Finally Going to Japan

source: 123rf
Image ID : 75553096
copyright : Sasin Tipchai

 

Next week I will be in Japan for two weeks, and though it hasn’t quite sunken in yet, I will finally see the country which is responsible for 50% of my DNA makeup and many of the  sensibilities and habits which were instilled in me when I was little.

For over 50 years, my desire to visit Japan was coupled with remorse over even wanting to visit without my mother, since she has never once visited the country from which her parents came.  Even more guilt-inducing was thinking about how in the world I could believe that my diluted, half-Japanese self had any right to visit Japan if my mother never got a chance.   For those of you who are wondering why I am not taking my mother on this trip, she is 87 years old, wheelchair-bound, incontinent, and actually refuses to take any trips anywhere due to her weary, broken state.  I know that she will live vicariously through me, as I retell the stories and experiences which I am about to create on this journey to the motherland.

Over the course of 14 days, I will visit Sapporo, Sendai, Kyoto/Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka (the prefecture which my grandfather was from), Kumamoto (the prefecture my grandmother was from), Okayama, and Tokyo.  Most of my destinations within the land of the rising sun will be reached via Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train.

Because samurai blood runs deep on my grandfather’s side (we are also ultimately descended from the Imperial Family of Japan), I look forward to seeing the older architecture in some areas, and also plan to visit the cemetery in Fukuoka where some of my ancestors are buried.  But what I look forward to more than anything else while I am in Japan is the FOOD.

Many Japanese foods, like chawanmushi, mochi, takuan, sukiyaki, agedashi, ramen, sashimi, anpan, and manju, are my comfort foods, and since I will have all types of Japanese cuisine available to me to sample for two weeks, I have a feeling my taste buds will be very happy.  I also absolutely adore seafood (perhaps I was a cat in a past life), and will probably be eating it every single day while out there, which is why I will also continue to take chlorella daily to control the mercury levels in my body.

Once I return home, I look forward to creating a blog post in which I discuss my adventures in Japan.  It will truly be a blessing to visit the exquisitely beautiful country within which my family’s roots sit.

White Rice

white rice
Anyone who grew up in a household which was managed on a shoestring budget can relate to the concept of adding an inexpensive, bulky carbohydrate to meals to increase their volume. My entire childhood was punctuated by the ubiquitous presence of glutinous Japanese sticky rice. In fact, the only times I did not consume white rice with dinner were when my mom decided to heat up Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, Stouffer’s Lasagna, or pot pies (Swanson and Banquet were the two brands she bought…she ended up purhcasing whatever was on sale). When we had the mac and cheese or the lasagna, we would split the dinner, and she would serve frozen veggies on the side.

All of our other meals featured a mound of white rice which occupied the majority of the plate’s surface. If we had broiled hot dogs, there was rice. Scrambled eggs and rice. Broiled chicken and rice. Vienna sausage and rice. Pan fried SPAM and rice. The occasional steak or lamb chop treat and rice. Sukiyaki (one of only two dishes my mother knew how to cook) and rice. Meatloaf (the other dish my mom could make from scratch) and rice. I even had Campbell’s soup with rice, and was so accustomed to eating soup with rice, that I was always thrown off when I would go to a classmate’s house and encounter soup being served as a precursor to the main course, not the actual main course, and sans rice.

Despite the fact that I was raised in a very low income household, and ate processed foods almost constantly, I was a very happy child and never felt that I was being deprived. I was more astonished and disgusted by the ultra wealthy children I went to school with, because I thought they lived in a false world, one which was based almost exclusively on possessions and financial wealth. A number of my classmates were pretentious, unpleasant brats who were so brainwashed with a sense of entitlement that they probably got kicked around by life when they had to navigate through it on their own.

White rice was such an important part of my life that once I moved out of my mom’s as an adult, I quickly got a rice cooker. I was so unhappy with the small Hitachi cooker I got, that I almost ran cartwheels when someone gifted me with an 8-cup National cooker (that cooker is still with me, almost 30 years later). For those of you who are Japanese, you can probably relate to that need to have a National, Tiger, or Zojirushi cooker! The nicest Zojirushi rice cookers are quite fancy now, as you can see here:

zojirushi fancy

And yes, I still covet a Zojirushi rice cooker!

Now that I am very carb conscious, I avoid white rice on most days, but there are carb spike days in which I allow myself to indulge in jasmine white rice. Why? Because white rice is one of my main comfort foods. It ties me to my Japanese heritage, and it reminds me of my humble upbringing.

Proud hapa

I am described as a hapa in Hawaii, which means mixed or part. Typically this means part Asian or Malaysian, mixed with any other ethnicity, usually resulting in very exotic and often strikingly beautiful looks. Over the years I have noticed a strong sense of community among hapas, and this sense of community has strengthened over the years with the popularity of hapa celebrities such as Kristin Kreuk and Dean Cain. I am always fascinated by the combinations which result from such ethnic mixings, because they can be quite unpredictable. Hapas are often studied for their unusual phenotypic characteristics, and usually present an amusing puzzle for others to figure out. I personally get a kick out of people who try to guess what my ethnic blend is!

Kristin_kreuk_short_hair

Dean Cain

Dean Cain is 1/4 Japanese, while Kristin Kreuk is half Chinese. Can you see the Asian features in these celebrities?

I am still waiting to see if research marketing organizations catch onto the idea that more and more people are unable to check just one box when asked to describe their ethnicity. I think it is ridiculous that someone like me who is EXACTLY half Asian and half Caucasian must claim only one ethnicity. Since I was raised by my Japanese mother and had been exposed to a more Asian upbringing, I check off the Asian box. I also know of many people who have such complex ethnic mosaics that no single ethnic group dominates over the others in terms of percentage. Do these people have to go “eeny meeny miney mo” to fill out a survey?

After Bad Comes Good

I have heard my mother and my aunts and uncles share stories about my grandmother, whom they all adored. They have all spoken of her unflagging kindness and compassion, and of her wisdom. One thing she was prone to saying frequently in Japanese was, “Don’t worry, after bad comes good.” For those of you who are curious about this quote in Japanese, here it is: “Shinpai shinai de. Subete umaku iku ne.” This statement can also be translated to English as, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”, but everyone in the family insists on “Don’t worry, after bad comes good.” as the unwavering message my grandmother was known for. She truly felt that good things ALWAYS followed bad things.
Buddha Kumamoto
I find this quote from my frail, tiny (4’8″) Japanese grandmother, who incidentally bore FIFTEEN children and lived through countless hardships and poverty before dying of cancer at the age of 63, to be incredibly wise and reassuring. Whenever someone in the family was concerned about a troubling event, my grandmother would utter this statement and smile.

It seems to me that my grandmother’s sense of calm and joy about the world and her ability to enjoy the simplest things despite living without many creature comforts made her more aware than most, and thus more spiritually enlightened. It is probably part of the reason why her journey on this planet did not last very long. Sadly, she passed away before I was born, so I never had a chance to meet this remarkable woman. My mother tells me that I have my grandmother’s eyes, and I can see that when I look at photos of her. Though she was full-blooded Japanese, she had large, round eyes with the telltale Asian skinfold called the epicanthic fold which I also have.

I try to remember that with every challenging or stressful situation, that it too will pass.

Use It Or Lose It: How I Forgot Foreign Languages

foreign languagesI was a pretty ambitious kid and consequently managed to take Spanish, French, Latin, and Japanese during my school years. For those of you who are curious about how much exposure I had in school to each of these languages, they are as follows:

MANY years of Spanish (plus cultural exposure)
Two years of Latin
One year of French
One year of Japanese (plus cultural exposure due to my Japanese heritage)

I am so glad I took Latin in high school because it proved to be extremely helpful during medical school, but my decision to take French was primarily a way of filling up my senior class schedule. French was so easy for me that I got the the only A+ in the class. As for Spanish, I was so culturally and scholastically immersed that I approached fluency at a couple of different points. Finally, with Japanese, I wanted to have a more solid understanding of the language of my ancestors and wanted to honor my heritage.

As the years passed I found few opportunities to speak French, so I am now quite bad at it. I can read and understand about 25% of it but beyond that I am lost. I also went through a very similar experience with Japanese.

Spanish is an entirely different story because I keep finding myself in situations in which I could use my Spanish speaking and reading skills. Nevertheless, because I don’t speak it regularly, I am getting pretty rusty in my ability to converse in Spanish. Though I had learned and used medical Spanish out of pure necessity, I now rarely encounter Spanish speaking patients, so that skill is diminishing as well. What is perhaps most frustrating is when I am struggling too find the words in Spanish to say something I was so easily able to convey 10 years ago.

Like any skill, comprehension of a foreign language requires regular usage so that it is not lost. Looks like a trip to Costa Rica or Venezuela may be in order!