Thanks & Giving in the Far East


 “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”

thanksgiving-japan

The smell was the first thing that hit me. That unmistakable odor of a human being who hasn’t bathed in what surely was many months. I was headed to the trash to dump the remains of dinner but fond myself searching for the malodorous source, when suddenly a hand reached out to stop me.

It was a man, apparently homeless…and evidently of some minority ethnic background of Chinese.

Fortunate Leftovers

Fortunate Leftovers

I stopped, somewhat shocked. While I’ve certainly been accosted by homeless in many areas of the world, it’s never happened in the confines of a fast-food establishment. Clearly he was hungry, and after only the slightest pause, he started ruffling through the debris and trash on our tray….

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areJody and I visited China last week, the first time for both of us. And last week was the week of “our” Thanksgiving. While Peking Duck is certainly the obvious choice in China for celebrating the day (there is no turkey there to speak of), we were saving that perhaps most famous culinary of China for our last night in Beijing. And although the Holiday Inn where we were quartered was actually offering what was billed as a “traditional” American Thanksgiving (at a reasonable price of about $65/person), we opted instead for a celebratory feast at the most popular western fast-food chain in China: Kentucky Fried Chicken!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, holiday treats at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, strange menu choices in China!While traveling throughout China we had heard an awful lot from our tour guides about KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, the world’s second largest restaurant chain in sales only after McDonald’s, has about 19,000 outlets in almost 120 countries. KFC became the first Western fast food company in China in 1987 with a franchise opening in Beijing. This Beijing outlet had the highest volume of sales of any KFC in the world in 1988. Capitalism and the West is a wonderful thing. Or is it simply crispy fried food?!

Happy Fried Goodness!

Happy Fried Goodness!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areOf course KFC had an early and sustained advantage against other Western fast food rivals, fried chicken being a staple Chinese dish since antiquity. Hamburgers, on the other hand, remain “foreign” and largely unknown outside the context of the Gold Arches and that creepy King. Twenty-eight KFC franchises were open by 1994 in China; by 1997 there were 100 outlets. A few years ago they passed the 300 mark and growth, while slowed, continues exponentially.

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Japan also celebrates both KFC and a Thanksgiving…of sorts. While the biscuits in Japanese franchises are shamefully bad compared to their American counterparts, Thanksgiving Day in Japan is eerily similar. Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a Japanese national holiday held annually on November 23 as an occasion for commemorating labor and production. Like most other modern holidays around the globe, Labor Thanksgiving Day is the modern name for an ancient harvest of cereals festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭), tracing back as early as the 7th century BCE. In modern times, this event encourages thinking about the environment, peace and human rights, all a result of the post-World War II Japan and her new constitution which focused more intently on fundamental human and workers’ rights. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese KFCs don’t even bother to offer biscuits, much to their credit.

ThanksgivingJapanMenuFront

mao-portrait-2In China, however, having seen KFCs throughout Shanghai, Xian and Beijing, it became somewhat of a dare to eat at one. And what better time than on that most American of American holidays: Thanksgiving. Arriving late at the hotel after a long day of touring, we invited all those traveling with us to come and celebrate, but only three others took us up on our offer. Walking just a few short blocks away from our hotel in the Christmassy temperatures of nighttime Beijing, we arrived with smiles on our faces and grumblings in our bellies. Unfortunately in China there is no effigy of Colonel Sanders like there is in Japan (see Christmas is for Lovers in Japan for more on the central role of the Colonel and his food in Japan). Oh the photo-ops the Colonel dressed as Chairman Mao would provide!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Chinese outlets are typically two to three times larger than those found in America and Europe; many are open 24 hours a day. And most provide home delivery…via electric scooter…where the hotbox of fried goodness is strapped directly on the diver’s back.

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screen%20shot%202014-10-08%20at%2011_12_51%20amKFC has adapted its menu to suit local tastes throughout the Far East, and China is no exception. With items such as rice congee, egg custard tarts and tree fungus salad, over 50 different menu items are offered in each store. While the “Dragon Twister,” a wrap that includes fried chicken, cucumbers, scallions, and duck sauce sounds delish, it’s the “Zinger” burger that tops the best-selling list: a 100% breast fillet chicken coated in “zinger flavoring” combined with lettuce and mayo for those seeking a full-on hot and spicy flavor hit.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you are

I actually ordered the Zinger (unknowingly), but realizing the wimps that most Americans tend to be about Asian-inspired spiciness, I was asked whether I wanted it “spicy or mild.” The sandwich was good, the fries where excellent, the cobbed corn was soft and bettered just like the ones back home, and the mash and gravy were actually very Kentucky-like. All-in-all it was a fitting meal to which the Colonel would most like offer his heartfelt “xie xie” (“thanks” in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced “she-she”).

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming:  Eat More Chicken!

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming: Eat More Chicken!

But our meal, being more of a gimmick than a worthy celebration, failed to do justice the serious side of giving Thanks and acknowledging the bounty present in our accidental lives being born American. I can’t really recall what was moving through my head as the homeless man started to sift my tray for leftovers, other than I needed to let this man take what he could. There actually was still a lot of food left on the tray, and he took it all. I remained numb and paralyzed by inaction, an odd state for me, a person who’s rather decisive and prone to action sooner rather than later.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Dinner

He moved away to the next person approaching the trash, and I dumped my tray in silent contemplation, bordering on shame. And as we five Americans all exited the eatery, wrapped warmly in our quality western-wear and bellies bloated with Kentucky’s finest, and headed to our expensive, securely heated hotel for an overpriced and fattening dessert, we returned to our light banter and happy chatter. As if nothing profound had happened.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, classy desserts and tea at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, dessert cooler at the Holiday InnBut something profound had happen, and it continued to eat at me: the thoughts of that man who had to scrounge for food…on Thanksgiving. It continued to vex at me during our dessert at the hotel, and while we finished drinking our nearly $5 cups of tea.   And it nearly consumed my mind as Jody and I laid down to slumber in our well-appointed King-sized bed…. I’m not one to believe too much in mere coincidence, and I choose to believe that the Universe was indeed speaking. It was simply my choice to listen.

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“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote I hold dear. While its attribution to Plato is suspect and highly questionable, there is little doubt of its lasting and constant voracity. It doesn’t matter why that man in the KFC was homeless or what derailed journey took him to such a dark place. What matters is that any of us could so easily find ourselves in a similar situation. A bad gene, a really stupid decision, an unrecoverable traumatic event or PTSD, mental illness, or just a bad car accident for those without insurance or a decent job….

And waking up the next day, I knew, much too late, what I should have done, and what I so easily could have done: I should have celebrated our American Thanksgiving with this Chinese homeless man by giving Thanks for all that I have in my own life by buying a proper meal for this man who lacked the most basic necessities.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Kings...in China...at KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Kings…in China…at KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be kind. Be pitiful. And be sure you give the proper Thanks for all that you have in your own life.

 

Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan


“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

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Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.

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However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.

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So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.