By Jarrad Skinner (Toyama-ken, 2007-11) for JQ magazine. Jarrad is an instructional designer for interactive online courses in the mental health field. Otherwise, he’s obsessed with game design, comedy, and hip-hop. After being born on Long Island, educated in Manhattan, and confused in Japan, he lives in Brooklyn. You can find him on the dance floor.
It’s Christmas Eve and KFC is out of chicken. This can’t be life. We didn’t make reservations, so we can’t have any chicken. It’s one thing to walk into KFC on Christmas Eve to get a bucket of greasy poultry parts, but it’s a whole other indignity to be told you can’t have any. Biscuits and sides will have to do.
As many of you probably already know, KFC pulled off some kind of unholy cross-cultural coup to convince a good portion of Japan that KFC and Christmas go together like peanut butter and jelly. Well, that is, if you’re American, PB&J go together naturally. And that’s really the point that I had to stubbornly learn again and again in Japan: nothing naturally goes with anything. We make it up as we go and then get used to our inventions. We become so used to them, we call them natural or traditional or don’t call them anything at all because we take them for granted like pizza with tuna fish topping.
If there’s one thing we take for granted more than readily available pairings of foods, it’s family. You might be a jackass today, but you expect family to be there tomorrow anyway. And if there’s one message that’s been drilled into our heads by the seasonal onslaught of holiday songs and shows, it’s “Go home to your family!” Every memory of every sitcom holiday special featuring some selfish oaf learning the lesson that the real present at Christmas is family reminds me that as the holidays approach in Japan I feel…unnatural.
I’ll try to build my own little Christmas in my own little, cold, tatami-floored bubble. I waddle back from the post office with a gift-wrapped care package of homemade chocolate chip cookies and my video game system. I’ll have iTunes streaming Christmas songs and Skype will send my blurry image and clipped voice home to the living room where I would naturally be. ’Tis the season of tradition and there’s no other time that I’m more forced to question what I’m doing here.
I left for Japan to go “see what they know,” as George Bailey said of college when describing the adventurous future he imagined for himself in that perennial classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
“What they know” is KFC for Christmas. What I don’t know is why I’m upset that there’s no chicken left when I didn’t even want any in the first place.
Maybe it’s because American fast food takes on a new meaning when you’re living abroad. Those Golden Arches become a familiar face in a crowd of unreadable strangers. “Hey! I know you. Doesn’t matter if we didn’t talk back home. Here, we’re old friends.” Maybe I’m upset because I’m eager to enjoy tradition, any tradition, on this holiday and KFC isn’t cooperating.
So my fellow foreign English teachers and our Japanese friends make do with those sides and biscuits and some beer and a drinking game. The game is deceptively simple. The humor of making a simple mistake is universally funny. We laugh, we drink, we make something of our own. We won’t all be here next year or even in a few months, but we’re here now, messing up the things that used to be simple, and that counts for a lot.
For more on the history of KFC in Japan, click here.