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This should go without saying, but try to stay away from demons

JAPAN | Tuesday, 9 February 2016 | Views [197]

Wednesday was Setsubon, a day in Japan associated with demons. Specifically, a day associated with avoiding demons through eating or throwing beans.

Facebook Setsubon Wish

Since I hadn't gone to the Super before class on 3 February, the first indication I got that this was a holiday was Yamaguchi-sensei hovering around right outside with a demon mask on waiting for us to notice her. Which we did, and she came in, took off the mask, and talked about Japanese demons and Setsubon.

There's a phrase in Japanese (鬼は外、福は内, literally “demons out, good luck in” which is commonly said on Setsubon. There's also allegedly something about throwing beans at other people, though none of my professors mentioned that. They just told us to eat the beans. Yamaguchi-sensei had a bag to split among the three of us, so we each counted out a bean for every year we'd been alive and ate it. In Culture and Society, there was a bag of the same size for the dozen+ of us in the class, so we took a small and fairly random number, and did not get into a luck-ensuring food fight.

Osaka being Osaka, their particular Setsubon traditions involved food. So, in addition to feeding us beans, Yamaguchi-sensei made us promise that we would eat sushi and fish. The sushi came in a long roll, and we're supposed to eat the entire thing without speaking or setting down the roll.* (Brian had been in the Super that morning, so he could attest that there was a special kind of sushi there.) The fish was an especially smelly kind of fish, so once you eat it you leave the skeleton and head (whimpering noises that she expects me to eat a fish with a head) outside and the demons go “ew, smelly,” and leave you alone.

I did go to the Super lateish in the evening, but they still had plenty of long sushi for sale at a range of different prices. I'm not sure what the differences were because they seemed to be the same size, and according to Yamaguchi-sensei, the ingredients were kind of standardised. But they had them, so I bought one and had it for dinner.

I did not buy, or even look at, the fish. Hopefully someone else in the apartment did their civic duty and stuck a fish skeleton outside. (Diffusion of responsibility for the win.)

Besides the special foods and explanations that came with it being a holiday, Wednesday was kind of boring. Japanese language classes were more of the same, and the culture and society class was still very lecture-based. It did get more interesting when we split into a small group to discuss manners, and even better when we finished that discussion and moved on to less related topics.

One thing I’ve noticed increasingly over this past year (though I’ve encountered it before this point) is that there are only four kinds of responses to “I’m a math major.” No matter what country you’re in or what nationality the people you’re talking to are, their responses will be practically identical (though language might change.)

Response Number 1: “Oh, you must be so smart.” (More common outside of the US, though I’ve certainly gotten that in the US as well, especially when math is paired with a foreign language major.)

Response Number 2: “I was never any good at math.”

Response Number 3: “I never liked math.”

Response Number 4: “Oh! Me too!” (Variants include “I’m a physics major,” “I’m studying computer science,” “I’m an engineer,” etc. Even though they’re not all equivalent, and some are clearly better than others, they’re still in the same category.)

The fourth response is by far the rarest, and will never be paired with any of the others. (“You’re a math major? You must be so smart. I mean, I’m a math major, and I know I’m smart, soooo…”) The first response will sometimes be paired with either of the two following, and response #3 followed by not response #4 (or vice-versa) is another common set.

The issue with these is that, for the number of times I’ve heard these responses, I still don’t have any good ideas for how I react to most of them. If I find another math major, or even an engineer or bio major, I can usually find common ground. But the rest are trickier.

The first response is a compliment, which means you need to find the right way of acknowledging it for the culture you’re in. Which is never an easy task, but given the nature of the compliment, it can be especially tricky, especially in a culture where it’s expected that you’ll brush it off. Because the fact remains that I am a math major, I want to get my PhD in mathematics, and if you think that makes me smart, I can’t really deny any of those things. If there’s enough time and perceived, I might try and explain how their conception of math (calculus and prior) doesn’t match up with what most of my math classes look like at this point, but that won’t usually get my point (that mathematics isn’t that hard) across. In fact, it usually backfires with the other person saying something like “you’re so smart, I don’t even understand what you just said.” People who haven’t seen math since high school have a really hard time adjusting to the idea that I can do entire homework assignments without ever seeing a number. (In theory. In practice assignments usually need numbers for labelling purposes, if nothing else.)

The second and third responses are very similar, and equally challenging. How are you supposed to respond to “I never liked/was never good at math” other than “Oh. I’m sorry. I do/am?” Either of those responses are giving you the opposite of common ground, with the additional risk that it will make you come across as arrogant.

If anyone has any ideas about how to keep a conversation going when I meet a non-math major and tell them what I’m studying in college, please let me know. This is probably going to be a problem for the rest of my life.

Besides adding support to the cross-culturalness of the amazement that mathematics is a subject that real people actually study, I learned that Chicago style pizza is semi-popular in Korea. And it keeps the same name. Because when I said I was from Chicago, the Korean in the group immediately went “Oh! Chicago Pizza!” And, although I’m relatively used to people knowing where Chicago is, (or at least that it exists) I’m not used to people outside the US being familiar with that. For that matter, most of the times that people hear I’m from Chicago and decide to say what they know about Chicago, it’s a negative thing.  “Oh, Chicago! Coooold.” “Oh, Chicago! Windy.” (“Well, actually it’s called that because the politicians… never mind.”) “Oh, Chicago! Gangsters! Al Capone!” So to have someone recognize Chicago a positive attribute of Chicago was really nice.


* This is the second time this post I've used or to be non-exclusive. Just FYI.

Tags: demons, japanese, math, pizza, sushi

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