Back in 1991, my sister was one of two recipients of the Monbusho Scholarship sent to the University of Osaka in Japan for a one year Japanese language and cultural studies. Having caught up with her for a chit chat (or perhaps it was snail mail, as it was still during the days where common folk like us didn’t have email accounts), she told me that after living there for a couple of weeks, she had invested in a non-negotiable item – a pair of curling tongs. She told me that EVERY lady in Japan styled her hair before going outdoors and that she had gotten herself a pair so that she could also style her hair and not stand out like a sore thumb along the public transport system. True enough, when I went to visit her later that year, I noticed that every female I saw on the train did have perfect curls. And this is just one of a few little nuances about the Japanese culture which my sister picked up and took on up to today. Yes, she still styles her hair every morning before leaving the house… I think.
Just how much of the Japanese gene did I inherit from my mom? Not much. In fact, perhaps not even a shred. One morning, my husband and I were getting ready for work in the home we just moved into, and he asked to borrow my comb or hair brush because he had forgotten to bring his along when he moved his belongings in. He was stunned when I told him that I didn’t own a comb or brush and didn’t intent to. How then do I brush my hair? I just run my fingers through it.
My sister discovered a few other things about the Japanese during that one year in Japan. She used to wonder at the perfectly formed strawberries that the grocery stores sold. Surely there were the odd shaped strawberries? Did the Japanese farmers simply throw them away? Well, guess what? One day, a Japanese friend brought her out through the back door of a neighbourhood grocery store, and there, in a corner, was a supply of “deformed strawberries.” They which were actually perfectly good strawberries—just not in that perfect shape the Japanese wanted—sold for half price. That was where the foreign students would get their stash of sweet and cheap strawberries, and other imperfectly shaped fruits such as peaches and cherries for half price.
The Japanese also had another strange nuance in the 1990s. They had to have the latest model electrical appliance. In Singapore, we’d buy a washing machine and use it until it breaks down right? We’d only change our TV display sets only if our current one breaks down, or if we really want the new state-of-the-art new technology appliance, which is once every decade, correct? Not the Japanese (well, at least not in the 90s). Each year, when the major brands came up with new models with slight modifications from the previous one, people would buy the new models and dump their old sets. The foreign students knew where the “dumping” second-hand mega-stores were located and would go there to get cheap one-year old electrical appliances for a fraction of what the latest models were priced in retail stores.
And, have you ever seen those cute cockroach killer houses from Daiso and Japan Home? Well, they have been around in Japan for decades, or at least as early as a quarter of a century ago in the 1990s when my sister was studying there. I remember seeing a “cockroach” house at the front step of her room and peering in to have a look to see if there were any dead cockroaches. Now tell me, do any of you use that in your homes today? Well, if you don’t, you are perhaps 25 years behind the Japanese in domestic pest control practices. I wonder if they have similar paper houses for lizard traps. It would be funny to see them pasted up along the wall near the ceiling.