I always have trouble eating out in Japan.
I’m told that in Asian cultures it’s really rude to leave food on your plate. My first encounter with this was with a Chinese American friend of mine, who would diligently take my plate and eat whatever food was left on it at the end of a meal.
Who knows, maybe that guy just liked to eat. But he wasn’t the only Asian friend I had that did this. While I started to feel self conscious about it, it wasn’t enough to get me to stop leaving food on my plate when I was no longer hungry.
But all that changed when I came to Japan.
I don’t want to bore you with the details of my angsty teenage years, but let’s just say that for reasons unstated I really, really, really wanted to be Japanese when I was a teenager. I’m talking chopstick-using, handshake-bowing, Japanese-speaking-even-when-no-one-understands-you want.
So of course, when I finally came to Japan, I wanted to be as Japanese as possible. When in Rome, right?
(More like “when in Japan” tho tbh.)
And one of the first things I learned when I came to Japan was how polite it was to eat everything on your plate, and how rude you were being if you didn’t eat everything you were given.
Of course, stricken as I am by how everybody else sees me, this caused me great anxiety.
So I did my best to clean my plate of food, eat everything I was given, and not take too much food in the first place. However, this usually led to two outcomes: 1) I didn’t get enough food, but I didn’t want to appear greedy by going back for seconds, so I’m starving; or 2) I got waaayyy more food than I needed, and ended up stuffing myself until I felt like I was going to burst.
Neither of which were desirable options.
But, I stuck with it, trying to keep people from judging me. Trying to come across a certain way. Trying to mitigate people’s opinions of me.
And sometimes, I wish I just didn’t really care.
I also wish I could tell you that this post is going to be inspiring, to show you how I overcame my fears of what Japanese people might think of me by saying, “Fuck it! I’m not Japanese, I’m American, and in America we leave food on our plates if we damn well please!”
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, I just found a more covert strategy of getting my needs met while minimizing any potential negative social valuations as much as possible.
Like hiding the food on my plate. Under a napkin. In a bowl and then stacking another bowl on top of that one so they couldn’t see it. Squishing it so it was as small as possible so it looked like I at least tried to eat it.
Sometimes I’ll even go so far as to ask them not to include the thing I know I’m not going to it, but this is incredibly rare and anxiety-inducing in Japan for both parties, so I’m even less likely to do this.
I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a bit better. Especially when I’m with friends, when it’s easy to deflect the attention by hiding amongst a group of foreigners, or when I’m not paying attention to everyone
staring at me around me because I’m too engrossed in the conversation.
But even that doesn’t always work.
Today, I thought about throwing away the food on my plate, but it was just so much, and I really did feel bad about not eating all of it. It seemed like such a waste. Or, as the Japanese say, mottainai.
I ended up scooping the food into my rice bowl which was easier to hide. That way my plate looked empty, and no one could see into the bowl anyway because it was too high. Then I scurried over to the tray return area and dumped the leftover contents into the bin, relieved to see that someone else had also not felt like cleaning their plate today.
Again, there’s no resolution to this story. I just wanted to talk about it for a bit because I thought it was strange today, and that it definitely shed light on just how much I care about what other people think of me, to the point where sometimes I’d rather be in physical pain from being too full than psychological pain from being looked down upon by others.
And I don’t know how long it’ll take me to change that.