Still Friday, May 21, 2010
This is actually a twofer post. Part three of the hazukashii series results from the embarrassment which results from the Japanese gift-giving culture.
After teaching 2nd period with the special needs class (pretty easily rearranged when there are only five students) I went back to the office. The special ed. teacher was filling her drip coffee filter when I went to wash out my cup for some gourmet caramel praline hot cocoa that I'd purchased from the foreign foods store in Kyoto station.
"Do you drink coffee?" the teacher asked.
"Sometimes," I replied.
"Sometimes. I like sweet things." I showed her the packet of hot chocolate mix.
The teacher tried to ask me something about milk and sugar in my cocoa, to which I replied no, I just used the packet contents and water. I held up the cocoa for her to smell. "Very sweet," I repeated.
The teacher retrieved a packet of Japanese cocoa. I sighed a little inside. This was one of those times when I would have to accept this gift of cocoa, even though I already had a mug full of it. I would also have to pretend that I'd never know that Japan, too, had sweet cocoa mix packets so as not to make the teacher feel that her gift was commonplace or unnecessary. Then, before I could return to my desk the teacher handed me a sweet from Ishikawa prefecture.
Admittedly, my first thought was, Crap, now I'm going to have to give her one of my cookies. I only have two. When one gives a gift in Japan, no matter what the size, a gift of equal value is returned. They are wrapped nicely, too; no funny-looking burnt cookies in Ziploc bags get exchanged here.
As I was debating how to apologize for ugly cookies the teacher pulled out a map of Japan to show me where Ishikawa Prefecture was located, then gave me another sweet from Okinawa (and pointed it out on the map), and explained to me how certain cities were famous for local sweets. Yes, I knew. That's why souvenirs are usually sweets or snacks that are exclusive to the area visited. I asked the teacher if she traveled, she tried to explain the process of ordering sweets from a catalogue, I tried to tell her that I understood in English, and we ended up saying the exact same things to each other in our respective mother tongues.
Since she had given me two sweets and taken the time to show me the map and what have you, I pulled the ugly cookies out of my lunch bag and handed them to her. I said in Japanese, "Not pretty, but…" She asked if she could share them, and I said of course, figuring that she'd do so at lunch, and only with the three other teachers who sat at her section.
I stopped paying attention until I heard a discussion on how to say, "handmade" in English, and "from Ryan-sensei." I turned my head to see that the special ed. teacher had broken those moist, ugly cookies into tiny pieces and was offering them to everyone in the office, including the vice-principal. Crap.
I apologized, the staff ate their cookie bits and lied about how scrumptious they were, and then the awkward, embarrassment set it for real. They had been given a gift, you see. Ergo they were obliged to return in kind. So, for two flat, unattractive chocolate chip cookies I received a package of instant café au lait, hard candies, and a package of instant mushroom potage. It was entirely disproportionate to those cookies. I don't even like mushroom soup, but because it was offered as thanks for my crumbly burnt mess I had to accept. And listen to the teachers nag each other to say "thank you" and "delicious" in English. And pretend not to understand, because to indicate that I recognize when I'm being discussed would have embarrassed them. Then how could they talk about me when I'm in the room?
If this doesn't strike you as awkward and a little embarrassing, give one person in a group of Japanese people some crappy food, and see what you get in return. Then you'll know. Oh, the social guilt. I will never bring cookies in a Ziploc bag again.*
*This is a lie. I will do it frequently, but I will eat them myself.