Thursday, March 16, 2006

Omiyage & onegaishimasu...

These are "omiyage" gift bags (little pouches, really), which I learned to make from Kimuko Sudo's Omiyage book. Many of the bags are made to look like flowers or animals, or can be used as small evening bags. (Interestingly, our Japanese teacher said that, although the tradition is Japanese, these special pouches are more western in flavour & not part of the traditional practise of omiyage.) I love hand-stitching them, particularly from recycled vintage kimono fabrics & I have been making them for at least 5 years. I think I've given away more than I presently have, & although they are gifts in & of themselves, I feel funny giving them away without putting something inside the pouch, in the spirit of omiyage... Omiyage is the Japanese custom of giving "obligation" gifts to people in your life. I have "obligation" in quotes because it's not really the right word to describe the reasons the gifts are given. There is no direct translation in english for omiyage because we do not have this concept in our culture. This is one of the reasons I love learning languages. Getting a deeper sense of how people in other cultures think is endlessly fascinating to me. When Tomoko, our Japanese teacher, introduced us to the phrase onegaishimasu, she explained that there is no direct translation for this idea because it describes a relationship between people that is recognised in Japan, but not in western cultures. She explained that it means (not literally) "thank-you for the good things you will do for me in the future" & that it's used in many situations in Japan, from New Years' greetings (the context of our lesson that day) to beginning a new job. Not long after this lesson B & I started reading the "Hikaru no Go" manga series, & discovered that this phrase is used to begin Go games! When I read manga (translated into english, of course) I can always tell when the character is saying onegaishimasu, even though the transaltions are quite varied& sometimes stilted... In thinking about our discussion of this cultural difference with Tomoko, it seems to me that people in Japan are much more up-front about recognising their interdependance. They live so close together on their small islands (compared to North American people) so they have had to put a much higher value on not only giving people emotional "space" by being very polite but also have formalised their connectedness with onegaishimasu. This reminds me very much of the Unitarian Universalist value for the interdependant web of life, which is one of our Principles & Purposes. The fact that we have to even talk about it (& don't take it for granted) says a great deal about our culture, I think. We seem to value the cowboy loner much more highly than our connections to other people- & I think this explains a great many of our failures as a society. I am not saying that we are failures in comaprison to Japanese society, mostly because I don't know enough about it yet, & because what I do know leads me to believe that Japan has their problems too... What I am saying is that our tendency to either ignore, hide, or be embarassed by our deep connexions to other people is not a good thing. I also believe that deep connexions are not the same as dependancy. To understand that my life would not be as wonderful without my husband & child, not to mention my friends, or that I would not do as well personally (or with child-raising) without my husband, does not make me dependant on them in a bad way. So I resonate to the Japanese concept of onegaishimasu very much. Taken in this context, the idea of omiyage gifts is also lifted out of the "obligation" category, & into "recognition" (to my mind, at least). I like the idea of recognising those who give us so much by giving them gifts. Perhaps many families can recognise this custom in the gifts they bring back for family & friends when they go away on vacation- we certainly do it. We also like to make sure B's teachers & helpers at school get small gifts on holidays like Valentines Day, & I try very hard to make sure that they have hand-made gifts for Christmas & end-of-the-year parting, since the hand-made part seems to recognise how they have helped to hand-make my child's school experience :) from their hearts.

One of the things that got me thinking about this today was that I always bring B home a little treat when I do my once-weekly grocery shopping (like today). I think it evolved from our practice of allowing him to choose one thing at the grocery store to buy for himself when he has to go there with me... he has a fair amount of anxiety in crowded, busy places, but when he thinks about what he's going to buy, it distracts him from a lot of the anxiety & sometimes even makes him look forward to going... Every week I bring him something, usually candy-ish gum of a new & different sort (B can't have artificial sweeteners so it's sugary, too) as a treat for after school. I had been thinking alot about the appropriateness of this though, in light of trying to keep his weight under control, & also from the perspective of not wanting him to take these treats "for granted". I have batted this whole thing back & forth in my head & come up with some rationalisations... & a new way of thinking about it. First of all, although candy is not banned in our home (that would kill me, probably :) we only have it in the context of mealtimes, to protect everyone's teeth (I was a dental researcher, after all). We have banned fatty snacks except on special occasions, & we're all better for it, but it's been very hard on B since he's really a salt-snack kind of a guy... Also, gum-chewing is a major soother for B, & from my research days I know that if he chews for at least 10-15 minutes, he's washed all of the sugar out of his mouth (there's abundant research that proves this), so sugary gum really isn't bad for him from a dental-health point of view. We have also never seen any sign of B getting "wired" or having behavioural changes due to sugar consumption (believe me, we've looked...) & recent research supports our observations, so that rationalisation for cutting out the special treats goes bye-bye as well. As for taking these weekly treats for granted... when I think of them as omiyage I find myself lightening-up even on this point. Why not thank my kid regularly for being such an important part of my life? Oh, yeah, I thank him in many other ways, both concrete & non-, but these ways are often contextual & random. A weekly treat from the grocery store is steady & predictable (things kids on the spectrum love & need) & does him no harm- it may actually do us both some good. :)


At 1:56 AM, Blogger Zilari said...

I highly doubt that an occasional (or even weekly) sugary snack is going to harm anyone for the worse, assuming they are not diabetic. Health problems and unfettered weight gain tend to stem from things like not being aware of one's diet, or from constantly eating things with no nutritional value. I am an utter fiend for chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, but I limit myself to certain types and portions. Dark chocolate is actually beneficial to the cardiovascular system, according to quite a few studies, so consuming it in reasonable amounts is in fitting with my philosophy of, "Eat only things that have at least some nutritional value".

The concept of onegaishimasu you are describing actually makes a lot of sense to me: it reminds me of the notions of saying "please" and "thank you", though in a more tangible and concrete form. Basically, the showing of respect by exchanging something. I am "informally" trying to teach myself Japanese, with a combination of anime, songs, and language-lesson CDs and I do think that knowing more than one language can open new avenues of thought for a person, since there are truly some things that just do not translate. In a sense this can be analogous to the internal "language" of thoughts that everyone has inside them...sometimes the mere fact that any human is able to communicate with any other human boggles my mind. There are many things that do not seem initially "translatable" and some things that may remain forever unspoken, a communication only between the self and the self. But there are also many things that can be eventually shared and there is common ground that can be reached between people.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Lisa/Jedi said...

Thanks, Zilari!

It's funny how defensive I've become about not carefully restricting B's sugar consumption the way so many parents we know do... I use chocolate "medicinally" (therapeutically?) for myself & swear by the results, so I will never be persuaded that it's poison :)

After about 2 months of Japanese lessons, it occurred to me that B's learning about another culture's social customs will also help him to reflect on his own culture's social interactions, giving him yet another tool for understanding how to connect with others. He is very concerned about being able to communicate with Japanese kids, too. We hope to go to Japan in June 2007, & I think it will be interesting for our whole family to experience the social dislocation B feels daily. It will give us some valuable insights, I think...


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