After weeks of discarded efforts trying to summarize my experience thus far, I have decided to share my thoughts through a culinary lens and help you explore one of my favorite parts of life in Japan…the food!
It has now been six weeks since I first landed in Tokyo and embarked on my adventure in the land of the rising sun. Driving into Yokohama my first night, I have to say I was a bit surprised at how familiar the setting felt. Highways, buildings and industrial infrastructure mimicked that which you would find in most North American cities. Beyond the minor language barriers I had met along the journey thus far, I found that what I was observing was just regular people doing the same things we all do. Where was this exotic land that I had pictured all my life? Not only have my preconceived notions about Japan been wrong, but the reality is greater than the expectations I had. It is amazing how a place that feels so familiar can be so different.
I think the best way to describe living in Japan is a sensory overload. When milling around the city there is constant input of neon lights and the sound of music and the click of heels and the smell of food and the grip of humidity that hits once outside the comfort of an air conditioned environment. Crowded trains and busy streets complete the experience. As for taste, well we will get to the food in a minute.
Because I don’t usually understand the verbal cues around me, I spend a lot of time observing my surroundings and in this I have noticed that it is the nuances that make Japan so different from anywhere else I have been. I have learned that in such a context-based society, the ability to pick up on these subtleties is very important and the Japanese have an impeccable attention to detail that I really admire. Within almost every sector I have seen such a strong work ethic and even those working janitorial and service jobs go out of their way ensure that every detail is perfect. I have found the Japanese people to be extremely hospitable and despite our language barrier, they have gone out of their way to help me when needed. This especially shines through in the restaurant industry.
Most people who know me know that I am in no way a foodie. My life is not centered around how amazing my next meal is going to be and I have on occasion just forgotten to eat at all. But in Japan, that is not an option because the food is mind blowing-ly, life altering-ly good. And I finally understand. As a result of epiphany, I have ventured into the Japanese food culture whole heartedly and have had many outstanding experiences. In fact, I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that wasn’t meticulously prepared and presented. Coming at a very affordable price, I have eaten out more in the past 6 weeks than the past few years of my life.
My food epiphany began on my very first day of work. In the morning, I had an orientation with the new interns and then we were free for the afternoon. One of my fellow interns had already fully embraced the love of food that Japan offers and was excited to show me, so we went to a ramen restaurant in Shibuya that had been recommended to us. I really did not understand why a bowl of noodles in broth was worth noting, but I was keen to try the Japanese cuisine I had heard so much about. When we got there we were given a sheet of paper asking us about noodle thickness, firmness, level of spice, type of broth, etc. Who knew there was so much involved in ordering noodles? I went down the middle with a medium selection for all and then proceeded to my individual booth. Once the bowl arrived it appeared rather unassuming, but smelled like it was probably going to be the best thing I have ever eaten. And it was quite frankly the perfect mix of every flavor ever put into a dish. To this day I still think about that bowl of ramen. Last week I was able to go back, and despite the many fabulous meals I have had, it remains my favorite.
The main barrier to my food excursions is the language. While in my everyday life I can manage with the basic Japanese phrases I’ve picked up, when it comes to restaurants it has proven difficult to know exactly what I am ordering. Luckily, Japan has a thriving imitation food industry whereby visual samples of every meal are around and most menus have a picture associated with every option. They have clearly thought about this and I think it would be an exceptional idea to implement in Canada. In fact, the fake food industry is a multi-billion dollar sector of the Japanese economy. The industry emerged in 1917 when a Tokyo restaurant used wax models of its meals as an advertising scheme to attract more customers and as a result saw a huge increase in revenue. In 1932, Ryuzo Iwasaki, took the first steps towards building an artifical food empire. The models and photography took the guess work out of ordering and today fake food is used in most restaurants as well as commercials and magasines. Its alot easier to film when the ice cream in the bowl never melts. The imitations are preapred just as meticulously as the meals themselves with attention to ensure the details are an exact match for plate presentation and colour. Today, Iwasaki’s company holds an 80% market share of the imitation food in Japan and is expanding into other foreign markets in Asia.
There are many great and efficient ideas that could be great when applied in the Canadian context and it really makes me aware of just how important open and accessible sharing of knowledge and practices should be. This is something that CITYNET excels at and I am excited to continue to learn through their networking model.
Overall, I have been surprised at how quickly I have adjusted to my new routine. The noise and chatter and crowds that at first intimidated me are now just background noise to my everyday life. I continue to be fascinated by the little things I notice, like how the crowd always seems to experience their excitement collectively and react in unison during a street performance or fireworks show. The more I discover about Japan, the more it intrigues me and I am excited to discover more.
And now a quiz for you! Can you spot the fake ramen meal?
I’ve noticed that I consistently get things wrong in India – cultural cues are pretty much over my head. People are nice about it, understanding my foreign-ness and helping me muddle through social situations. I always thought of this as being an issue of intercultural communications, but recently I’ve recognized that there is a privilege being afforded me during this process of “getting it wrong”.
Recently I went to dinner around 6:40pm, the lights were dim and there was no one inside, but I took little notice of it when I entered the restaurant. Most places in Chandigarh keep their lights low in order to conserve energy and inhibit the production of heat. I went inside, and the staff rushed to turn lights and music on, seat me, and bring me a menu. I ordered and had a nice meal and was well taken care of.
About half way through dinner, a couple came in and sat down close to me. They had a lengthy discussion with the waiter before leaving in what I would consider a bad mood. Again, my cross-cultural understandings are limited so I assumed this was just another thing I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I left the restaurant that I realized I had been eating at the restaurant during a time they were closed between lunch and dinner. One more error culturally – darn! But it was more than that. I had been afforded a certain privilege of eating during closed times, one which the Indian couple was not afforded. Whether based on social, cultural, or economic capital I had been given something I wanted when other people were denied.
I get that this is just a dinner, but I wonder how far this extends – will some of my results be impacted by this privilege? Will people tell me what I want to hear – give me the data I want – at the expense of honesty? Something to consider…
I know that even within my research context I have been provided to opportunities that not all scholars will/would have. Recently I was invited to attend a meeting in the city of Bernala within the state of Punjab on water issues and organic farming. Not only was I given a seat at the table (both literal and figurative), but I was also provided with a translator and time to ask my questions of the group there. This included Rajendra Singh (a Stockholm water prize winner, commonly known as the “Water Man of India”), as well as community leaders and organic farmers. I was basically allowed and encouraged to turn their meeting into a focus groups to ask my questions for my research – what an opportunity! There were other Indian Ph.D. and MA students there who did not have the same opportunity as myself.
I have also just recently returned from some rural villages in Punjab to interview more farmers on their water consumption both domestically and agriculturally. Although it is paddy planting season, I will still given a privilege of interviewing the farmers (for 30minutes up to an hour), and was allowed to go see the fields and different water management practices.
I think as commonwealth scholars we need to go into the field knowing that we are being given an incredible opportunity, and this opportunity needs to be really well considered within our own reflexivity and research more generally. We are getting so much out of this – are we giving back enough?
I was recently reading a response to the influx of boats in the Meditteranean Sea bringing refugees into Europe. The author, Fatou Diome, discusses which people are considered valuable and which are not and how this means that certain individuals are left to die at sea instead of being helped by various Navy and other military resources.
I thought this spoke to our discussion on the commonwealth, and in particular the way in which the “big 4” would like to have a more relaxed visa process, without including the rest of the commonwealth country. In this instance, the “big 4” “have the right passport… [and with this] passport, you go anywhere around the world, and act like you run those place, with your pretentious demeanor”. Diome is discussing this in relation to the EU, however with a similar commonwealth migration plan, there would be “the free flow of the powerful, the ones who have the money, and the right kind of passports” and restrictions for those individuals without the same power. This reinforces the problematic and neocolonial hierarchy of the commonwealth and is something to be deeply considered. We “see on the headline the flow of African migrants arriving in Europe but you don’t speak of the Europeans going in Africa” – how could we ensure the commonwealth migration was different? I know from my time in Rwanda, the influx of Europeans hindered the formal economy in many ways (volunteers on gap years taking jobs away from Africans because they would do the work for free), while also increasing the tourist economy (restaurants geared at foreigners were doing well and employing Rwandans).
Being in India currently really highlights this for me as India and Canada are both commonwealth countries, and I would have certainly enjoyed an easier Visa process for entry into the country. In fact, there was a lot of drama around getting a Visa! I wonder though if Indians would be given the same advantage if there were a more relaxed system in place? Are Indian bodies considered more of a threat to Canada (ie. they’ll use up social resources without adding to the country… they will bring antiquated customs and social norms etc) than my Canadian body in India? To be clear, I do not hold this fears about Indians in Canada, but the xenophobia in Canada exists.
I think this also relates to the idea of worth – the worth people hold either intrinsically or not. Within resource management and water rights framework that I work in, worth plays into how decisions around allocation are made. In many ways, those people who have limited water access are considered unimportant or unworthy of political attention and as such water flows away from them (metaphorically). Water instead flows towards power, towards money, and in-effect flows towards those considered “worthy” by the state. Rather than privileging some with visas and water rights, shouldn’t we strive towards a more equitable relationship within the commonwealth and the world more generally?
Raviv Litman, a fellow Crossing Borders Commonwealth Scholar, conducted a short introductory interview with me about my personal background, my academic interests, and my research goals as I prepare to leave for Malawi, Africa.
This recording is an interview between myself (Sara Bourquin) and Alex Berry, another CAPI outgoing research scholar. It details a little about myself and what I plan to do in the coming months. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me! Thanks!
As I prepare to leave for India, fellow CAPI Scholar Sara Bourquin interviews me about my research.
The following is an interview that Emily Ashton conducted for me (Raviv Litman). Before we begin our respective research terms the four of us crossing borders scholarship recipients conducted interviews about who we are, where we are going, what we are doing, and what it means to us. This is as much a learning experince about creating podcasts as an introduction. We are all going to different places with different research topics. Since I am going to Singapore to work with returning international students who are mobile and coming from many different contexts my methods, topics and language use will be mobile and diverse to reflect this.