A Japanese-Style Get-together in a Canadian Setting
How Tastes Change After Many Years Overseas
The end of the year is usually a time for a series of get-togethers like office parties, dinners and socializing at home. We Nikkei people, ijusha and resident Japanese folk, who probably celebrate the new year (o-shogatsu) as well, also enjoy get-togethers along with all the other minorities in multi-cultural Canada, whose format may vary from formal to casual, from traditional Japanese to “Canadian style” depending on age groups and professions.
Being a free-lancer I work mostly at home, so there’s hardly any work-related socializing like what I used to indulge in when I was working for a publishing firm in Singapore before we moved here some 11 years ago. Get-togethers usually involve enjoying cooking and drinks with my music buddies and other friends at someone’s house. Being among friends, parties too are casual, with people often bringing prepared dishes, drinks and desserts. As my wife’s and two teenage children’s friends tend to be Asian-Canadians and Caucasian-Canadians, our parties are usually “Canadian style,” which is to say relatively modest and laid-back. There is, of course, no “MC’ing” and organized games rarely happen.
Once in a while, I might attend a cultural group’s banquet or Nikkei-related functions, but I must confess that I sometimes feel out of place. I find myself thinking “All the others seem to be in their elements, but what’s a strange guy like me doing here?” If it’s a formal occasion with VIPs attending as guests of honor, there’ll be some tension – not necessarily unpleasant – in the air. I become self-conscious about little things like how I serve myself from the buffet spread, or the use of chopsticks. (Should nigirizushi be eaten with chopsticks or by hand? etc etc) So I used to harbour doubts about whether I was even cut out for that sort of gatherings.
With a casual format, one can arrive more or less at one’s convenience, chat a bit with the host couple and other familiar faces, then grab one’s preferred drink and take some food from the spread, maybe play a bit of music or have a sing-along and, again at one’s convenience, take leave quietly after thanking the hosts. That’s the sort of party I’m accustomed to.
The reason why I wrote “used to harbour doubts” above is that I recently made a little discovery.
In connection with a job I was helping out with, I was recently invited to a dinner party. They were a group of Japanese men and women probably in their 20s and 30s. As we shared some ideas about our objectives, I had found the work stimulating. As this was a good opportunity to meet their other associates and friends, I decided to accept the kind invitation.
It snowed heavily on the day of the get-together. In the evening, as I drove cautiously into downtown, I found there were so few drivers willing to risk the bad conditions that I was able to park at a roadside meter just across from the hotel where the venue was. I found the function room which was just small enough to be cozy. There were some round tables around which guests were to sit where their name cards were displayed. On a long table off to one side were arranged the fairly sumptuous menu items buffet-style. Some guests were already seated at the tables, chatting quietly with a wine or beer. Ladies in charge of the Christmas present exchange “event” after the dinner and those in charge of the cloak rack were all very organized and efficient. For an instant, that pre-conceived notion crossed my mind. “Oh, it’s one of those formal Japanese get-togethers.”
Anyway, by the time I got my wine from the bar and walked over to my place at one table, I had exchanged greetings with some people I rarely see despite frequent E-mail and telephone exchanges. And before I knew it, I was engrossed in conversation with a young Mr T., who happened to be interested in the translation business, and others about everything from Japanese politics to challenges we face in our occupations.
The dinner, with everyone serving him/herself from the buffet table, was sort of “Canadian style.” The soup, the salads, the meat dishes, seafood dishes and vegetables on the side all used fresh ingredients that were combined and seasoned in creative ways. Everything tasted quite good. By the time dessert was served and the exchange of presents, the “fun event,” began, the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, helped a bit, perhaps, by the wine and beer. Whether it had anything to do with Canada’s politeness-first culture or not, I don’t know, but the relaxation was within reasonable bounds and, of course, no-one was creating scenes.
With the end of the get-together approaching, I was talking with some people about continuing at a pub next door, when my cell-phone rang. I had to go pick up some people right away. So, as reluctant as I was, I said goodbye and left the hotel. That’s when I came to the realization – it was more enjoyable than I’d expected. I‘d thought I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. That was my little discovery.
Having come over here with my family, I consider myself an ijusha immigrant) of sorts. As one born and raised in Tokyo, I still find myself unwittingly comparing life here to life in that megalopolis which has a much larger population, area and economy. Japan these days, according to the print and electronic media and to my impression during a short visit back in March, is experiencing a heyday of the “eat-till-you-drop culture.” With the traditional lifetime employment system long gone and the nation, an economic giant with no future vision, caught up in the global recession, the Japanese seem to be saying “let’s at least seek solace in good company and good eats.”
What with so many eateries and a rich variety of international cuisines, it would probably be very difficult to impress anyone with a dinner party unless one served something really special.
And what with so many bonenkai (forget-the-old-year party), new year get-togethers and office parties at this time of the year, organizers are probably racking their brains to come up with novel games and performances for entertainment while the participants bide their time with innocuous conversation and jokes, and later drift on to nijikai (the party after the main party) with their close friends and colleagues. The transport to and from will most likely be JR train services and subway trains (taxis only for short distances), and as the evening wears on the air inside trains on the most crowded routes will probably reek of alcohol from the breaths of tipsy passengers. Should there be a big snowfall, a relatively rare occurrence, trains on many surface routes will stop operating.
The gathering of informal colleagues in Vancouver was sort of Japanese style in a Canadian setting. The two cultures blended to create a friendly atmosphere of understated camaraderie. In our social environment, it even felt refreshing. There were those from Japan who recently came here to work and those already settled here having married Canadians. The atmosphere was so congenial that I could easily imagine some of them becoming ijusha or Nikkei Canadians one day.
The population density is so low here that a big snowfall can reduce traffic in the city centre to a trickle. The population itself is probably less than one-tenths of Tokyo’s. Still enjoying the “aftertaste” of the get-together, I drove off into the already deserted city street. (I only had a little wine.)
Akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu.