Saturday, 26 December 2009

Deck The Love Hotels With KFC Buckets

I just spent my third Christmas in Japan and it still doesn't cease to inspire the occasional shake of the head and utterance of "what the f---". Christmas here is so fundamentally different from what I am accustomed to back home that trying to make sense of it seems as impossible a feat as finding a lost earring on the floor in Forever 21, Harajuku on opening day. I guess the only way for me to tackle it is to get into the three recurring themes that continue to baffle me year after year.

Part 1 - Work

Many of my co-workers bemoaned the fact that they had to work on Christmas Day but that fact didn't bother me at all. Aside from the years I spent in school, I've never had Christmas Day off. My first job was in the call center of a cell phone company in Jamaica, and I had to work on Christmas Day. I didn't work on Christmas Day at two of my four subsequent places of employment - one being the IT department at my college and another being small film production company where the film makers felt like spending the day with their families.

So, working on Christmas Day didn't bug me (so much). The difference is the manner of work.

When I worked at the cell phone company, we got our quarterly bonuses in December, so everyone was in a festive mood at the office. Also, Christmas Day was a casual dress day and the company gave everyone a complimentary bottle of rum cream, which I suppose was to be taken as thanks for working on a day when everyone would rather be elsewhere.

In Japan, December 25 is not a holiday. It's a normal work day and everybody is expected to show up for work, of which I was well aware before coming here and so it didn't bother me at all. Also, the office is quite festive during the weeks leading up to the big day, but not in the same manner as offices in the U.S. or Jamaica.

Come December 1 (or earlier at some companies), every eikaiwa teacher (especially those teaching children) knows the drill. It's all about decorations, making origami Christmas objects or other crafts, reading stories about Santa Claus and sometimes dressing up as Santa Claus. Whereas back in Jamaica, one might work on December 25 in spite of it being Christmas Day, here, as an English teacher at an eikaiwa school, Christmas IS work! Christmas is a Western holiday and the activities we do at work are part of a large effort to tell the story of Christmas to our students. In fact, what we end up doing is sharing the Japanese vision of Christmas in America, with the turkey and the red-and-white-clad Santa Claus. After doing this show for three years, it is not at all shocking to me that quite a few Japanese people (kids especially) have the impression that all people from the West celebrate Christmas in the same way.

I can recall a conversation I had with an adult student about Santa Claus.

Student: I bought my daughter's Christmas present yesterday. I have to hide it until Christmas morning so that she thinks it's from Santa.
Me: Oh? Your children believe in Santa Claus?
S.: Yes they still do. Oh! You're from Jamaica, right? So, what is Santa Claus' costume in Jamaica?
Me: [cringing inwardly] I beg your pardon?
S.: How do Jamaicans imagine Santa Claus' wear? Does he wear swim trunks and sunglasses?
Me: Well....and I can only speak for myself, of course but...when I was a child, I just saw Santa Claus as a character on TV. In fact, until I was about four years old, I thought he was American cartoon character, like Mickey Mouse.
S.: [bewildered] So, you don't believe in Santa Claus in Jamaica?
Me: Now, I can't say that NO CHILD in Jamaica believes in Santa Claus, but I never did. I just always thought it would have been impossible for a fat man to come down a chimney. Besides, Jamaica is a tropical country. We don't have chimneys and fireplaces in our houses.
S.: But, Australians have Santa Claus even though they have Christmas in summer. He comes to Australia on a surf board.
Me: Is that so? Well, I don't know what to say about that, since I'm not Australian, but that surely is interesting.

Part 2 - The Events

How do you know Christmas is coming in Japan? Lights. Christmas illuminations here starting from the end of November herald the coming of one of the big shopping seasons in the country. Elaborate light shows around various shopping malls and train stations (many of which boast large department stores) bring people several miles from home to take them in and then take part in the subsequent bargain-hunting around the surrounding areas. The illuminations usually lift my spirits somewhat (in spite of my inner Grinch) and those that are done well are definitely sights to see.

I recently walked around Ebisu Garden Place and checked out the Baccarat Eternal Lights chandelier that's displayed there every Christmas.

Christmas lights in Ebisu Garden Place

The red carpet leading to the chandelier. Ebisu Garden Place.

Baccarat Eternal Lights

For those of you in Tokyo, the chandelier will be on display until January 11. For a list of Christmas illuminations in Tokyo (some of which might be continuing through January) check out this list.

Another thing you will notice about Christmas in Japan is the ubiquitousness of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) here during the season. Somehow, KFC has managed to convince Japan that its chicken is THE traditional Christmas food and thereby has managed to take the lion's share of the fast food market during the Christmas season for a long while. I still marvel at the long lines and the many sold-out lists posted to certain delivery dates leading up to December 25. I went to KFC a few weeks ago because I had forgotten my homemade lunch in the kitchen like an idiot. I went up to the cashier and (to her apparent dismay) ordered two pieces of original chicken and a side of coleslaw. She looked at me disappointed that I was not ordering a Christmas meal. I looked back at her thinking:

Lady, I am from Jamaica. This fast-fried nonsense will never compare to the ham, rice and peas, roast chicken, stuffed fish, sweet potatoes, manish water and sorrel I grew up eating and drinking at Christmastime so hurry up and give me my damn lunch so that I can go back to my office. *kiss teeth*

Christmas lights, thumbs up. Christmas food will be somewhat satisfactorily left to the facilities in my Japanese kitchen.

Part 3 - The Loved Ones

Now, I am the first to say that my family is screwed up. I am related to far too many crazy-ish people living dysfunctional lives to think that I have a snowball's chance in hell of calling my family normal. Still, I liked being with them all at Christmastime. The sorrel always flowed. The ham/chicken was always perfect, as was the rice and peas and my family could always put aside their pettiness for show, especially in the presence of my great-grandmother (who passed away at the grand age of 97 in 2008, R.I.P.). For me, Christmas was the time when my always pensive mother would relax, and laugh and show me how to cook things and how to make sorrel (without rum until I was 18). I didn't feel distant from my distant relatives at that time of year and whether or not I got presents, it was always a happy time for me.

Well, here I am in Japan. I haven't laid eyes on my mother since January 2006 and each Christmas that passes by, I miss her more. For me, Christmas has always been about family, even if it involved snickering at crazy relatives with my mother in some corner of the kitchen or watching animated Christmas specials with my cousin on Christmas Day.

Here, Christmas (especially Christmas Eve) is a time when young couples get together and have a romantic time on the town. Usually, this involves a romantic dinner and a stroll around town looking at Christmas illuminations, capped off with the exchanging of expensive gifts and a stay in a love hotel.

I've never had the Japanese ロマンチッククリスマス (romantic Christmas). My first Christmas in Japan was spent at work thinking about a guy I had met a few weeks before who had gone home for the holidays. By the next Christmas, I was in a relationship with said guy, but he got violently ill with a stomach virus after we had exchanged presents and this year, we spent Christmas night watching old animated Christmas DVDs while I fell asleep on his shoulder after a long day at work.

So, Christmas has been neither here nor home for me during my time in Japan. My boyfriend and I have each other, the makings of a ロマンチッククリスマス in Japan, but without our families, it's just not the same.

1 comment:

  1. Wow this was a very interesting read miss B. I love the honesty and the insights into Japanese culture. Didn't know squat about the Japanese KFC chicken meal thing!