To me, going food shopping in another country is the best part of travel. I love novelty foods, and any given trip to my local grocery store will find me pulling down new flavors of chips and going “ooh, what’s this?” Away from home, I’m prone to exiting with my arms full of new foods, grinning as I rush to try them. What’s that? I don’t know! Let’s eat it!
But really, there is nothing like an American grocery store. They’re so enormous, so packed with every food under the sun. Americans eat a huge variety of foods, and we expect our stores to have strawberries in March and avocados in December and filo dough year-round. We’ve forgotten that food comes in seasons, and so while our favorite holiday dishes are most abundant at their appropriate times, they can still be found in-between. Want pumpkin spice in spring? Okay. Peppermint in June, berries in winter, Easter eggs at the discount place no matter when, perhaps running a bit stale, but still good enough to sell.
We Americans are kind of crazy like that. We like what we like, and we want it all the time. We Americans have terrible supermarkets.
Corn in July, a dollar for six ears, steaks are on sale two-for-one. Look at those watermelons, stacked as tall as I am one minute, sold out the next, five dollars for ten pounds, and if you get the right coupon the cereal just gets cheaper the more you buy. We don’t even eat those pumpkins, they’re just decoration, and I’m not sure I should buy chicken wings, they only come in packs of twenty.
In America, we dream the dream of endless food, with big cars to drive it home in.
In Japan, all my groceries came home in my bike basket, or swinging in reusable bags from my handles. It changes the perspective, when food must be bought like that. Two-for-one? Pah. Where would I store it?
Below is Part 4 of my memoir series: What Can Be Bought
Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live
Part 3: The Sound of Far Away
What Can Be Bought
The best word for my local grocery store is ‘American.’ It is big. It has convenience foods beyond ready-cooked fried chicken and boxed sushi. There are many types of cheeses, and blueberries year-round. It has an organic section.
To put this store in context, let me describe the grocery store in my old town.
In Okayama, I lived in what Japan considers the countryside. Americans would not agree, because I also lived in a city of five hundred-thousand. Nevertheless, I was fifteen minutes from a train by bike and in the midst of rice-fields and had no other shops nearby, there was almost no bus service, and most homes were single-family. Countryside.
In either direction from my apartment I was a five-minute bike ride from a supermarket. One supermarket was a discount store, with a random selection of packaged foods and a cheap vegetable department. Not vegetables as I grew up thinking about them, with a bit of corn, a bit of green beans, broccoli on the side. No, these were Japanese vegetables. Giant radishes as long as my arm, three types of cabbage and four types of oranges. Strawberries only in summer, watermelon twelve dollars a pop. Peas were giant hard green things that left your mouth dryer than a rice field in winter. And the fish section, oh, it was like going to an aquarium. Live fish flopped in buckets, and despite being encased in plastic some of the shrimp still twitched. All of it was fresh off the boat. You couldn’t get much fresher than that.
The other grocery store was tame and overpriced, but had a nicer meat and dairy selection. It was also possible to buy smoked meat there. I mostly stuck with that place unless I fancied a fifteen-minute wait at the checkout for some cheap cabbage and a discount sushi-roll.
I mention this because both places in my old town were about…is there any good comparison? It’s hard to say. Meters and feet mean nothing to the average mind, not really.
Think of the average big-box store nearby, the kind that’s dirt cheap and sells just about everything. Got it?
One of those shops could probably fit six or seven of the grocery stores in my old town. Now that I live in the city, that same big-box store could probably fit two of my current supermarket.
See? Big. And big, in Japan, means American.
I can’t read. There. I’ve said it. I live in a country where I cannot read the language.
Well, I mean, I can read the alphabet, which is actually a syllabary. I can read both of them.
And probably, if push came to shove, I can read a couple hundred of the Chinese characters called kanji. Probably. I couldn’t write them, and I couldn’t read them in every context, but I could do a few.
Newspapers, though? TV current event tickers? Sales flyers? Ingredients lists? Doctor’s office forms?
You gotta be kidding me. I can’t read them. No way.
Luckily I mostly don’t need to. And when I do, well…it’s amazing how often I really don’t.
There’s a diminishing return for learning any foreign language, and this is true here more than most places. After all, even if you learn it perfectly, every word absolutely correct, you will always be foreign. Your children will be foreign, and your ways will be foreign. Your words will be foreign.
This is Japan. You are a foreigner. Your eyes say so.
I teach English. Or, I taught English, anyway. I will teach English. At some point. Probably.
My specialty is something that doesn’t exist in English-teaching in many countries, at least not to the extent it is necessary here. You see, I specialize in phonics.
I didn’t grow up with phonics, of course. No, I learned sight-word reading, which is looking at a word and recognizing the pattern of the shapes. That’s probably the way you learned to read your name, once upon a time. It might even be how you learned to read. It’s the reason that you saw the word jyouzu written on the page and let your eye slide past, absorbing the j but ignoring the y and completely skipping the ouzu. See? You’re re-reading the word now, sounding it out in your head. Let me help.
Jyou as in the name Joe, only put more yo into the J. Zu as in the place animals are kept, a zoo if I must spell it out. Jyouzu. Joe-zu, only lose the nasal accent. Right. Got it?
That’s how phonics words. Now imagine explaining that to five-year-olds in another language and you’ll see the challenge. For those of you rolling your eyes, bear with me. English is harder than it sounds for those who didn’t grow up on it.
Of course, with five-year-olds you’re not teaching them to read such ghastly combinations as, say, ghastly, though that’s not as bad as teaching them the word though. First you start with cat, hat, and rat. And that’s where things go wrong.
Did you know that there is no such thing as a rat in Japanese? There are mice, and there are field mice. Explaining that rats are big and have long pink tails gets you polite skepticism. It’s like trying to teach an American the difference between bison and buffalo; they just don’t see the point.
Teaching phonics in Japan is a bit like teaching baseball with diagrams. You can explain it until you’re blue in the face but there’s no substitution for practice, practice practice.
Now to take that simile one step further, imagine that if you let these kids practice anywhere but where you can supervise them they will begin not only breaking the rules but be instructed to play baseball using the rules of Calvinball. Saying doegu not dog, hut not hat. Yes, they’ll be playing a game, but they will be playing it all wrong and will never make the high-school team.
The metaphor is incomplete, but the stakes are higher now than ever. To go to university, this year’s kindergarteners will need to pass a test at the end of high school requiring fluent English language abilities. Doesn’t matter if they’re going to major in nursing or engineering or Swahili, they will have to prove their ability to be fantastic English speakers. Calvinball will get them nowhere.
Fine. Drop the analogy altogether. Bad English will not get them into university, and learning fluent English from a young age begins with a good grasp of phonics.
Japan is a country where strangers are still addressed by family-titles. If I drop something in the supermarket I can expect to be told “this is yours, older sister.” I have been an older sister, an onee-san, since I came here, and suspect I will be until I have a child on my hip, and maybe not even then. Only when I’m with my fiancé do I become oku-san: mistress, or wife.
It’s easy to slip into using these titles in English. I wouldn’t dream of saying I was talking to a grandmother in the store about leeks today, but I’ll happily say, “Oh, yeah, a ba-chan insisted I get these.” When I spot an old man in a tiny, ubiquitous white farm truck looking like he might pull out suddenly (because as a rule white kei-trucks pull out suddenly,) I’ll warn my fiancé of the ji-chan coming up.
Teaching Japanese children the words brother and sister is one of the harder concepts they get into under age five. There is no good translation for these words. Families here divide their offspring into ‘older sister’ and ‘younger sister,’ ‘big brother’ and ‘little brother.’ Even twins have their birth order carefully laid out for them from day one, crystalized in linguistic amber. Brother? Sister? What vague words.
I am an onee-san until the day I become an oku-san, perhaps even an auntie, an obaa-san. There I will remain until one day, in some shop, a well-meaning clerk will notice the gray in my hair and politely ruin my day with, “Is there anything you need, grandmother?”
Part 5: The Comfort of a Known Noise
Do you yourself speak a foreign or second language? How fluent are you? Did you have a lot of trouble with pronunciation, or was that fairly smooth sailing for you? What are some words or phrases you found yourself carrying over to English? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
If you enjoy my writing on Japan, you might also like my short story “The Foreigner’s Loneliness,” about a young American man coping with depression who meets a shady stranger while living in Japan.
Thanks for reading!