Comedy · Holiday · Japan · Why I'm a Ridiculous Person

This Thanksgiving, I’m Grateful For…

It’s Thanksgiving Day. The turkey and trimmings are hot and steaming, the gravy boat promises a food-coma to come. And then someone says, with a smile on their face: “Before we eat, let’s take a moment to go around the table and say what we’re thankful for.”

Why is it never acceptable to reply, “Can’t we just mumble stuff with our mouths full of mashed potatoes instead?”

I will contest, here and now, that everybody lies during these moments. Everyone says crap like “I’m thankful for my family” and “I immediately thought of my friends,” rather than, “I’m grateful for Candy Crush because I don’t have anything else do to do with my sad life.” Or, “I’m thankful I only see you guys twice a year.” Yes, they love their family and friends, but they’re not saying their first thoughts–they’re going with stuff that makes them look like kind, grateful, nice people. Rather than being an exercise in saying what’s in our hearts, the question is inevitably a contest: who is the best human being at the table?

So me, I go ahead and say things that don’t make everyone go, “Ugh, no she isn’t, what a load of bull.” No, I say what makes them go, “Oh god, I would never have thought of that. I’m an ungrateful human being.”

What can I say, I’m a competitive so-and-so.

As the gravy grows cold and the sheepish muttering finally makes its way around the table to me, I proudly proclaim:

“I am thankful for Central heat.”

Having lived without it for four winters, I am intensely grateful to live in a society that values this comfort. Yes, comfort, because though you may view central heat as a necessity–as I did, pre-Japan–it is not the norm everywhere. But it darn well is in the good old U. S. of A.

Yes, this is a view of snow from my apartment window. Imagine having snow with no central heat.

I am grateful that no more do I wake up at three AM with my bones literally aching from cold. Instead, I set my apartment at a toasty fifty-five for the night and let my layers of blankets do the rest. Because I have central heat.

See, my first apartment in Japan consisted of four rooms with sliding doors between them–pretty big, by Japanese standards. They were laid out in an L-shape. Unfortunately, the only heat source was a wall-mounted unit at the bottom of the L, facing the stem. That room was warm, and the kitchen directly ahead of it was, uh, not warm, and everywhere else was frigid. Especially the toilet. Oh god, the toilet.

No insulation. No R-values. No vents or radiators or hot water pipes tick-ticking away in the night, no. In winter, my apartment was one big walk-in cooler. Seriously, I didn’t put my leftovers away half the time and it didn’t matter. And it wasn’t just me, either: this was completely normal.

To combat this deliberate lack of warmth, Japan has invented a number of contraptions that are supposed to heat up any reasonable human being. Not, you know, central, or windows that don’t rattle in the wind, but something. Small things.

Check out the floor: straw mats called “Tatami.” About as fire-proof as a marshmallow.

The first is the space heater, which you may have in the West, but do you really know it? Kerosene, ceramic, open coil–there are so many types! Kerosene is the favorite, especially those open monster-esque ones, but they’re pretty dangerous. There’s the fumes that mean you have to open a window at all times, thereby defeating the point. And there’s the fact that you’re lighting an open flame on top of straw mats. Maybe not a great idea. I didn’t buy one of those.

Instead, my first winter I purchased an open coil space heater which I dubbed the “red monster.” It separated its glowing bars from the world with a thin grate, but after it melted a pillow and nearly caught said straw mats on fire, that got put in the closet for good.

The ceramic heater: small, portable, not terribly useful. At least it’s cute?

I switched to a ceramic heater that looked like a small white flat screen TV and produced about as much heat, and wondered if it was possible to hate anyone more than the builders who had looked at the insulation bales and gone, “Nah.”

The other way Japan heats itself in winter is the kotatsu. This is a table with a quilt draped around it. Underneath is a space heater. Warm and toasty, yes? More like boiling on the bottom, freezing on top, with an electric bill that boggles the mind. Japan has all sorts of myths about these, like if you sleep under a kotatsu you’ll catch a cold. That one turned out to be true, in my experience. Freezing head, boiling torso, what could go wrong?

Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice…

November and early December 2011 021
My kotatsu set-up. Blanket under, blanket over, oh god my hands are too numb to type.

But my Thanksgiving gratefulness doesn’t end in a home with a thermostat. I also no longer have to go to work in an unheated concrete chamber where I huddle over a hot water bottle and develop chilblains on my toes, leading to minor but irreparable nerve damage. Those days are gone! In fact, the main perk of my final job in Japan was that there was a heater in my classroom, and I had the remote to it. I could set the temperature to a toasty sixty-five anytime I wanted. I was even encouraged to go up to sixty-eight. The luxury!

Not to mention, in America, central heat is the norm in places like restaurants, and let me tell you, there’s few things more difficult than trying to decide which item on the menu will be served at a higher temperature.

This is not the sort of day you want to spend wearing three t-shirts because you didn’t pack anything warmer.

During the May holiday Golden Week one year, my husband (then my boyfriend) and I were down in Kyushu visiting some hot springs. May in Japan is pretty summery, so we were unprepared for temperatures to suddenly dip into the low fifties. Wearing pretty much everything we’d packed, hiking around bubbling sulfur springs, we were overjoyed to find a place serving bowls of hot udon noodles.

Too bad the restaurant had a concrete floor and doors left open to the elements, with only a single kerosene heater blasting the fires of hell to one side of our bodies at a time. Almost-husband and I curled ourselves around our boiling cups of tea in a vain attempt to make sure no steam escaped as we waited for our noodles to be served. They turned out to be some of the best noodles I’ve had, but perhaps that’s just because everything tastes good when you’re on the brink of hypothermia.

I read an article a few years ago about how China was relocating rural citizens away from a big development project. The citizens in question were complaining about how their government-provided apartments lacked basic amenities like heat, and I laughed out loud as I sympathized. Their central heat was faulty? I read the article huddled in three sweaters and wearing my earmuffs indoors. Oh, to have faulty central heat.

And that is why, when all of you are pretending the thing you feel most grateful for is your darling stop-kicking-each-other-right-now-or-else children, or your wonderful please-don’t-let-him-air-his-political-views grandfather, I will be loudly proclaiming my love for warmth.

Central heat, oh, how I love thee with all mine heart. What would I do without you?

Oh, yeah: freeze.


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