Sarah Dzida currently attends the USC MPW program in Los Angeles. She’s written magazine articles, theater reviews, academic essays and martial arts books. Her fiction has appeared in The Huffington Post. Her poetry has appeared online and in an exhibit at the Architecture + Design Museum in Los Angeles. Her creative nonfiction about Japan has appeared in Sushi and Sake Magazine. You can find her online at http://www.dthroughz.com
Jesus, Japan, and Kentucky Fried Chicken
In 2004, I was a fresh-faced college graduate barely three months old as an ESL teacher on the island of Kyushu. It was my first official winter ever. As a native Californian, I finally learned scarves were useful beyond adding a pop of color to an outfit. I could read menus and order pizza successfully over the phone with the aid of a friend armed with a dictionary. At work, I wandered the halls of my school with a sign on my back that read, “Have you talked to your English teacher today?” to trap students into the act of communicating with me. This was my state when Christmas came to me in its uniquely Japanese incarnation.
Unlike in the Christian-dominated Western world, the Japanese Christmas is an unofficial minor holiday in which sweethearts exchange gifts. That’s why the most popular carol of the season is actually “Last Christmas” by the British pop duo Wham! Beyond the romance, the dessert to eat isn’t gingerbread cookies or eggnog but a white-frosted concoction crowned with a halo of strawberries, known as the “Christmas cake.” Friends and family step out in the winter chill to see “illumination”—light installations that flicker about town centers. And thanks to a rather spectacular marketing campaign in the 1970s, many Japanese pre-order a holiday dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken. My Japanese friends couldn’t believe Westerners don’t consider a KFC dinner to be a “traditional” holiday meal. To them, romance, cake and KFC defined their Christmas. There was no logic gap between fried chicken and a Christmas tree.
But the gap resonated with me even though I no longer identified as the Roman Catholic I was nurtured to become. Like a lot of young people, I had drifted away from the religious connotations in my life. As I went from the insular world of a Catholic elementary school to a more diverse ecosystem at a public high school, my social circle introduced me to well-spoken atheists and agnostics. Thoughts began to apparate into my head: Why did I need this God stuff anyway?
As long as I can remember, the world was always part of the conversation in my family, but Catholicism also played some role in the story. For example, when my grandfather built roads in Bangkok, my father and his brothers still attended a Catholic school. Growing up in communist Yugoslavia, my mother traveled with her church choir to Greece and other countries. Her family’s communist home played host to guests from Africa and Ireland because her oldest brother was a Jesuit. And when that brother moved to San Francisco, he met my father’s oldest brother who was also a Jesuit. My two uncles are the reason my parents met.
Knowledge, curiosity and exposure always trumped doctrine and piety in our household, however. So I was surprised when my parents didn’t greet my newfound indifference to religion with open arms. We had some tough times. My father and I played an unspoken cat-and-mouse game. Once, I came back from a high school Model United Nations conference just in time to go to church with the family. I tried to hide out at a friend’s house for three hours before calling my parents to pick me up. My dad outmaneuvered me. He took me to the evening Mass, instead. He began to assign theological readings, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to discuss on weekends. I, predictably, chaffed under the added assignments. I realize now that my father meant to inspire genuine dialogue. That his daughter might renege on Catholicism was something he didn’t know how to handle, and truthfully, neither did I. So when I hit college, my dad and I shelved the topic. Only my mother brought it up sometimes.
“It’s Ash Wednesday, I think you should go.” She’d say.
“Don’t forget about Palm Sunday.”
“Are you sure you can’t attend Holy Thursday with the family?”
And when I came to Japan, my mother advised I seek a church.
“For the community,” she said. But I laughed it off—I’d never needed it before, why would I want it now?
But in my first December in Japan, I struggled with the Christian vacuum. I yearned for the advent wreath with three purple candles and a pink one. I missed singing “O Come Emanuel” at Mass, celebrating St. Nick’s Day by placing my shoes before the fireplace, helping my mother plant her Christmas wheat, unpacking Christmas ornaments like the Nativity set painted by my Great Uncle John and Aunt Cvita, choosing the family tree and sitting in a dark church with my extended family on Christmas Eve. I longed to share these feelings with my students because that’s why I was in Japan—to be more than an English teacher. I was a cultural ambassador; it said so in my handbook! But how could I explain Christmas as I knew it to the Japanese?
In a five-minute conversation, let alone a 1-hour lesson, I wasn’t going to get anywhere so I took the month of December to teach my students about the “meaning” of Christmas. We went through the entire evolution of the holiday from its pagan roots to its Christian transformation and modern codification. We studied how Santa Claus morphed from a 4th century Greek bishop named Nicholas into the jolly, rosy-cheeked elf of Hollywood blockbusters. We dissected the mournful lyrics of “Last Christmas” and then posited just why Grandma got ran over by a reindeer.
It didn’t stop there. I huddled into the ex-pat community who also wanted to share their versions of the Christian seasons. For example, I never practiced Lent, but in Japan, I kicked off the 40-days with some British ex-pats. They introduced me to Shrove Thursday pancakes sprinkled with sugar. For Easter, I invited friends over to dye hard-boiled eggs.
“And you can really eat them?” an English friend asked. She eyed her fluorescent pink egg with anxiety. Apparently, the Europeans generally “blew out” eggs—drilling a small hole in the shell and draining the insides before decorating the hollow egg. This amused my Canadian and American cohorts greatly.
We ex-pats continued to find ways to bring our traditions to our students. For Halloween, I helped Japanese students carve jack-o-lanterns into small, squat and green Japanese pumpkins. The students took their ghoulish sculptures home intending to cut them up into soups that night. Later that evening, fellow teachers and I walked down the streets of Oita dressed in costume—I was a pirate. Japanese passersby looked askance at us, but when we shouted, “Happy Halloween!” they shouted back, “Happy Halloween!”
In fact, that’s how KFC entered the Christmas dinner market in the first place. When foreigners couldn’t find turkey on Christmas day, they bought fried chicken instead. The company saw a potential market and launched its first Christmas meal in 1974. Today, the Christmas chicken dinner, which can include cake and champagne, goes for about $40.
I remember once reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer say something like to truly be someone of faith, you need to practice it away from the cradle of your community. Sure, I can’t remember the exact quote, but the essence continues to be important to me— how you need to leave your comfort zone behind to see what sticks. For me, it was when I lived in Japan and how I learned nothing comes to us unadulterated and what we choose to keep in our lives reflects what’s most important to us.
When I returned to the United States, I didn’t I return to Catholicism. In truth, I spent most of my first Christmas Mass trying to remember a song from a VHS about a puppet named Eddie that my siblings and I used to watch around the holidays. I whispered verses into my youngest sister’s ear—Is your heart a manger? Is there any room for Him? She giggled and tried to ignore me. But I didn’t push it away like I did in the past, and I didn’t let go of all the Japanese culture I absorbed, either.
As our American calendar passes, I sew small patches of Japan into my life. Instead of Christmas cards, I send out Japanese-style New Year’s cards because I like the message of “this year also please be kind to me.” When Easter approaches, I keep a sharp eye out for pink cherry blossom petals. In the summer, I tote visiting friends to Japanese culture centers in Los Angeles. We eat ramen, sing karaoke then end the evening at an Asian-style spa. I hold warm drinks with the cup resting on one palm. I cheer “do your best” in Japanese instead of “go get ‘em” in English for anyone who needs a pep talk. I like to bow still whenever appropriate. And in December, the holiday season never really seems to start until I hear the hopeful lyrics of Wham!—that a broken heart can still and will finally be given to someone special.