Food Shock

After teaching an English lesson, we five women–three Japanese, one Taiwanese and I—shared brunch together. Two of the women have school-age children, so I asked, “Are your kids having play dates with Americans?”  Yes, was their answer.

I know it’s no fun to do what’s normal in your culture and see the frozen look on your acquaintance’s face–I’ve experienced it often during my six years of living in Japan while my children attended typical Japanese schools for 5.5 years of that. I could tell I’d surprised someone if her eyes opened wider or could detect hurt by the slight narrowing.

Small things can mean a lot. Sometimes I haven’t known how much I had offended until the person stopped answering e-mails or phone calls–the exact reason for disappearance remaining a mystery.

So these days as I teach English to Japanese temporarily residing in the Silicon Valley, I do more than teach grammar or listening. I point out ways our values and customs do not match. Not because I think they should change because our way is better, but so they can have what they want: friendships.

I told the lunch group, “Since your kids are having friendships with Americans, you might want to know a few of of the customs.  For one thing, most American moms want to keep things simple. So a meal like this together would be considered elaborate, that means complicated.”

We were eating meatloaf brightened up with the yellow and white of a hardboiled egg inserted in its center; a sticky-rice pilaf, and a green bean casserole. Its maker created it from scratch, trying to imitate the traditional American Thanksgiving casserole, but she replaced canned mushroom soup with fresh mushrooms in her own homemade Bechamel sauce as well as substituring fresh green beans for frozen or canned ones. The result was far superior to what sits on my dining table alongside the roasted turkey. The mom of a two-year-old had completed these heraculean efforts before a 9:30 a.m. lesson.

I continued my culture points. “Another thing, when your kid goes to an American home, you don’t need to bring a gift, not even any food.”  Eyebrows shot up in shock.

“I remember the first time a Japanese mom brought me food when her son was coming over to play with my daughter, I was surprised. ‘Doesn’t she trust me to have food here?’ was my thought.”  We don’t bring a gift or food with us when it’s just a play date. If you bring something, it will seem strange.”

“Is bringing seaweed strange?” asked the moher of a first-grader.

I nodded yes. Probably she brought nori. Even my American friends who lived and ate in Paris for years hate nori. The husband said, Yuch when we offered them the dried and salted seaweed pervasive to Japanese diet.

For my own conscience and selfish benefit after our potluck lunch ended, I added one last tidbit of cultural information.

“Another thing, when Americans have a potluck dinner, a person who brings food to the dinner still owns the leftover food afterwards. She may ask the host, “Can I leave some with you?” But politeness does not require her to leave all of it. The host may say, “No, my refrigerator is too full” and it does not necessarily mean that she doesn’t like the proffered food.  No offense would be taken.”

I speak from my own experience of hospitality in California. It could well be different in Georgia or some other region of the U.S. In fact, Hawaiians follow social norms similar to Japanese rules in many of these situations.

When I rose from the table, I asked our host if she cared to keep some of the homemade tangerine cake I’d made.  She accepted and I split what remained in half, happy that I could carry some home to my husband, without giving shock or offence.

Want to comment on the culture of food giving in your own community?  If a guest brought a dish you didn’t care for, and then offered you leftovers, would you receive them out of politeness or not? If not, what would you say?

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