Bridging Cultures—Those Within Me

P1030588Readers of this blog may know that I spent quite a few formative years in Japan, living there most of the time from seventeen to 32 years of age. It is one of three countries I consider “home:” USA, Japan, and Mexico. Wherever I am, I miss the other two dearly.

So what’s a global nomad to do? Share, of course. With those I love.

I am blessed here, after eight years full-time, with a couple of groups of incredibly talented, intelligent, loving and fun-loving girlfriends. I thank God for them every day; they are truly amazing. It took me a long while to find them, these soul sisters. They are artists, cooks, business women, housewives, teachers.

I wanted to cook them some authentic Japanese food, share with them a taste of my other self. It’s really hard to find some of the ingredients here in Mazatlán, so when Greg and I went to Tucson over MotoWeek I bought some of the ingredients I’d need—dried seaweed, dried bonito flakes, renkon or lotus root, dried shiitake.

I invited my beloved girlfriends to come on Monday, the day between US Mother’s Day and Mexican Mother’s Day. I would celebrate them. We were all excited. I cooked most of the day on Sunday, enjoying myself immensely. I also cooked all afternoon Monday. I made:

  • Ebi-shinjo, or shrimp balls.
  • Two kinds of stock: shrimp and tuna, the latter flavored with shiitake as well.
  • Nimono, stewed veggies, using the tuna stock. I cut the carrots into flower shapes, I soaked and peeled the celery, I soaked and trimmed the shiitake, I got creative and used palmitos as I didn’t have take-no-ko or baby bamboo. Japanese food is nothing if not putzy.
  • Chawan-mushi, steamed egg custard, using the shrimp stock, and adding root veggies (goboh, renkon), fish, shrimp and shiitake. It’s one of my favorite dishes. Making and steaming 13 little cups took a lot of time on my little stove!
  • Ohitashi, boiled spinach, squeezed and trimmed, then covered with sesame seeds.
  • Nasubi-yaki, grilling the cutest little baby eggplants that I’d bought at the Farmers’ Market, then covering them with bonito flakes or katsuo-bushi.
  • Sake no miso-yaki, or salmon grilled in miso sauce. This was the easiest to cook, and is something I make often, though usually not using salmon. It’s a family favorite.
  • Kani, kyuuri to wakame no sunomono, or pickled crab, cucumber and seaweed salad. This is what my Japanese mother always makes for me when I come home. Just the thought of it warms my heart, say nothing of the taste!

Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

My, did I have fun! However, on Sunday evening, towards the tail-end of my first round of cooking, I suddenly realized, “My friends are going to hate this food!” I love it; it’s near and dear to my heart. It’s part of me. But they like food that pops in your mouth, full of flavor. Japanese traditional home cooking is subtle, the flavors are comforting, perhaps indistinguishable to a Mazatlecan palate. And this sort of Japanese cooking is not so colorful: it has lots of dark browns (shiitake) and greys (root veggies), with a splash of orange carrot or bright green spinach here and there. Oh dear.

Cooking Japanese is a lot of work. I didn’t cook gourmet; I made home cooking. But, with the difficulty getting the ingredients here in Mazatlán, and the hours it takes to make the stocks, trim the veggies, fish and seafood just so, and put together six small dishes for each of 13 guests… Well, I realized I was cooking this for ME, not for THEM! This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself: showing my girlfriends a very important part of who I am, how I came to be. Of course they wouldn’t have the decades of emotion behind the food I was offering them; they’d just be tasting what I put in front of them. But they love me, and they know I love it, so, they’ll enjoy it even if it’s not their favorite.

When the big night came, my girlfriends arrived bearing gifts of all sorts: two kinds of incredible pies, a pot of delicious cocido, wine, rolls, cookies, ice cream… Normally when we get together, everyone brings something to share; that makes it easier for everyone and we can just focus on enjoying ourselves, catching up, laughing, and not fussing. Normally, I love it. But tonight would be different.

Greg poured the wine as they came in, and I had set out some dried pickled plums—umeboshi. I figured they wouldn’t like them. Oh was I wrong! They were a hit! We ate sour plums and drank our wine as we watched the sun set.


Photo by Patty Pazos

Afterwards, we were ready to eat. I recruited several girlfriends to help me serve, as we would have to load all those different dishes in individual plates and bowls, one for each of us. The girls seemed to enjoy this part.

Once everything was served, I explained to them how Japanese put their chopsticks horizontally, and Chinese put them vertically. I shared with them a bit about Japanese cooking: that you tend to have something raw, something boiled/stewed, something grilled, something sour or pickled, something steamed. Two of my girlfriends have been to Japan; they know all about this. I explained that they could pick up the dishes, hold them up to their mouths—that such was polite, the custom in Japan. They listened carefully, and thanked me profusely for all the effort I’d put in.

And that was that. The Japanese meal and customs were interesting, but the main course was our enjoying one another’s company. Love trumps knowledge. We ate, laughed, told stories, moaned, commiserated, learned and taught. And, we drank. We discussed our kids, who we want to be, and our summer plans. The night was warm and fresh, the stars were plentiful, the moon was a deep orange. We watched the various fishermen in the bay, bobbing up and down with their lights. We were happy.


Didn’t turn out so bad for a handheld shot…

So, did they like the meal? First off, most everyone asked for forks. No need for those chopsticks. They absolutely loved the salmon, asking me for the recipe. Most of them tasted the chawan-mushi, and left it sitting there. It was a huge bust. 😦 They ate the pickled cucumbers, but not the seaweed. Pieces of the nimono were eaten, but most was left untouched. I’m sure the problem was the color. And the texture. I very much enjoyed eating the rest of it over the next few days, so it didn’t go to waste.

Everyone said it was just too much food. And it was. But, also, it wasn’t to their liking. Oh well. I had fun making it. And the night was great. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset, and the ocean breeze kept us cool while we laughed, talked, and later ate our dessert.

I’m glad I did it. Probably won’t do it again. The experience reminded me that the purpose of getting together is to enjoy one another’s company. One or two Japanese dishes would have been plenty.

Girlfriends, thank you for your friendship. Thank you for smiling and giving it your best shot. I love you. And for you, dear readers, here’s the miso fish recipe:

Baked Miso Fish

The Transience of Friendships in Mazatlán


I’ve lived a lot of places: Wisconsin, the San Francisco Bay area, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hamamatsu, Salamanca, Mexico City, Kansas City… What has been a defining factor of friendships in Mazatlán for me has been transience. Maybe I’m unique, or maybe you’ve had similar experiences?

Many of the most interesting Mazatlecos I’ve met have been world travelers; their children often leave for school, marry and have children abroad, and the parents are then split between worlds. Quite a few of the expats we have met and grown to love here, even though full-timers, have gone home, moved nearer their grandchildren, or moved on to a new location; wanderlust is in their blood. Nationals love it here, but several of those we’ve become most fond of have been called to another city, transferred by their employers or moving because life here has gotten tough or taken a new turn.

In Tokyo or Mexico City, the people I met and loved, Japanese or foreign, tended to be settled there for life. Yes, there are plenty of born and bred Mazatlecos, or people who have lived here 30 years or more. But, somehow, I am able to quite easily count two hands’ worth of fingers of people I’ve loved and lost to moving in the mere eight years I’ve lived here.

There’s sadness in that, of course, but there are upsides as well. We can travel to visit these friends. We can stay in touch over the distance, and share glimpses into life in other areas. And, to me, it’s proof we are blessed here in Mazatlán with friendships with people who are intelligent, interesting and vibrant, people who embrace life fully and who see the world as their home.

One such beloved family we met through our son, Danny. Danny went to secundaria at Colegio Andes with another US American girl, Sierra, and her little brother, Kelton. Her father, Brian, taught there. Heidi, the Mom, works at El Cid, so we still get to see her occasionally, though she splits her time between here and her family in Portland. They moved because they wanted a different, better in their opinion, education for their kids. We miss them dearly. They were fun. They are fun. Adventurous. Curious. Crazy. Global minded. Outdoorsy. They were just a whole lot more fun when they lived here, close by, and we were able to join them for an adventure or to create some memories.

We saw the Samore family on a recent trip to Portland, and of course they come to Mazatlán to visit every once in a while. They’ll be here soon. You may know them and miss them, too.

This morning we were fortunate to receive a copy of an article in the school newspaper of the high school where Brian currently works. I want to share it with you, because it is a testament to the caliber of the people, the kind of weirdness and passion, we are privileged to be able to share space and time with here in Mazatlán. Although we miss them, we are so privileged to be able to call them friends. Whether you live here in Mazatlán, spend part of the year here, or are hoping to move here, we wish you wonderful friendships!


Cultural Differences that my USA/Japanese Self has Experienced in Mazatlán

What are some of the major cultural differences I’ve experienced over the four years I’ve lived in Mazatlán? Surely, as an interculturalist, I should have some insight.

Too often, of course, our professions don’t serve us well in our personal lives; we don’t practice what we preach: the handyman’s home goes untended, the cobbler’s kids don’t have shoes. I trust that’s not blatantly true for me.
First, some qualifiers:

  • The below are gross generalizations. Everything is situational: for every truth the opposite is also true, in a different context or manner.
  • Observations often if not usually tell us more about the observer than about the observed. My perspective is as a USA-born person of a certain age, with a decade-plus of life experience in Japan. That is my bias or starting point.
  • I love differences, and the process of trying to figure out how to navigate new situations. Thus, my thoughts below are not intended to insult (every culture has different styles and habits, as does every person), but rather to explore and try to understand. I am still very much learning and would welcome your insights/teachings. Thanks.

No worries/I belong here: Come into a class or meeting late, even when it has two minutes remaining, and sit down, conveniently, in the end chair, expecting everyone who is already seated to shift their seats (rather than waiting for the class to finish and the next to begin). Push through, nearly pushing someone out of the way, even if the person pushing is a host or retail store employee and the person being pushed is a customer. It’s not rude or inconsiderate; it seems to be a mentality of “we all belong here.”

What’s really cool, in the situations described above, is that people also have a “live and let live” attitude, they lack the “get offended” gene: they move out of the way, they don’t mind a bit of a push; they expect it and allow that the other person has the right to do whatever s/he is doing. As with anything, there are limits….

Another example would be friends who invite themselves over to your house; they miss you. You prepare for their arrival, cooking up a storm, and then they never show. They don’t call, they don’t apologize. It’s the classic “plan ahead/control/honor obligations” mentality vs. a “be spontaneous/life happens” cultural divide, along with a “follow the rules/be polite” (wait to go until invited) vs. “relationship-first/take action” (I want to see her so let’s do it) gap. Plus the fact that my local friends here don’t expect me to fuss or “host” them the way I like to. Or maybe your friends do call, at the last minute, to explain they can’t come. Maybe you see them a few days later, and you ask them what happened. Huh? When? Oh, yeah; something came up. No offense is given, no offense is taken.

Even though in the situations above Mexicans may seem to lack consideration, in other contexts they absolutely demonstrate consideration: Many people remember amazing detail about your life, and the next time they see you they ask, if you had injured your knee even slightly, “How’s your knee?” Or they kindly remember that in passing you had mentioned your son was going camping, and they ask, “How was your son’s campout?” I know that I myself often forget such details. In this regard the communication style seems so considerate, so detail-specific, and reminds me of Japan. And there is definitely an expectation that I remember the same details: where they plan to go on Christmas break, who they will visit, etc. On that score I too often come up short.

Culture of caution: This is not a culture of trust, but rather, in gross generalization, distrust. People seem to expect you, as a buyer, to make sure the item is in good condition before receiving it, to make sure someone has done a good job if they are working for you. There seems to be little assumption of someone having done well. Even when it’s a very good friend who has done something for you, there is an expectation that you will inspect whatever it is and make sure it is done exactly to your liking. Sooo different from my Japanese-self mentality that this one has taken a whole lot of learning.

Negotiation/complaining: This was also a huge learning for me very early on in living here, because we were buying so many things (furniture, appliances, curtains) and contracting so many services (installs of ceiling fans, painting). I had to learn to voice concern or complaint, to negotiate price and timing. My US and Japanese styles absolutely did not work. I needed to be more assertive than I was used to, while also more social/convivial. There was a fine line: hold the negotiation and discussion of complaint tight, pointed, but with a big smile, a quick laugh, an obvious respect for the other person in wording. Much more firm, repetitive and persistent than I was used to. It felt rude to me, especially because I had heard Mexicans were indirect. This aspect of communication felt very direct, overly pushy, but with a nice veneer of a smile, polite language, and relationship-building phrases interspersed throughout. And lots of repetition and rewording.

Lack of thank yous: People in Asia or Europe often say the US is an “I love you” or “cheerleader” culture, with (often-empty) verbal professions of love, apology, thanks, encouragement. So I am obviously biased. But one of the surprises here for me was I’d give a gift, and the person would seem to like it, but would not express appreciation. Maybe admiration for the gift, or acknowledgement in some way. But I would be expecting thanks. The same for invitations to parties, paying for a meal, etc. The words “thank you” are not nearly so common here in my experience, and I wonder if they don’t add distance, a formality between people at the friend level? That sincere feelings don’t require a formulaic response. There is a similar lack of apologies here. Though that is one of my complaints in the USA as well. When a service person makes a mistake, or a vendor doesn’t meet a commitment, they so rarely take responsibility or apologize for the inconvenience. Again, probably my Japanese-influenced expectation. Whether in the US or in Mexico, my propensity to apologize tends to be seen as lacking in self esteem, when very often it is the exact opposite.

Bright side or enjoyment in the face of hardship: This is perhaps the characteristic that I most love and admire in my Mexican friends. They can be so graceful under pressure. We have friends whose house was built by someone they’ve known their whole lives, incorrectly. The roof leaks. The friend always, sort of, helps them fix it, but it’s never really fixed. They’ve now lived with a leaky house for four years. But they never yell, they never express the heightened emotion or frustration I would expect. When the roof starts leaking again they call the builder and start the process of fixing the leak, over and over again. The patience and tolerance is amazing.

This last fall we had horrible flooding in Mazatlán. Over 51 areas of town were inundated with dirty water, killing two children and destroying many homes and lots of furnishings. People worked all week to clean out the water, mud, and muck, and to dry their things. I saw tears, but I also saw lots of laughter. One family of friends, in the midst of their panic while the flood waters rushed into their home, ran out into the street, hugged one another and smiled for their daughter’s camera, yelling “Happy anniversary!” Definitely an admirable way to respond to something you have little control over. I want to learn more of this dignity and empowerment in the face of adversity!

One of the biggest challenges for me adjusting to life here has been that I CRAVE more cultural informants. I was spoiled: living in Japan for so many years, I was blessed with cultural informants and guides; Japanese loved to teach gaijin about Japanese culture. Even when I lived in Spain, I found loads of people who were more than happy to educate me on a daily basis. That has not at all been my experience here in Mexico. My local Mazatleco informants usually disagree with one another about the most simple things, and they are usually very reticent to “teach,” possibly because they just don’t “see,” that they have a culture, though they are very proud of it nonetheless. This place is not so self-reflexive as the one I spent so many years in in Asia. So, I have the “opportunity” to blunder through things and learn by doing a lot more. 🙂

I welcome your thoughts and insights! Enjoy the day!