Being an American in Japan carries certain drawbacks. There is the obvious language barrier, navigating an ancient and intricate culture, sticking out like a sore thumb at all times, being the object of relentless scrutiny, and constantly being asked if you are capable of using chopsticks or own a gun.
The most difficult drawback, though, arrives promptly this time of year, every year. When family and friends back in the States are talking turkey. When it’s Turkey Day and you’re at work teaching people about a holiday they don’t really care about, a holiday you will be improvising that night with chicken instead of turkey, satsumaimo instead of yams, edamame instead of green beans, sumo instead of football, and Canadians instead of family (Canadians who will remind you, at least twice, that Thanksgiving should be celebrated in October, when… I dunno, the Canadian Pilgrims arrived on Le Fleur d’Mai or something).
Plus, there’s no harder American holiday to teach Japanese kids than Thanksgiving. They’ve had enough exposure to Christmas and Halloween to get those, and really, any kid anywhere can get behind holidays that involve candy and presents. But Thanksgiving’s trickier, because the iconography hasn’t made the trip across the Pacific.
The basics, of course, are easy: “WE… EAT… BIG… DINNER… WITH… OUR… FAMILIES… AND THEN… SAY…THANK YOU… THANK YOU… FOR… UM… WELL… ER… THINGS WE WANT… WANT… TO SAY… THANK YOU ABOUT…”
They’ll get that. That’s easy. And you’ll think that’s it. You’ll think you’ve nailed it. But then the homeroom teacher will inevitably bring out a picture of a pilgrim, buckled hat and buckled shoes, and put it on the board and suddenly a little hand goes up and a little voice asks, “nani sore?”
That, you explain, is a pilgrim. You hope, desperately, that they’ll leave it at that, but of course they don’t. Because they’re curious and this is all very new. So, you try to explain what a pilgrim is, simply at first, but then suddenly, in the middle of Minami Elementary School’s re-purposed Music Room, you find yourself explaining to a bunch of 10-year old Japanese kids– slowly, clearly, without using big words– about Post-Reformation European religious history.
By the time you reach this sentence, “THEN A MAN… NAMED JOHN MILTON… WROTE… A VERY… LONG… POEM… CAN YOU SAY POEM… POEM… GOOD… A POEM… CALLED… PARADISE LOST…” you had already lost them five minutes ago. They are getting bored. Antsy. Squirmy.
You decide the children don’t really need to know what a pilgrim is, because, honestly, you don’t really know either. You thought you did, but not so much, now that you think about it. The class seems to be over, but then the teacher pulls out another picture. It’s a cooked turkey.
The children already know what this is. It’s chicken! they shout. No, you say, not chicken, it’s turkey. REPEAT AFTER ME… TURKEY… TURRRR… KEEEEY… TURKEY. The children are confused. The foreigner is telling them that chicken is called turkey. Lies! They turn to the Japanese homeroom teacher. “Nani sore?” they ask, and point to the picture of cooked chicken on the board, the picture of cooked chicken the strange foreigner who was just talking about someone named Milton insists is called turrrrr-keeeey.
“Sore ha chikkin desu,” the homeroom teacher says. “That is chicken.” The children are overjoyed. Chicken is chicken. It is not turrrr-keeeeey. The foreigner does not know what he’s talking about. There is no such thing as turrrr-keeeey. There was probably no such man named Milton either.
You try to regain control, you try to teach. You point to the picture of the cooked turkey. REPEAT AFTER ME… TURRRR… KEEEEEY, you say, TURKEY.
“CHIKKIN!” the students respond.
“NO, NOT CHICKEN. TURKEY! REPEAT AFTER ME… TURKEY!”
“CHIKKIN! CHIKKIN! CHIKKIN!”
That night, in your cold apartment, as the Canadians pop steamed edamame into their Canadian mouths and sumo wrestling plays mutely on the TV, you sit quietly. Maybe you don’t know anything about pilgrims, or Thanksgiving. Maybe the Canadians are right, you begin to think, maybe Thanksgiving is in October. Maybe there are no such things as yams. Maybe turkey really is chicken.
That is the biggest drawback to being an American in Japan. Those moments when your whole world is called into question, those moments when you just might begin to believe that all this time you were eating chicken on Turkey Day.