halloween themed wrapper. I'm confident (and mostly hopeful) that trick or treating will catch on during my tenure here.

She is holding a Japanese pumpkin,
known to Americans as squash. I was treated
for tendonitis one year for carving 6 thick
gourds: Green exterior, orange interior.
Jack-o-lanterns, however, stand much less of a chance. Japanese pumpkins are what Americans know as winter squash. It's smaller than its American cousin, green in color, and takes the most powerful Ginsu knife that infomercials have ever offered. The interior, at least, if your arms survive cutting it open, hosts the same seeds. Check toasted seeds off the list. But carving out the details of a face? It makes the 2 hour, 24 dollar toll road toll round trip to Costco Japan for a US import seem much less crazy.
Introducing carmel apple
to the neighborhood - skeptical
of the sticky mess, but comforted
by the chopstick holder.
Check the done column for Jack-o-lantern and last on the list is caramel apples. Luckily apples are in season in fall, I can track down caramel (with a boost from that Easter Bunny back in Ohio), and my house is already equipped with a range and a pan for melting. The final touch is a little bit of local flavor. They don't have what we know as Popsicle sticks here, but take-out chopsticks have never had a better use.

When it Comes to Holidays Abroad, Beggar's Night is not Chooser's Night
It takes a true Scrooge not to appreciate a holiday custom, and interestingly, being challenged to adapt to a new way of celebrating, while putting forth great pains to maintain my own custom roots has resulted in doubling the pleasure of celebrations. Accepting and adapting are regular themes that define the pride of the American way. I never imagined that life in Japan would be my greatest teacher of those lessons, nor have I embraced American traditions and holiday more than I do now. And I'm not just saying this because I know Santa is making a list, and checking it twice as I type. He'll show up again this year in his red suit, on his motor bike, and I just bet he'll be delivering an extra large, deep dish supreme. Yes, plenty to share, and even more to be grateful for. It looks like this year, even thousands of miles from "home," I can have my Christmas cake, and eat it too.
Team "Pizza La" Santa Delivery, at your service!