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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Three Triangulations and a Takeaway
My italki.com friend Tomoko runs half-marathons. When she runs them in Japan, the spectators will encourage her by shouting, "Keep it up!", "You can do it!" and the like. When she ran in Honolulu, though, she was surprised to hear the spectators shouting "Good job!" While one set of spectators exhorted her to finish what she had started, the other congratulated her on having tried in the first place.

Does this reflect a deep cultural difference between Japan and USA? And if so, on which side of the line would the British fall? I've never spectated at a marathon (I can think of few things less interesting if one didn't know anyone personally, except perhaps watching a cycle race), but I find it hard to imagine Brits shouting "Good job!" On the other hand, "You can do it!" seems only marginally more plausible. A sprinkle of polite applause is what you'd get if all the people were like me, but the ability to ululate enthusiastically is now commonplace among younger folk, so perhaps that's what marathon runners are used to hearing here.

In America, "Happy Halloween!" appears to be a common greeting (at this time of year, at least), and it has been taken up in Japan too, to judge by this video of the celebrations at Shibuya crossing. To my ears, though, it seems an oxymoron. Halloween might be enjoyable in a ghoulish way, but happy? It just doesn't sit right.

While American-style trick-or-treating has been well established in this country for a while now (I met my first trick-or-treater in York in 1984), it's interesting that we've not adopted the same dress customs. Ghosts, witches, and other scary stuff, sure - but not superheroes, not cross-dressing, not cartoon characters. Again, we've filtered out anything that makes Halloween "fun" rather than at least nominally scary. (The Japanese, as you can see, have followed the American route here.)

Tomoko tells me that in Japan it's common to ask someone "How old do you think I am?" or "How old do I look?" I told her that in my opinion this was a question with no answer safe from giving offence, and therefore should never be asked - except possibly by the kind of very old person who sees longevity as their proudest achievement and will generally answer themselves before anyone else has a chance. It does seem odd to me that a culture rivalling my own in terms of giving a wide berth to potential causes of offence should find this question unproblematic: I think it can only mean that the Japanese are just less hung up about age than most Westerners, and that this is seen as a safe, neutral topic, like the weather.

On Whiteladies Rd on Saturday lunchtime there's a stall that combines two of my favourite things: Japanese food and puns. It's called "She Sells Sushi". And she does. I bought half a dozen takoyaki, topped generously with katsu sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed sprinkles and bonito flakes. What charmed me most was that this was all served in a disused egg box.


Now isn't that a dainty dish to set before a king? (They were yummy, too.)

I'm growing to like Halloween. When I was a child, it was just an occasion to draw pictures of witches riding on broomsticks. The pictures would then be stuck on the classroom wall as a run up to the real celebration of Bonfire Night. But there's so much more you can do with Halloween that it's not that surprising that we're now taking it back, and adapting it to fit our own culture better.

The only thing I associate it with in my own childhood is apple-bobbing, not a very a thrilling pastime when there was the excitement of making a guy in prospect!

Being an American, it took me a moment to register what on earth the phrase "making a guy" meant. (I do know: it's just totally not part of our culture.)

My father (an art teacher) was rather good at this, and helped us. Then we'd spend a few days doing "Penny for the Guy" (cf. Eliot's "The Hollow Men") before a back-garden bonfire. We looked with scorn on organized firework displays, and did our (happily unsuccessful) best to aim our rockets at the chimney of the brewery malthouse over the stream. Ah, happy nights...

My mind went to a rather similar phrase that means something VERY DIFFERENT.

Oh, my mind went briefly to some strange places indeed.

What a delightful post! I envy you that takoyaki.

"Way to go!" and "Looking strong!" are my standbys as a U.S. spectator. I know from being a race participant that "Almost there!" will make runners want to kill you.

Runners also tell each other "good job," a lot as they pass, and it can be from the faster to the slower runner or vice versa. At least in the back of the pack... I assume elites don't have time for that stuff til after the race.

I find it hard to imagine saying "Good job!" to someone I was overtaking without it sounding either a) sarcastic or b) as if I were pointing out that I myself was doing an even better job. Perhaps this is why I never took up running competitively...

Americans often say, "You go, girl!" It's obviously some kind of encouragement or praise, but I've never been able to parse its meaning beyond such generalities.

Words of encouragement are strange. I really like the Mandarin, "Jia you," - I mean, I just like the way it sounds and use it with my friends in Asia all the time - but to shout the English equivalent, "Add oil!" would be quite odd, even though the metaphor of encouragement does sort of make sense.

I think the nearest British equivalent to that would be "Give it some welly". [Being Englished, "welly"=Wellington boot; "to welly it"=to drive a car as if wearing Wellington boots, with one's foot heavy on the accelerator pedal; "Give it some welly"=put some effort into it.] But that still carries the implication "You're not trying as hard as you could", which is a very backhanded kind of encouragement.

I was in grad school when my mother died, and I recall getting a sympathy card from the university library staff I worked with as a student. One of the staff, who was, I think, from mainland China, wrote "Be strong!" Of course I recognized that expression as proceeding from a different culture about what to say on a sympathy card, and I didn't hold it against her, but it made me wince quite a bit. I didn't actually want to be strong just then, and it didn't seem to me I should have to. Mostly I didn't want to be told to be anything.

"Happy Halloween" is a new phrase: it wasn't around in my childhood, as far as I recall. It's part of one of those unthinking logical progressions: Halloween is a holiday, holidays are supposed to be happy, therefore you say "Happy N" where [N] is the name of the holiday.

That's plausible - especially with the added attraction of alliteration.

Which is why I like to say [χ]appy [χ]anukah.

Alliteration can be a difficult force to resist! From ngram:

Google Books usage of "Happy Halloween", 1800-2000

Edited at 2015-11-01 08:58 am (UTC)



Dichotomy between Japan and US (UK) Face. Loss of. As for Hallowe'en, I am not a Yank so do not "celebrate" it. My American pals and cousins think the Limeys are retarded as it is a big teen thing here - no kid over 8 or 9 would do it in the USA.

We get at least as many teens trick-or-treating at our (Stateside) house as children. (Saturday night, I mostly saw children, but we were with a little and the teens-time is distinctly shifted later.)


Age is very much a safe topic in Vietnam, and is almost the first thing that a new acquaintance (including strangers at bus-stops etc) will ask. This is partly because the answer might make a difference to the pronoun-equivalent words used (ie whether to say "older sister" or "younger sister" etc) but partly because people don't tend to see age as a negative. (And very old people are exactly as you describe - self-congratulatorily eager to say how old they are. :) )

That's a very good point about the "older sister"/"younger sister" thing. Indeed, once we'd established our respective ages Tomoko said, "Ah, then I'm your onee".


Halloween or All Hallows Eve is a long-standing Scottish Festival ("Halloween" comes from "All Hallows E'en"/Evening). Turnips were carved into lanterns, ghost stories were told, nuts were roasted on the fire as a form of fortune telling, and young people played games that were supposed to foretell who they would marry. Later on, females dressed as males and vice versa (in order to 'trick' the spirits that were supposed to walk on that night.

Scots took their traditions with them to America when they emigrated.