I broke down and did it. For the first time in 15 years I had a McDonald’s cheeseburger. And fries. I was starving. You see, the reason that the Japanese are so enviably snatched is that they eat smaller portions, and I don’t mean European-size small. THIS is something different, on a Pai Mei torturous eat-that-bowl-of-rice-and-walk-up-those-stairs-with-two-buckets-of-water kind of way (yes I realize I went to China just now but bear with me cuz I'm about to ping pong you through worse). If I order a fish entrée, it’s hard not to see an appetizer because America has ruined me in yet this way as well. Turns out that I’m not a fat bitch inside by myself – America is comprised only of fat bitches and the degree to which our ginormous stomachs need sating is proportional to our degree of ruin...
The point is, I was starving, dreadfully and hurtfully. Last night I went to two different restaurants to eat, first in a shrimp joint that served the crustaceans with heads and shells on (I peeled, avoiding being grossed out) and then at a random place where I had chicken skewers and fries.
So today I had to just do one meal that didn’t make me want to suffer the embarrassment of ordering two full entrees in the same sitting. As I sat with my cheeseburger, which miraculously tasted like it came from a real cow, and drank my coke that was mostly real ingredients in a small cup instead of the trough of water and chemicals they sell at home, I had an epiphany about hospitality. I had been wondering why everywhere I’ve been abroad this year, people delivered it in spades, genuine hospitality.. The Israelis went out of their way, coloring our endeavors with education about the whys, hows and cultural origins. The Bajans were equally lovely, resort expectations notwithstanding. The Japanese are on a whole other level, somehow obsequious and relentlessly proud at once.
Between fries, it occurred to me that perhaps genuine national warm welcome is engendered by connection to a sturdy culture steeped in thousands of years of tradition. The sharing and cultural exchange is built into the pride; what I experienced abroad this year is the native interest for visitors to not only behold the unifying legacy, but to feel it too.
It was never more clear until I got to Osaka, mainly because the Japanese, beyond being hospitable, are exemplary. I stood over the subway platform and saw a railroad free of refuse, litter, rats. My awe followed frustration that I could find no trash receptacle anywhere to dump my litter because these folks believe in finishing their ingestibles before making it to the station, let alone the train. The people here respect their stuff.
So it’s no wonder that when I walk into a class, the students stand and greet me with a chorus of welcome before giving me their undivided attention to gather whatever information I have. They call me sensei because they trust that the people who hired me know what they’re doing.
And this is why I have felt like such an alien when people discuss America in terms of cultural pride. I can’t relate. We have jigsaw-pieced together a construct of culture that takes bits and pieces of every settler (read: invader) who showed up. Our cultural scaffold is theft, which is why I try to contextualize my censure of Beyonce (see link of her xeroxing European choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work for her video to understand how I got here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDT0m514TMw); she’s all-American. Anyway, thievery is just one part; the instruction manual had other steps. Devalue the natives. Snatch the resources. King the robber barons—these are not judgments yet, I’m just at what actually happened in America. Then incorporate whatever fragments of culture from England, Spain, France and other colonialists to make something new. Add the Puritan work ethic, for example, and convince everyone that following it means success. This is our Cliffnotes, fast-track path to national culture.
Don’t get me started on where black folks fit in, since our culture-ancestral reference points were annihilated on the boats. Let’s forego the re-appropriation debate and just jump to facts: the White House was literally built by black people, which is why when Barack was campaigning to be in it, I shouted Hallelujah at Michelle revealing that she felt nationalism for the first time at age 46. I was right there with her (now we’re at judgment). If our contributions extend beyond economy- and brick-building, it is because black excellence has often been a direct reflection of suffering. The lion share of our patents, from Sarah Boone’s ironing board to Charles Brooks’ street sweeper, were borne as solutions to hard labor (pun intended). And the hymns and rhythms that became sediment for the entire American songbook were first sung in field of fatigue.
So even with our inclusion, we’re back to theft and oppression ONLY as common cornerstones of a melting pot American culture. How then, would we arrive at genuine pride about it? Something tangible other than our celebration of difference and the option to not rebel? No matter how “free” we are in our system, Americans don’t get to not participate in it and live there. So how do we teach our kids to respect a country that shows them every day the brutality of its nervous system, the sketchiness of its skeleton?
I’m not letting millennials off the hook here, just identifying other things that play into the profoundly beautiful arigatou gozaimasu (#thank you) I’ve experienced here in Japan. And let’s be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that Japanese legacy is absent horrors. Ask the Chinese and they’ll gladly tell you. Also, many would find an imperial nation so steeped in regimen Borg-ish in the most unappealing, Orwellian way. My guess is that a Japanese homosexual banished from his family for disgrace might prefer American tradition, until of course he makes it to a Southern Baptist church that agrees with his folks. I maintain, though, that an old nation with an ancient culture is clear on the composition thereof, good and bad, and the value is—in this case—clean gumless sidewalks, a freakishly low homicide rate and trains that arrive and depart on schedule to the second.
For me, the South is as close as we get in the States. There is a clear persistence of mores and customs that dictate how people ought to speak to, respect and host each other (there’s the legacy), heinous chattelization of black people notwithstanding (there’s the horror). With the cultural status quo clear, I can better understand the Southerner who delights in feeding me home-cooked dinner while telling me between my bites that I’m going directly to hell for sleeping with a man.
Which brings me back to these fries. Real potatoes were involved. Because the Japanese equivalent of the FDA believes people should eat actual food. I have more to think about on all of this of course; we’ll see what happens during the morning sushi meal…