Brooklyn’s Own Cherry Blossom Festival | Sakura Matsuri 2018

This past weekend I attended Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Sakura Matsuri festival in celebration of Japanese culture. It was held throughout the entire garden with events spaced out and designated to certain subset areas. Although it was foggy with moisture clinging heavily to the atmosphere, as the day progressed the sun came out and blessed attendees with the most amazing atmosphere.

Going through security was painless, and we received these pretty pink maps of the area, events, and activities happening throughout the day. I went on Saturday, and judging by the website Sunday’s events differed slightly and were geared towards families with kids.

It is no secret as this seems to be happening around the entire country, but we have been experiencing absolutely abysmal weather here in America. New York, in particular, is still averaging in the 40s when we are usually in the low 60s with humidity in April.  It even snowed earlier this month, which is a very rare and strange occurrence in spring. I could go on a tirade about the effects of global warming and capitalistic corporate interests, but it was a happy day so we will convey only happy thoughts.

Now I have a confession to make that admittedly, I am vaguely okay with: I am bad with directions. I’m a visual learner and can usually remember landmarks and buildings before memorizing street names and signs. It’s the same with people; I can remember faces well but not names. I do know how to read a map and follow directions, but if the map is just vague names and places I’ve never seen before my brain somehow goes “nope” and cancels the information out.

So despite many signs around the gardens with the iconic “you are here” red dots, having a map in my hands and even asking the physically ever-present staff – I could not for the life of me find some of the locations of these events.

I walked around in what felt like a loop trying to find some of the stages listed in the pamphlet to only sigh and stare at distant flowering trees.

I found the Cherry Esplanade stage by accident while I was looking for the Osborne Garden. In the Osborne Garden, I couldn’t find the Japanese Market. I had to continue to a hill, up some stairs to the right and came across the J-Lounge Stage. I now wondered where the J-Lounge Game Stop was – had I passed it? Did I miss it in the sea of people now pouring into the gardens at the three designated entrances?

Again, I am quite uncertain when it comes to directions.

However, there were truly stunning cherry blossoms flowered throughout the gardens. Several of the blooms were found in the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden toward the center of the festivities. The tour line was very long and I decided to move on instead of waiting. Judging by the crowd size and group limits, it would have been about twenty minutes before I could have been admitted – which would have been pushing toward the noon cut off time. The torii gate and koi pond could be viewed without going into the wooden gated enclave, and I opted to queue up to take photos.

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Many people were very kind and respectful, but there is always someone who decides to ignore the line and photobomb your perfect shots.

Walking around aimlessly I found many cosplayers, but not as many as I initially expected.

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Last year while I was still employed at a Japanese cultural center, I had a conversation with a co-worker inquiring information on the event. She expressed her displeasure at how many cosplayers and “weebs” turned out. I viewed a few weebs (some during the subway ride to the event – brightly colored dyed hair, decked out in anime merchandise gushing excitedly about their favorite anime and what to do first at the festival) but it was mainly people of all backgrounds coming to celebrate Japan on a nice weekend out.

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A good amount of visitors were also wearing vibrant playful summer yukata with sneakers underneath. I can understand not wanting to wear geta sandals on such uneasy terrain.

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Later on, a really humorous moment occurred when stand-up comic Rio Koike asked the Japanese in the crowd to make some noise and everyone laughed when only a handful of people responded.

One of the less funny aspects of the festival was the pricing of food.

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Wow, everything was inflated. $20.00 for karaage? $8.00 for onigiri? I think I was floored because I know the Japanese (American) convenience store prices of these items and where to get high-quality items cheaply.

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Regardless, people brought picnic blankets and sat on great lawns watching the events on the stage.

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Because of our bad weather, many of the sakura trees had not blossomed.

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There were about three that were in peak bloom that attracted huge crowds.

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I spent a good deal of time taking photographs of them as the petals blew in the wind.

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It reminded me of the start of a new school year in anime.

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In addition to live performances of Kabuki Buyo dances, there were taiko drummers, tea ceremony demonstrations, and anime culture themed music along with a Naruto dance party event.

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Wandering over to the Japanese Market you could find wagashi, kokeshi dolls, a bookstore selling language and travel-centric materials, handmade merchandise and Wuhao’s Tenugui wraps.

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A display of an urban tea terrarium and mikoshi, 神輿 or portable sacred Shinto palanquin used during transportation to new shrines or festival ceremonies.

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So many concurrent events were ongoing and I heard that there would be a BBG Parasol Society Fashion Show, but unfortunately, I was not able to stay the entire day to see the performance. I caught glimpses of a few people walking around with parasols, so I’m sure it was a wicked event!

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All in all, I enjoyed my time at the Sakura Matsuri and loved the laid back mellow atmosphere. Brooklyn is always a welcome calmed pace in contrast to Manhattan. I even bought a travel book from a nice lady who set up shop outside of the nearby Brooklyn Museum.

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I’m not sure what other cherry blossom festivals are around New York or even NYC for that matter, but this one is definitely worth attending if you enjoy traditional and contemporary Japanese culture.

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No outside food is allowed, but bringing water bottles is a good idea. Also, a blanket to sit out on the lawn and of course a camera. If you would like to take professional or commercial photos or even bring a tripod, you need to apply for a permit beforehand. I arrived at the garden about half an hour after the event began at 10:00 am, and I suggest you follow the website’s advice of arriving during off-peak hours.

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The crowds really do suddenly materialize, and it’s nearly impossible to get great shots or find a choice area to set your blanket down.  Selfie sticks also are not allowed, but people do tend to sneak those in.

I’m not sure if this would be considered a review of BBG’s Sakura Matsuri, but it is a fun event and very welcoming of people from all backgrounds; It’s also kid friendly for parents. Security had a huge presence and would only politely ask guests or their children to not pick the flowers or take photos deep within the shrubbery (which I witnessed a few times. Like grown adult people actually hid in bushes and tried climbing into the trees).  I will without a doubt be returning next year.

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So, have you been to a Japanese Festival before? What is one festival you dream of attending? For years now, I’ve wanted to attend the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori prefecture. I love the colorful floats and want to taste the super authentic hot festival foods. Also, Aomori is known for their great apples! Maybe not this year, but hopefully next August I can attend for myself in person.

Tell me what your favorite festival food is! Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I would love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more coverage of Japanese events around NYC (and beyond!). We also just launched an Instagram page which you can follow here! Let’s travel together!

In Asian Space’s Target Event List 2018

Years ago, I spent countless hours watching YouTubers and reading blog posts about events I’d always wanted to attend. Advice, general knowledge, and even some insider tips learned from trial and error were shared with their audience. When I finally ventured out to some of these events, I didn’t feel like a complete noob and I felt so grateful someone had left a trail for me.

I’d like to do that for someone else, using this platform that is continuing to grow.

I want to show people just how many aspects of Japanese culture can be learned through watching anime.

Eventually, further down the line I’d like to create a Patreon. But this will come after more content has been added to the site and I’ve begun all of the series I have in mind to bring to you all.

For now, I will leave this list of events In Asian Spaces hopes to attend. Some of these events I have attended, some I’ve just learned about and some I’ve always dreamt of seeing.

If you would like to, I will also leave a link for Paypal donations that will go towards ticket, transportation, lodging and event associated fees. Those who support the site will receive a special gift unique to the experience.

Sakura Matsuri, Brooklyn Botanic Garden April 28th-29th , 2018 (x)

Japan Day 2018 Central Park May 13th , 2018 (x)

JapanFes Okinawa Music Festival June 2nd, 2018 (x)

Anime NEXT June 8th-10th, 2018 (x)

Otakon August 10th-12th, 2018 (x)

Liberty City Anime Con August 17th-19th, 2018 (x)

JapanFes Summer August 26th, 2018 (x)

All Japan Ramen Contest/Japanfes September 8th-9th, 2018 (x)

J1-Con September 14th, 15th & 16th, 2018 (x)

New York Comic Con October 4th-7th, 2018 (x)

Konamon (okonomiyaki) Festival October 6th-7th, 2018 (x)

NY Local Ramen Contest October 21st, 2018 (x)

Anime NYC November 16th-18th, 2018 (x)

Trip to Japan Late Spring 2019

Thank you for your support, and let’s continue to grow together.

Understanding Japanese Paying Etiquette | Anime Culture in America

During my time working at a Japanese Cultural Center, I frequented any and all Japanese grocers nearby. It was the “Japanese” part of town and fresh, authentic places were readily available. Through watching anime, I learned a lot about paying etiquette and social rules that one should follow. Of course, gaijin are held to a lesser standard than a Japanese, but if you’d like to impress someone with your cultural sensitivity skills – read on.

During my time working at a Japanese Cultural Center, I frequented any and all Japanese grocers nearby. It was the “Japanese” part of town and fresh, authentic places were readily available. Through watching anime, I learned a lot about paying etiquette and social rules that one should follow. Of course, gaijin are held to a lesser standard than a Japanese, but if you’d like to impress someone with your cultural sensitivity skills – read on.

Welcome to our first article on the Anime Culture series – where we cover Japanese culture topics and how the average anime viewer is probably privy to more culture than they consciously knew!

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There are a lot of social nuances in Japan. Luckily if you’ve watched anime during any time in your life (which I am sure you have – consciously or not) you may have been introduced to a few. Taking your shoes off indoors, bowing, slurping loudly when eating noodles are just a few.  Did you know that there are unspoken rules that you should follow once you are in a restaurant or shop? Let’s focus on what to do after you’ve grabbed a bunch of cheap snacks and are standing in line to pay.

Most publications or websites talk about Japan’s queue culture. Standing in line is important, but it’s also important where I live, New York, so I’m not sure I could add anything to that argument that would be prudent. I’ve read that when using escalators or stairs in Japan, one should stand on the left side idly or shift to the right if they would like to move quickly. (Other prefectures tend to differentiate this, so be sure to check up on local prefectural norms before your visit). This is essentially reversed in New York. A good way to remember this is to think of traffic rules – Japan uses the left side of the street and America uses the right. People take this seriously, and they will yell at you or politely call you out if you do not follow this unspoken rule.  In the land of the rising sun they will not yell of course, but the culture relies heavily on non-verbal cues; so if someone is staring at you and it’s not just because you are a foreigner….please take notice. You will find out what is taboo in Japanese culture simply by being very aware of your own space.

When in line in both Japan and any Japanese store in America, try your best to assemble your money beforehand. In both contexts (especially if you are in a long line) you will slow everyone down and waste their time – even if you do not mean to. Give others the same respect that would most likely be given to you. In Nihon there will sometimes be little plastic trays where you are meant to place your money. You are to place your yen in this dish, do not hand the money to the cashier. Pertaining to yen, usually anything under 1,000円 (Equivalent to around $10.00) will most likely be coins. It is acceptable to use a 5,000円 note (equivalent to around $50.00) when paying for meals in restaurants. In America, generally big bills are frowned upon due to high volumes of fraud. With this in mind, I have never used anything over $20 in stores.

After you have placed your money and/or coins in the plastic container, the cashier will count the money in front of you before handing it to you. Don’t recount it, it was counted in front of you for this reason. Simply slip it in your wallet and move away for the next person to have their turn. In local stores there is no plastic tray, but there is a way to be polite when handing the money to the cashier. If you have time, you can order the bills from largest to smallest, if not its fine. When it’s time to pay, hold the money with both of your hands stretched outward, with the bills facing the cashier. Usually you will be met with a look of surprise or a smile, and a bow. If you are bowed to, bow back (deeper if they are a bit older or slightly higher ((a noticeable nod)) if they are younger) and if you don’t it is okay! You will then usually receive the money as you handed it with a smile. It’s not a mandatory thing to do, but it is a nice gesture of respect that will be appreciated and remembered if you start frequenting the establishment.

Same rules apply to leaving, the money will not be counted for you but please step away and discretely count it. Then leave the store as you normally would. If you’d like to speak some phrases of Japanese (such as おはようございます) do so during the interaction – but make sure the person is actually Japanese and not from a different Asian ethnic group. It will embarrass both of you and it’s just not cool.

So that’s it, for now. If you are in Japan, read up on local customs and look out for the money trays. In America, remember to be respectful and if you’d like to add a bit of pizazz to your interactions with Japanese people – show some respect and use both hands. Little gestures go a long way, and it will definitely give you more confidence if you are studying Japanese or planning a visit soon.

Do you have any tips for paying in Japan or an experience you would like to share? Leave it in the comments below, I would love to hear about it! Also be sure to follow the blog for more updates on our Anime Culture series.

The Importance of Chopsticks

If you’ve had any interest in Japanese culture via exported anime Americanized into your favorite childhood memories or by other means, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Gaijin Smash’ in some context. So, for reference, let’s talk about this phenomenon. 

If you’ve had any interest in Japanese culture via exported anime Americanized into your favorite childhood memories or by other means, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Gaijin Smash’ in some context. So, for reference, let’s talk about this phenomenon.

A 外人 or gaijin, is a foreigner to the Japanese. The kanji is a literal combination of ‘soto’ (外) in romanji or outside and ‘hito’ (人) or person when translated into English.  There is a P.C. term for this word that is learned in most formal classes, which is gaikokujin – 外国人- or foreigner. In spoken Japanese, this simply adds the counter for person. The literal kanji reading however, changes to outside country person.

Why is this important? Honestly, on the surface it’s not – it is simply semantics. When we dig deeper however, it is a pretext for one’s journey of delving into Japanese culture in an attempt to assimilate.  Unless you are a Japanese living in Japan – you will never be Japanese. I have even heard whispers of Japanese leaving Japan to go abroad and upon returning home experiencing considerable cultural shock. Mannerisms shift, polished nuances like the back of your hand are suddenly gone – a feeling of being alien in your own world. For the visiting American going to Japan, knowledge necessary to abide by Japanese social norms is not expected. This leads to a ‘Gaijin Smash’ of the rules; you are not expected to act as a Japanese person would. Sometimes that can be endearing and even refreshing in favor of cultural exchanges.

Working at a Japanese cultural center, I was surrounded by American co-workers with so much more tangible ‘experience’ with the country. Japanese majors who had studied abroad, JET Programme alumni who had lived in small rural villages where the thick, old world vibe of eras past was strong; co-workers completely fluent in the language and customs. In comparison, I was quite the odd-ball. I vividly remember one of my first weeks on the job being asked:

“So, what is your connection to Japan? We all have one working here”

I staggered. How could I say it came out of re-discovering anime that I thought were American cartoons while watching Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late at night in middle school? Graduating from ‘dubs’ to ‘subs’ when getting my first computer at sixteen? Countless hours spent on the floor of my local Barnes & Noble with friends reading Japanese language books and English translated manga? Watching as much admittedly illegal – Crunchyroll wasn’t even legit during that time and fan sub teams ruled the landscape of the early internet – anime, J-drama and Japanese films for cultural context? Trying to learn hiragana and katakana by pausing the ‘流れ星’ – Home Made Kazuko’s – “Shooting Star” Naruto Shippuden season 1 ending to write the sing along characters on flash cards to study continuously? Watching raws of episodes in terrible 240p quality and refreshing the link hours later hoping it was subbed and not taken down for copyright infringement? Listening to J-rock bands over and over trying to make even one word stand out in my mind so I could automatically translate it and to pretend to sing along? Making translation notes in antiquated cultural and custom books? Gravitating toward anything Japanese at NYCC and even laminating a travel map I received at a tourism booth to hang up in my computer room to glance at for times when I felt particularly hopeless in my studies? How could I encapsulate a ten plus year passion ignited within half madness into a few spoken sentences that wouldn’t make me sound like a complete loser?

“Oh haha, I’ve always just been really into the culture ya’know?”

Clearly she did not know.

I received a mildly bewildered and disapproving look from the former JET who had been with the company around three years.

I kept telling myself that I would not tell anyone how I arrived to the destination I was at – the journey truly embarrassed me. Sometimes people who enjoy Japanese subculture are looked down upon, and the ‘weeaboos’ and ‘American otaku’ of the world do not help this. With this in mind, I was determined to show everyone just how much I knew about Japanese culture; what I had learned from what I believed to be looked down upon media. Something that for years was my own treasure trove of solace that helped form the world I’ve build for myself today; my reality.

If you were wondering, I did give her a proper answer months later during a job interview for her position. I didn’t get it, but it felt good to set that disapproving look straight in my mind’s eye.

I believe my work ethic changed many people’s minds about the initial impression I seemed to give off. I am a woman of color with natural hair who had no access to any facets of Japanese culture outside of the digital and literary world. Why would I know in the local Japanese groceries to hand money (or any object really in a multitude of situations) with two hands “the Japanese way” instead of throwing the money down with one hand as is unfortunately the American way? Regarding this practice at work, that had always received mixed responses.

From other gaijin, the response garnered a knowing smile and sparked deep conversation of how they had lived in Japan or studied there and warm feelings of that life experience. Others would bow back and say a quick ありがとうございます before continuing the interaction in an American manner. In an American manner being to remain in American contexts. This is a counter to a Japanese interaction that could include a polite bow the length of a simple head nod or simply acknowledging the sign of respect and continuing the interaction how they would with a Japanese person. It’s a very strange phenomenon to try and explain on paper when I cannot clearly articulate the exact implicit differences in these interactions.

Others (usually Japanese) would exclaim “the Japanese way!” with a beaming pride. Pride for me? Of course not. Pride that I had knowledge of this social nuance and it reminded them of home? Most likely.

Others however, would suddenly act as if I had shown them the road to El Dorado on Google Maps. “How did you know to do that? Were you taught that as part of your training? It’s great that they taught you that!” were some of the dismissive things I heard. Again, why would a person of color know anything about Japanese culture despite working at a Japanese cultural center? For the most part I did not have to deal with many of those types of people for extended periods of time, and for that I was grateful.

The correct amount of times to bow and名刺交換meishi koukan etiquette were things I also thankfully had knowledge of.  From film and anime I learned the ideal angle to bend when bowing and when stuck in an ‘infinite bowing politeness loop’ to bow up as to not inconvenience the other person. If I kept bowing deeper that meant the other person would have to return that bow out of social obligation and for fear of losing face. The biggest thing I think I’ve learned working around Japanese is just how easy it is to accidentally slight someone and cause them to lose face from a simple misunderstanding. I won’t go into the details, but one of my first days at the company a misunderstanding caused one employee to write up an incident report to another Japanese company, apologize, and caused the employee to literally not talk to me for months.

Although I knew I could have Gaijin Smashed my way through that situation, after seeing the fallout I decided to try my hardest to assimilate to the thick Japanese work culture. I mentioned the American portion of my co-workers had tangible experience with Japan, but the other half was mainly Japanese people from Japan with a few Chinese people sprinkled in for good measure.  If there was a delivery from a sake company or a Japanese guest for one of the cultural center’s many departments I made sure to address the guest by their last name if that was the name given and if handed a business card I tried my best at emulating meishi koukan I’d seen in media. Meishi koukan can be translated as Japanese business card etiquette. It boils down to accepting the business card with both hands, studying it front and back for a good amount of time, and then placing it in front of you or in view of the other person. Only when that person leaves would you put it away, as to not offend. In the same vein, whenever the administrative assistant received paper deliveries she never put the papers away in the closet until the delivery man left as to not offend. Putting those newspapers away would signal that they were worthless and not deserving of being out on display. In an American context, that sounds silly. In a Japanese context, it is a courtesy to save face and be considerate of the delivery man.

When at my work station, I tried my very best to assimilate culturally. In the kitchen break room however, this slightly slipped whenever chopsticks were involved.  Forget to bring plastic utensils and can’t grab freebies from a store on the way to work without reproach? There were the traditional Western metal utensils to wash, but being the germophobe I am I always went for the plentiful wooden chopsticks. Were they cheaply made? Absolutely. Did they get the job done? Absolutely. Did I know how to use them? Absolutely not.

Honestly, chopsticks had always been the absolute bane of my existence. I remember my parents bringing Chinese food from a few towns over home and I would always dig into our utensil drawer and fish out a pair of antiquated wooden pillars with writing unbeknownst to me. I used what I referred to in my head as the scissor method – both sticks together side by side in a queer position using a peddling method with my fingers which hardly yielded any rice. After a few attempts the hunger would always get to me and I would grab a spoon in defeat and lovingly lay the chopsticks in the sink for washing later. I made the mistake of bringing this mentality to work.

Often there would be food leftover from events, or co-workers would bring back omiyage in the form of finger snacks. A couple of months in, there was Americanized Chinese food left over from an earlier event. It was myself, one of the maintenance staff and my Chinese department head in the kitchen grabbing food. I thought I could Gaijin Smash my way through the meal without reproach.

I was wrong.

I got what many would refer to as the subtle ‘glance of disapproval’ from the department head. I ignored it, surely it didn’t matter if I couldn’t use chopsticks correctly, right?

Wrong.

Feeling self-conscious with glances that suggested I should have known better, I noticed the maintenance staff member holding the chopsticks correctly. I put my head down and when they both left used the bastardized scissor method best I could and finished what was on my plate. Did I go home and try to learn the correct method of holding chopsticks?

A fool, I continued to tread down a dark and dangerous path.

The chopsticks came back to haunt me months later during a language class I attended.

The sensei had always treated me like a co-worker, as she did a Chinese girl who volunteered in the language center after her internship ended. Interns were generally truly part of the company environment and were treated as actualized employees. I know many companies boast that their interns receive the full employment experience but they are lying – interns there were valuable members of the company.

I was always greeted warmly by this sensei. Many cultural points we covered in class it was assumed I had some knowledge of, and I was even told お疲れ様 which can translate to “thank you for all of your hard work today!” in English. From an American lens, this means absolutely nothing. When looking at the Japanese cultural context and thinking of the rigid social hierarchy and system of honorifics, it was an amazingly welcome gesture. I’d only ever heard this spoken from one Japanese co-worker to another, and honestly I was very touched the first time it was said to me.

I felt so included.

Overall, I did not feel like a complete gaijin working for the company when I tried my best to weave and bob through the social nuances and unspoken methods of saving face. All those years of anime had paid off, as cheesy as that sounds to write or even to read for you out there. ☺

At the end of semester party, we were each asked beforehand to bring snacks to eat during that day’s lesson. I choose to bring senbei, or Japanese rice crackers. I first tried senbei years prior when I brought my mom with me to a conversation cafe at a prominent Japanese organization that offered language classes. It was an acquired taste and I had picked up an affinity toward the cheap and plentiful varieties offered at the local Japanese grocer in proximity to my job. Of course, I was the only American who brought something super un-American to the palate. My Chinese friend who worked at the center brought lychee fruit gummy candies. It was the second ‘exotic’ food at this gathering that included vegan American sushi. The vegan sushi had two different types, the hypnotic purple colored one proving to soon be my undoing.

Glancing around with subdued hawkish tenor, I observed that many of my American classmates also had not mastered the use of chopsticks.

I foolishly thought I was in the clear.

During a break in lecture we all assembled around the table to grab from our combined store-brought bounty. I watched one classmate fumble for almost two minutes (I slyly glanced up at the clock) when trying to obtain one of the vegan sushi rolls. It was my turn, and using the scissor method, I smugly tried to grab one piece.

It failed.

It was a lot thinner than it looked, and I didn’t want to break the piece in the process of trying to bring it to my plate. I struggled and this had caught the attention of my Japanese teacher. As I valiantly persevered, I heard the words spoken that would bring me to shame:

“シャノンーさん、だいじょうぶですか“

Translated from Japanese to English, this means “Shannon, are you alright?” to which I replied yes I am.

“はい、だいじょうぶです。すみません。”

From a Japanese cultural context to English, I interpreted this exchange as “Shannon, I see you are struggling trying to grab the sushi with your chopsticks. Is there something preventing you from completing this task?”

I was embarrassed.

My inability to use chopsticks caused me to lose face, and inconvenienced my sensei to the point that she asked if I was alright. I thought I could employ the Gaijin Smash amongst Americans that had no knowledge that I worked at the cultural center, but soon realized that I could not have it both ways.

I could not just turn off my brain to cultural nuances I had knowledge of when there were people in the room who knew I knew better. For the remainder of the class my Chinese friend barely spoke to me and the sensei did not call on me as much.

For those of you wondering what was so bad about being asked if I was alright when I was clearly struggling, I will try to explain it.

One, no one else in class was held to this standard or essentially called out for their inability to use chopsticks. They are Americans taking a Japanese course. I was an American employed at a Japanese cultural center who had demonstrated knowledge of cultural customs consistently.

Two, だいじょうぶ is often a word I associated with feelings or social situations.

Ex: “先生、宿題を忘れって。すみませんでした。”

“だいじょうぶです。”

These rough sentences translate to something along the lines of:

“Sensei, I forgot to bring in my homework. I am sorry.”

“It is alright.”

In this format, it is fine. It is referring to an action. Now in the situation I described earlier, a verb like 出来る which denotes the ability to complete a task or knowledge of a skill could have been used.

Or hell, maybe I overthought the entire situation and it really was just a genuine question of concern over not being able to pick up a slice of purple vegan sushi with cheap wooden chopsticks.

 

That night, I went home and literally Googled how to use chopsticks. I came across a video on RocketNews24 in 360p that demonstrated the agreed upon correct way to use chopsticks in Japan. I practiced with those old wooden Chinese chopsticks in my utensil drawer at home until my hand was sore.

Next event involving food at work, I showed off my skills gingerly. I sat up straight and tried to emulate a swan, graceful in my movements and daintily clumping sticky rice into balls to plop into my mouth.

Once I was alone, I placed my chopsticks down to give my hand a rest. For some reason, my American hands were determined to resist the proper way. For the remainder of my time at the company, I never received another disapproving glance when using chopsticks. My usage no longer set off internal radars that boiled over to subdued glances of inner fury.

Japanese language and culture relies heavily on context and nonverbal cues. I’ve also heard that this is true for other East Asian cultures but I do not have first-hand experiences to speak upon that prevalent belief.

So, what was the point of this self-deprecating retelling of a cultural mishap in relation to the Gaijin Smash I wrote of earlier?

I mean it to be a cautionary tale.

Wry tone aside, if you do ever travel to Japan, or any country foreign to your own – it is best to try to learn a bit of the local customs. It will go a long way, even if you don’t think it will.

In my case of working at a cultural center, the Gaijin Smash stopped being an option long ago.

I’ve noticed that when you truly immerse yourself in a culture, you will try your best to not offend and assimilate. This is common knowledge, yes, but it was not common knowledge to me in regards to how I was already perceived by my co-workers. I was perceived to essentially know better than to feign ignorance in something so basic in most Pan-Asian cultures.

I was perceived as someone who tried their best at having social fluency in Japanese culture and lost face by having no knowledge of how to fundamentally break bread.

If I went to Japan tomorrow and ordered a bowl of ramen, would I be looked down upon if I misused my chopsticks and did not slurp loudly to show my appreciation for the food in front of me?

Probably not, I am just another tourist gaijin.

Gaijin smash rules would be in effect.

If there was ramen brought to the workplace, would I find my co-workers slurping loudly? Probably not, no. At least not in my presence. That is not American culture, but properly holding chopsticks would be a must. It is that simple dichotomy that taught me the difference between when and where not to try to employ Gaijin Smash while at the cultural center.

It taught me the importance of self-examination and questioned my own sense of cultural integrity – a lesson I will not soon forget.