Sunday, July 13, 2008

Corn = Vegetable?

I recently had an interesting and surprisingly frustrating "debate" with my Japanese tutor, Yuka. Not since I argued with Australians over the pronunciations of "oregano", "aluminum" and "Adidas" have I felt such frustration.

Conversations like the one we had are destined to end poorly because, when you've spent your entire life being told one thing, it's hard not to take it personally when someone says otherwise. And, since there's no way to be right, you just keep repeating your point with increasing emphasis and volume...


Twenty minutes later, nothing's been accomplished and you've just ruined a friendship and a perfectly good Italian dinner.

Anyway, Yuka and I were chatting during a Japanese lesson at a coffee shop the other day when I mentioned Japanese mayonnaise.  For the record, Japanese mayonnaise is - hands down - the best on the planet. (Particularly, Kewpie brand.)

Our conversation reminded me of another one I'd had with my Japanese girlfriend my first year in Japan. It went something like this:

Me: I miss vegetables! Real vegetables. There are no good vegetables in Japan.
Her: Hai.
Me: You know what I want? Broccoli.
Her: Hai?
Me: Yeah. Fresh, green broccoli.
Her: Mmm.
Me: First, I'd get me a bunch of broccoli...
Her: Brokkori, hai.
Me: Then chop it up...
Her: Choppu, yes.
Me: Then, steam it...
Her: Steamu, yes!
Me: Pile it on a big ol' plate!
Her: Then, mayonnaise!
Me: Yeah! Wait... WHAT?
Her: Mayonnaise!
Me: Ew, no.
Her: Mmm... mayonnaise...

I thought this was hilarious because the last thing steamed broccoli made me think of was mayonnaise. But that's Japan for you.  So, I went to share this story with Yuka and only got as far as the part about Japan not having any good vegetables when she interrupted.

"There are lots of vegetables in Japan."

OK, yeah... I was making a generalization. There are vegetables in Japan. Why, occasionally, along with the main course, there'll be a nice, small side of pickled spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds (all of which could easily be mistaken for something that hadn't rinsed off the plate during washing). And, I'm sorry, but a pile of shredded radish is not a salad.  But Yuka kept insisting.

"There are lots of vegetables in Japan."

This was starting to upset me.  Here was someone who is currently my only local source on Japanese culture telling me something that contradicts my personal experiences in Japan.  It would be like Columbus confiding with his navigator, "Man, I can't believe there are people who still think the earth is flat" and his trusty pal would be all like, "Yeah, I know, right? Especially since everybody with half a brain knows it's triangle.  I mean, duh."

Besides, I ate in Japan. A LOT. I know food.

But I didn't want to argue with Yuka so I conceded, "Well, you CAN get some frozen vegetables like peas and corn."
She laughed, "Corn not a vegetable."
"Yeah. Wait... WHAT?"

So now we were debating the vegetablity of corn.

"Corn is a grain, Matto-san!"
"It's in the vegetable section!"
"It's still a grain!"
"Never mind..."

Geez, I can't imagine why I would think corn is a vegetable...
See?? "Vegetable Group!" I'm not making this crap up!
And look at the food pyramid!

That, my friends, is a corn cob in the "VEGETABLE Group".

Why, even the funky new pyramid covered in stairs and large-headed children has it!

Corn! Right there! Climbing up the green "VEGETABLES" stripe!!

After a few minutes of arguing, I told her I thought that the following meal - while far from being the healthiest - could be considered a healthy and relatively balanced one: grilled chicken breast, side of rice and a side of corn. Her reaction to this would have been appropriate had I said "a bowl of partially-hydrogenated bacon grease topped with Oreos and deep-fried salt-water taffy".

"EHHHH?? What?? Oh no, Matto-san!! No, no, no..." She laid her head on the table in embarrassment.

If I hadn't been on the defensive before, I was now.  And I was getting concerned.  I'd always had assumed that was a healthy meal!  Was she right? Have I been mistakenly eating poorly for years?

When I left for Japan in early-2003, the Atkins Diet was getting popular. (Dr. Atkins. British guy who believed that meat was good, carbs were bad. Bacon, OK. Bread, not so much. Died of a heart attack.) So it amazed me to find that, in Japan, all anybody seemed to eat was carbs. I mean rice with everything. And, remember, this is the same country where you can buy a "Spaghetti and Corn Sandwich"!

Or a pizza like this:

Yes, those are sausage rolls in the crust.

And on the cheese rolls?  Maple syrup.

Yet I hardly ever saw a fat person in Japan! If too many carbs were bad, Japan didn't get the memo.

Based on those observations, I came to the following conclusion:
  • Americans had an abundant variety of food and knew what was best to eat. We just choose not to.
  • The Japanese - who were also fully-aware what was healthy (and that corn was a vegetable, dammit) - were healthy despite a diet seriously affected by location and lack of space.
Therefore, I assumed that Japanese people were skinny because of smaller portions, less focus on meat and a healthier, more active lifestyle.  Yet the more Yuka and I talked about the concept of a Japanese meal, the more we were in disagreement.

The disagreement started to spread into other areas.

I'd say something like, "Japanese people are so active."
"No, Japanese people are lazy," she'd counter.
"But, Japanese people walk a lot," I'd elaborate.
"No, they don't."
"Yeah they do! To work and stuff."
"No, they take the train."
"Ah-ha! BUT they DO have to walk to and from the stations."
"No, they take scooters."
"What?? I've never seen a scooter in Japan!"
"What?? Everyone has scooter in Japan!"
"Maybe where you were from. Where did you live?"
"Near Osaka."
"That's where I lived!"

Even worse, while she wasn't being mean, every thing she said was done in a sympathetic tone that came across as, "Oh, you poor misguided foreigner. How little you really know..."

I started to wonder if she was just disagreeing with me on purpose but, then it hit me: while I had done so much in Japan, I was still severely limited in what I could do. My entire perspective was from the viewpoint of someone who could never, ever blend in; someone who wasn't raised in Japan and didn't grow up eating dinner with a family. And, despite my active pursuit of a Japanese lifestyle, it seems I had barely even scratched the surface.

And I'm supposed to be writing a book about this country??

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