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Valentine's Day

Who would have thought that Lunar New Year AND Valentine's Day AND Family Day all decided to come right after one another! I was completely overwhelmed and disoriented when it came to preparing themed content. But anyways, here is a small thing about having to do stuff for Valentine's Day. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Valentine's Day is endlessly frustrating. For many different reasons. In my case, it was because I was a clueless foreigner working in a Japanese office in my mid twenties. I didn't know how their society works, and I still don't. But I imagine that some guy, at some business meeting once suggested: “Wouldn't it be cool if every woman gave chocolate to all their male co-workers on Valentine's Day?” And nobody objected. So this became a tradition like eating turkey on Thanksgiving, except the women had to do all the cooking and none of the eating.

Almost as soon as New Years ended, LOFT the stationary/everything store, started putting their Valentine's Day jingle on blast. This jingle was sung by the cherubic voices of a boys choir. It had only one phrase in it, “Valentine's Day”. Not “I love Valentine's Day”, or “Happy Valentine's Day”, or even “It's Valentine's Day”. It was simply “Valentine's Day”. And no other lyric. As a reminder to people that this Holiday was coming up, so they'd better hurry up and buy chocolate. The jingle bombarded my brain a million times in 15 minute, alongside a continuous stream of “irasshaimase, dozo gorankudasaimase!” (Welcome to the store, feel free to have a look around!). The poor clerks had to repeat this darn sentence all day long, at 30 second intervals. It was a slow form of torture to both them and the customers. The first part of that sentence was always muttered quietly and quickly as if they were trying to get it over and done with. But for some reason, the last syllable “se”, was always pronounced loudly and dragged out, as if singing their hearts out at the karaoke. To someone who didn't speak Japanese, it just sounded like they were yelling “Sehhhh” over and over like a broken record. This created a disorienting effect, especially when overlay-ed with the repetitive Valentine's Day jingle. I couldn't tell if the purpose was to express enthusiasm, or telling you to hurry up, buy something and get out.

Who do I give chocolate to? Would it be weird if I gave people chocolate 'cause I'm a foreigner? Would they think I had a crush on them?? What kind of chocolate should I get that would read “co-worker chocolate, not romantic chocolate”? Feeling dizzy from all the thoughts and the never-ending background of “Sehhhhh” and “Valentine's Day”, I went home empty-handed. I consulted my advisor and a couple of other teachers, they all told me no, I really didn't have to give any chocolate. But I was doubtful. I had developed a habit of “reading between the lines”, because I'd heard that the Japanese didn't always mean what they say. Growing up, my parents had often said that I “didn't have an eye for detail” and “didn't read the air” (these are Asian ways of saying you're socially inept). That insecurity was not a good combination coupled with my eagerness to please. I was on a constant lookout for stuff in the air that I was missing, and trying to claw my way through every crack between every line to make sure nothing escaped.

After much procrastination and missing the opportunity to buy anything at all, I decided to make chocolate chip cookies the night before Valentine's Day. I figured, if I made these by hand, then they wouldn't read as anything but wholesome, home-made baked goods from a Canadian. The next day, I gave one to Yamakawa, the young teacher who sat next to me. This was well-received. Yes! I'd successfully “read the air”! You people told me not to give chocolate, which meant: GIVE CHOCOLATE. And I did. I'd successfully gamed the system. Take that, mom and dad, I'm officially socially-aware young adult navigating the world across cultures!

This was all well and good, until the next day. Yamakawa was acting strangely. We used to chat every morning in broken English and even more broken Japanese for a little bit before classes started. He was always generous and full of charming English sayings like “it's raining cats and dogs”. But today, he only nodded to acknowledge my existence, and then completely turned away to bury himself in paperwork. Maybe he's just not in a good mood? This behaviour continued the next day, and the one after. It was increasingly clear that he was avoiding me at all costs. Eventually, I learned that hand-made stuff carried a different meaning to the Japanese. It's not “wholesome gift from Canadian friend”, but more “I am in love with you and I would like you to date me”. Silence was Yamakawa's way of telling me he definitely didn't want to date me. I wanted to shout. I didn't want to date him!! I was just trying to read the air! And even if I did, he didn't need to avoid me like I was the Grim-reaper, did he?

The next year, I didn't give any more chocolate.


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