How Do You Justify Your Customs?


Where you are from: what you say and what you do.

In Hebrew, there is a phrase which is the foundation of identity, category and worth. The term we use to gauge this is “shibboleth” - the basis of dialectic and mainstream speech. Hebrew has no written vowels (just consonants), and how you pronounce the words you read determines whether you are from one group or another; if you are part of the organization or an outsider. (The phrase “word test” comes to mind: in America, it all hangs on how you say the word “important” - if the first 't' is said as 't' or 'd'.) 

When you have grown up and travelled all over, you tend to take a few shibboleth with you and discard others. One friend has likened this life process to flying in a hot air balloon, where some items taken with you necessitate a few being tossed (lovingly) out of the wicker basket to keep the craft aloft.  I like the analogy. 

For me, I'd like life to be a big, red, round, spinning Chinese table - take what you want now and keep the rest for later. Unfortunately, it is more like walking through a patch of sword-grass on the way out from the parking lot to the beach: you are going to get cut. You might even remember the scars later, but it’s the first dash into salt water that makes you gasp, realizing something’s up - the glimmer of recognition that something was done which wasn't expected, or accepted locally. 

This is how many of my life experiences played out - not realizing I’d cut my legs and going in for a swim anyway; not realizing I got a paper cut reloading the copier, until I applied my hand sanitizer.  A couched phrase, a hesitant pause in a question, or a glare at something I said or did, were all telltale cues I have learned to catch. 

To add to this minefield, I wasn't limited to tripping over verbal shibboleth alone, there was shibboleth by actions too. My least favored one: being criticized for not “doing Christmas right" while I was growing up.  'This is how we do it here.' The unspoken part was “what’s the matter with YOU?” 

It was unfair. What is the correctly prescribed way to do anything? Whose rules are we playing by? And do we have to?

When I was a kid growing up on Guam, Christmas trees were like Mexican gang cars in Los Angeles, California. The bigger and better and more tricked out your tree or low rider was, the better the experience and the recognition you received. It was symbolic capital that would make French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu tingle in justification. 

Trees went up the day after Thanksgiving (late November) and stayed up until January 5th (Three Kings Day). My family put the artificial tree up with small lights, maybe on the 10th of December, and took it all down before New Year. So what was wrong with us? On an island where bigger and brighter lights meant a happier Christmas, our little indoor lights on a fake tree were criticized as being unjustly against Christmas spirit. Once, one of our neighbors even asked us if we had enough money to purchase a real tree. It didn’t matter that my Mom’s Germanic origins have her preprogrammed to put the tree up just before Christmas and take it down soon after.

No, on Guam, Christmas wasn’t officially in full swing until someone’s house burned down because their tree, (decked with big, hot, hazardous, outdoor lawn lights) had dried up underneath all its finery and then rebelliously ignited. When fire trucks' flashing lights and hoses replaced blinking bulbs and tinsel, yuletide was in full swing. I used to ask myself  "is being homeless during the holiday season worth it?" To some, clearly it was.

Fly with me three hours north, to where I live now. Things aren't looking much better. In Japan, they mounted a swaddled figure on a cross on the top of a department store, and on Christmas Eve, they removed the cloth to reveal a teddy bear, crucified. Merry Christmas.

Christmas here in Tokyo (despite the one-time bear crucifixion), is, in fact, more like Valentine’s Day. It's usually for couples at expensive restaurants and is not celebrated by large groups. If you wanted a sizeable gathering, it would have to be at home with Kentucky Fried Chicken, just like the Americans do it (as advertised on Japanese TV). 

Yes. Come to think of it, we used to take KFC along when we went to office parties and PTA in America, but it's the main course at Christmas dinner in Japan (followed by strawberry shortcake for dessert). Where we in the West also have our holiday dinner on the 25th, Japan dances a different jig. 

When the current emperor’s grandfather died - Taisho Tenno - on Christmas Day, it was considered in poor taste to jingle our bells during the death anniversary of the late emperor (even if the Taisho Emperor had been senile and locked away from public view for years before his death). The compromise was simple. Christmas was moved back to the 24th to avoid bad “joo-joo.” Keep in mind a couple of years before his death, Tokyo had been utterly ground up and burned in a huge earthquake too; so why antagonize your ancestors further? Far better to reinvent Christmas, no?

Years later the Showa Emperor was apparently on life support before Christmas. Rather than ruin the mercantile splurge for the economy, and cause an issue with dynastic reign changes to the calendar so late in the year, the Imperial Household Agency decided it would serve the country best if the Emperor’s demise could be delayed past Christmas and New Year. His death was announced on January 5 (two successive emperors passing at the same time would have indeed been bad luck).

Here I am in Tokyo with my little fake tree and my mother's Germanic mania for things in places they should be, when they should be. My plastic tree wasn't such a holiday oddity, after all, was it? 

Along with the balloon baskets of life, and hazards of beach grass, the trellis of my life experiences has been a melange of "it’s okay" and "is that okay/safe/even possible?"

This was how my existence was shaped.

In Spain, my mother horrified our maid one morning by placing an arrangement of oranges on the coffee table. We had a tree in the backyard of our little villa, much loved and pillaged by gypsies. We lived off-base on the Spanish economy.  My mother would go out to the market and pick up goods to feather the nest. 

She has a good eye and her creativity adds that little bit extra, which made for wonderful compliments on homes we lived in through the years. True, we never had a “fun” house, no hammock in the living room and no pinball machine in the den, but we did have an old chamberpot full of oranges on our coffee table. The Spaniards recognized what it was. The Americans just thought it was an antique bowl. “But, señora! It’s a chamber pot! Is that safe? Is that okay?” gasped the maid. She was addressing the lady of the house, my mother, the Queen of Ammonia and the Viscountess of Chlorox. “I washed it with hot water before I used it to put in the oranges. It's okay.” I don’t think the maid ever touched the used “thunder mug” the entire time she worked for us. If she did it was with mitts made out of newspaper.

How you navigate your life through these customs/experiences will say a lot about you. Do you change them or make do as best you can? Are you so rigid you won’t entertain them at all because they cannot be done the way you did back home? 

I can bend. Whether I do or not depends on if the mood strikes me. Sometimes practicality is the motivator. You don’t have to have Thanksgiving on a table, it can be done on a door, with postal boxes beneath, and everyone sitting Ottoman style/Indian cross leg/hippy plop on the floor - choose your phrase. I have entertained up to 8 on my living room sliding door, and part of the fun was testing the waterproof table cloth with wine, and peeking at the boxes used as legs under the 'table'. “Oh, look! No shet! (Hawai’ian for ‘“shit”, and the apostrophe is also a shibboleth) It IS a door!” Everyone laughs. There was always a toast to the carpenter who fashioned my door and the department store that sold me that green tablecloth. “Ole!”

Others benefit from rigidity. Let me illustrate it this way. Until 1970, Fiji was not independent. My last story takes place after - when there was a US embassy presence on the islands. (My final shibboleth: are you on Guam or in Guam? Locally, it's 'on.' There is no understanding of the territorial concept of 'in'. So people who lived there a while said 'on Guam' and those who were newly deposited in the territory were 'in Guam', and unlearned or stubbornly retarded.)

So here we are in Fiji in the 1970's with the US embassy staff running all things like John Foster Dulles - lists and promises. What is July 4th Independence Day without a barbeque? Nothing. Wave the flag, skip the parade but by God, fire up the barbeque! And where's the pickle relish for the hotdogs and hamburgers? We could go on and on about the “proper way” to accessorize a hotdog, but I need to get to the green stuff. 

Some buffoon staffer forgot to order the pickle relish every year. Every year! And each year an American woman who shouldn't have been invited got invited. Why? Because each year she came back from her American trip with a huge glass jar of pickle relish in her suitcase. She banked on the Embassy to forget so she could contribute her store of relish to attend the barbeque. Fair enough. More than fair if you think of the weight of her suitcase and the valuable space she sacrificed. One year they did not invite her.

24 hours prior to the event a panicked minion called the relish lady up and asked if she has the relish, they don’t have any. She asks if she is invited, they say no, could she just drop off the relish at the Embassy, it is a smaller party this year? “Too bad, I will be celebrating the 4th with my bottle of relish at home, then." End of story: she is invited and the relish holds pride of place in the condiments section. Let’s refer to the flexible and rigid aspects of this tale as cultural yin and yang - sometimes without one there would be no other. 

I think of my State Department friend in Fiji every time I see a bottle of pickle relish. And it makes me smile (someone watching me in a supermarket probably thinks I have a thing for relish in jars with tight labels. If they only knew). 

Oh, I could have grown up in Nebraska, I suppose, and gone to church every Sunday, played baseball, raked leaves, shoveled snow and bought my fresh cut Christmas tree at the local hardware store with a regularity that would rival a Swiss watch - and I know deep down I would have been good at it, and happy as a clam. But looking over my shoulder at my life and thinking of other possibilities, I am happy I am where I am now, with the people I've met and the friends I've made.

It is what I am. It is where I'm from.