Friday 20 January 2012

7 Deadly Virtues – Interlude

A Scandal in Suburbia

Doraemon has a magic pocket. That’s a pretty useful power to have. Anpanman has an edible face, which is possibly less so. Still, it’s better than your resident gaijin’s superpower which is, what exactly? Being really tall? Having a small face (which somehow still manages to contain big eyes and a tall nose)? Just being different?

It’s the last one, I think, and as powers go it’s pretty crappy. It’s like the power of a lie-detector test or a placebo, in that it only works if people believe it works.

I do have a wicked cool secret identity though

I’ve talked before about having lunch at elementary schools, and apart from the occasional questionable menu item it was one of my favourite aspects of the job, mainly because my ‘powers’ failed completely. The kids weren’t impressed that I ate natto, but were bowled over when I happily bit into a tomato. Likewise, the conversation was never about school lunches in England, but what music I liked, what I thought of the cute homeroom teacher, and the fact that my hair’s going grey (yeah, thanks for that Oda-kun). And I never got complimented on my ability with chopsticks.

For those of you who are blissfully unaware, the Chopstick Conversation is something of a shibboleth with expats in Japan. Getting constantly complimented on your skill with hashi by well-meaning but imagination-free Japanese dining companions is bad enough, but the conversations about it with other foreigners cause this weird kind of meta-irritation. “Really? You’re fine with it most of the time but occasionally snap and tell them they’re good with cutlery? Do tell me more.”

No, please, do go on

Anyway, I told a Japanese friend about the elementary school kids once, and she replied that, “They just don’t know about different cultures yet,” with a rueful, almost apologetic tone. I wasn’t sure how to tell her that I was completely fine with that. These kids are aware that I’m different from them, but their 'Them’ is defined so narrowly it’s basically just ‘I’. Everyone they know uses chopsticks, so why the hell wouldn’t I be the same? They know I’m different, but the differences are what they actually observe, not what they believe they should see.

Likewise, I’m usually at pains to point out that the way I do stuff is probably just the way I do stuff, and isn’t necessarily representative of the way things are done ‘abroad’, or even in England. And equally, just because a few Japanese people do something in a particular way it doesn’t mean that it’s because they’re Japanese.

I pretty quickly got sick of the uniformly bland sponges which appear to be the extent of Japan’s cake offerings. A fruit cake should have fruit in it, not just a tired strawberry plopped listlessly on top. Thus, I bake, because I want something with a bit of flavour. A bit of heft. Just a bit of interest, really.

And, because I’m desperately needy and constantly fishing for compliments, I’ll wheel these concoctions out whenever people visit. Part of it is, if I’m honest, out of a confused desire to expose our visitors to something outside their normal experience. That tiny, didactic, faintly patronizing teacher inside me never really switches off. Look! You can put carrot and ginger in a cake (though maybe not the same one)! It doesn’t have to be just flour and sugar! Tell me how delicious it is. Tell me tell me tell me. Aren’t I a good cook? Aren’t I? Eat eat eat eat eat. Eat and validate my existence. Please. Please. Yum yum yum yum. Please.


So I presented this little beauty the other week when some friends came over. It was a double-decker and my wife was making a bit of a hash of cutting it, to be honest (Hi Honey! Not really. You did it beautifully). So to stop her screwing it up any further I took over. Obviously the easiest way of doing it is to cut forward as well as down, and then let the slices flop over onto their sides.

This is riveting stuff, I know

But because both the cake and this method of cutting and presentation were somewhat unusual, our guests made the assumption that this was the way it was done in England. No, it was just the best way of shoveling the carroty goodness onto a plate as quickly as possible. Yet they made this mental leap, based on very little actual information. I cut the cake, I am English, therefore all English cakes are cut like this.

A crow is a bird. A crow is black. Therefore...

This isn’t to disparage these people at all. I love them dearly, and they are some of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know. They’ve all spent considerable time abroad, but I’m not sure if that’s not part of the problem. They know there are differences, more than most people, and so are perhaps too ready to see them even when there are none.

Because we're all primed primed to see patterns that aren't there. Pattern recognition was a vital survival skill in the African savannah, where there were comparatively few stimuli. If the grass moves in the way it did that time a lion jumped out from behind it and ate Thrug, there’s probably a lion behind it this time as well and you’d better run like fuck. That kind of thing.

That skill doesn’t really scale well to the hugely increased number of stimuli presented by the modern world. There’s a whole cottage industry in books explaining how shit we generally are at understanding probability, and how that leads us to see patterns in their absence. Its how psychics, homeopaths, and other snake-oil salesmen still manage to earn a dishonest living. We're more likely to believe what we already believe. It’s called confirmation bias, and realizing that it affects you and not just other people is one of the most important steps you can take to making yourself less stupid.

I sometimes play a very simple warm-up game with my students. I pick an adjective, ‘small’ say, and they have to name something which is small: ant, mouse, and on one memorable occasion ‘my bust’ (I hesitated to check the veracity of her claim). Several times a request to, ‘Tell me something blue,’ has yielded the answer, ‘Your eyes.’ They’re not, of course.

They're like this, just not attached to an
internationally famous sex-symbol

This has only ever happened with the older kids though, because they’ve had the time to absorb the whole blue-eyed gaijin trope. So despite the evidence being literally in front of their eyes (I like to get up close and personal), they just don’t see it unless it's pointed out to them.

I think, I hope, that this is of a slightly different stripe to my friends and the cake. The students make errors through not thinking at all, whereas my friends make errors from over-interpreting limited evidence. From thinking too much, if you like. I’d certainly take the latter over the former every time, but I suspect that at root they both stem from an unconscious intellectual overconfidence. A small internal cry of ‘I know this one!’

A no pipe problem

The elementary kids have none of that. Like Paul Simon, they know what they know, and don’t feel the need to make mental leaps which may or may not be supportable. I’m certainly not advocating that ignorance is bliss (well, maybe sometimes). I’d eat the apple every single time, but everyone’s knowledge and understanding has limits.

No-one knows everything, and that includes you and me. It’s all very well to say that, but to act on it is another matter. To bump up against the limits of your understanding and actually observe the world as it is, instead of seeing the reality you desire, is incredibly difficult and sometimes scarily humbling. Which is why I’m in no fear of my powers waning anytime soon. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to loom over someone.

And for the record, there are seventeen steps up to my front door, too.


  1. I get the "Chopstick" Shtick a lot.

    I wanna do the "fork version" first chance I get back home in Hawaiii....where we often use chopsticks so Ima have to bake something which I love to do with a proper sized oven which the Japanese really lack as an automatic kitchen item.

    " use that fork really well Satoshi!! hey Kimo....check out Satoshi with the fork!...Really great job Satoshi!!"

  2. I really want to use the cutlery line too.

    The other side of the story is that many people will say - 'this is how things are done in my country' when it's just a them thing. And, the one that drives me nuts - 'this is how Westerners do...' when it's only in the US.

  3. One year we all went for a bonenkai to an Italian restaurant. Proper, start at the outside cutlery. When someone correctly identified the fish knife I was able to legitimately compliment them on their skill with a knife and fork.

    No-one understood why I found it so funny...