As an adolescent and teenager, I often observed Lent by giving up some treat that I’d normally regularly indulge in. The two main ones I can remember right now are chocolate and soda. I don’t recall going crazy on Mardi Gras beforehand–actually, I’ve never really done anything for Mardi Gras–but on the years I gave up chocolate, I excitedly awaited Easter and the accompanying basket of goodies.

There were times when I would fast for a day as well, drinking only water, looking forward to the next day when I could eat again and the food would be twice as sweet.

I used to think these periods of stringent self-denial helped to build willpower. Now, though, I think that they didn’t, at least for me. A critical problem is that I always knew they would end. And once they ended, I’d celebrate by overindulging. That’s not willpower, really…it’s more like anticipation. It’s not behavior modification, but simply a deferral of desire. True willpower–at least in the “ideal”–would be to give something up forever, without hope of ever regaining it. Realistic willpower would be to make small changes in habits and diet over time, maintaining them for the rest of your life.

A friend has been exploring the paradigm of denial and indulgence in western culture, the “I deserve it” mindset, the outlook that one has been “good” or “bad” and that food can act as a reward or comfort. It’s interesting to see her take on this. She didn’t grow up within it, at least not in the same way I did. (To be fair, my family has always rejected the “I deserve it” mindset, but the other pieces are there.) My friend observes all this with a sort of bemusement and detached frustration. One of her thoughts is that this approach toward food demonstrates a lack of discipline, and she identifies “pre-1970s” as a time when the people of America had “values” rather than “obsessions”.

While this somewhat smacks of the “good old days” fallacy, I think she may be on to something, at least in terms of the relationship of Americans to food. Food is so plentiful here that it has become just as much a consumer product as anything else, and we are nothing if not a consumer culture. And as a consumer culture, we continually demand more for less. Even as the quality of food declines with price, we buy and eat more of it, because we feel we are getting a good deal.

As an example, I used to make and eat an entire box of macaroni and cheese myself. Why not eat it all? It was delicious. I’d offer some to Sean, but he’d always decline, saying he didn’t eat macaroni and cheese by itself; if he ate it, he wanted it with a meal. Sean, who was raised with significantly different food values than me, was, quite frankly, horrified by my eating habits. He doesn’t generally air complaints if he doesn’t think they matter in the grand scheme of our marriage, so I’m not sure I fully grasped just how grotesque he found my relationship to food until I started to share his opinion. And that didn’t come until after I had weight loss surgery, and I started eating more the way he eats. Now I look back at the way I used to eat and it seems shocking, unbelievable.

We were out at Ted’s Montana Grill with friends not too long ago and I tried a small taste of their chips and dip. The dip is an amazing French onion that I enjoyed very much. I related how I used to like to sit with a huge bag of Ruffles and a tub of French onion dip and just eat and eat and eat. And then I paused. “This has been a ‘This Is Why You’re Fat’ moment!” I concluded into the awkward silence. I’m not sure that I would have confessed such a thing before having weight loss surgery, or that I would have been able to make a joke about it.

My friend argues that our food obsession has Judeo-Christian roots. She points to the language used in advertising, phrases like “you deserve it”, “reward yourself”, “indulge”, “sinful”. These phrases either offer the consumer a reward for being “good” or encourage the consumer to be “bad”. Either way, they play on a cultural obsession with good and evil that is invisible to those of us who grew up with it. It’s odd to my friend mainly because it’s so alien. (Imagine how other religions are depicted in American media, when they are depicted at all. They seem foreign, unknown. Often all that can be done to make them acceptable is to add humor. Other attempts often feel preachy.)

It is fascinating to me to take a step back and see my own culture as it’s perceived by someone with one foot firmly in it and one foot firmly in another, or by someone completely outside it. I enjoy having my expectations and understanding shaken. I like to think about what it all means, how much of me has been shaped by my culture, whether there are universal values…there is so much to explore and try to grasp. More than one could ever hope to study in a lifetime.

I haven’t observed Lent in many years. At this point, in terms of food, there’s not much more I could give up anyway. But I’m glad I took part when I was younger, even if the lesson I learned was different from the lesson I thought I was learning. And I’m glad to have my culture, something that is mine, a place that is cozy and known. No matter how philosophical I want to get about it, it will always be my home, and a place of love.

Kinda mean, kinda true

I hit up “The Artistic History of Webcomics” at the Webcomics Examiner today (via Gabe). The article is basically a group of comics-knowledgeables discussing some of the most artistically influential webcomics. There’s some interesting stuff there, but one comment really struck me.

In the part about Fred Gallagher and Megatokyo, Shaenon Garrity writes the following:

And, yes, I’m a little baffled by its popularity. […]

The best explanation I can give is that Gallagher has tapped into things that a lot of American manga fans like about manga, and they’re not necessarily the same things that make manga popular in Japan. For a lot of Western otaku, Japan fills the same function as Middle-Earth or Starfleet or twelfth-century England does for other flavors of geek: it’s a fantasy world where everything is attuned to their desires and, if they could magically get there, they wouldn’t feel like outsiders anymore. In this Japan, nerds are the ruling class, video games and comic books abound, cutting-edge high-tech toys flood the streets, and everyone dresses in cool, crazy fashions. And, of course, hot teenage girls fight each other for the right to hook up with introverted geeks. This fantasy version of Japan is seductive to a certain young, tech-saavy, socially awkward but culturally aware type — the type that increasingly dominates the Internet. Megatokyo delivers the fantasy in full: it’s about two American fanboys who move to Japan and, aside from some early fish-out-of-water difficulties, discover that it’s exactly the way it’s depicted in manga.

She has a point.

There are a lot of people who say they want to live in Japan…and yet have never set foot in the country. And I don’t mean they say it theoretically, like, “Oh, it’d be nice to live there.” I mean they go so far as to make serious plans–and if they find themselves unable to make the move, to sigh wistfully about it all the freaking time. (While I am guilty of the latter, at least I have actually been to Japan.)

It scares me that people seem to think they understand Japan because they watch anime, read manga, and listen to the music.

I’ve noticed myself making assumptions about culture or language based on input from those media, and I always have to stop myself and put a little disclaimer tag on the thought in my brain: This is not fact. This is a guess, based not on actual experience but on observing a stylized product.

Not only that, but I’ve picked up quite a few phrases from anime that I surely shouldn’t use in polite company. In fact, I seriously wonder whether anyone would ever really say the things you hear in anime at all.

One of my Japanese language or culture professors at UK (sadly, I can’t remember if it was Inoue-sensei or Slaymaker-sensei) explained once that written works in Japanese are done in plain form, for efficiency if I’m remembering correctly. There are two main forms of the language, plain and polite. As you can guess, plain is more abrupt and familiar and is considered quite rude if used in the wrong context. Polite is typically more extended. Newspapers, novels, manga, and even anime (a visual art, but still one that is initially written) are therefore all done primarily in plain form.

In other words, the way an anime character says something may not be the way you want to say it, and if you base your understanding of the language solely on anime, you may be in for some problems. Or, as I put it to my friends once, “I’m going to get to Japan and start having conversations, and they’re going to think Why does she talk like a rude twelve-year-old boy?

It’s hard not to romanticize Japan, or certain aspects of the Japanese experience. I find myself very strongly attached to high school anime. Sports, dramas, shoujo romances, you name it…if it’s got seishun, I’m there. Sometimes it’s almost painful to remind myself that even if I do move to Japan, I’m not going to have that experience. I’m not going to be a Japanese high school student, and I will never be able to truly relate to those who have been. And, to be perfectly honest, high school life couldn’t possibly be as wonderful as it’s portrayed in anime.

The most dramatic example of the idealized high school experience that I’ve seen is a tragic series called Kimi ga Nozomu Eien. The series actually moves past high school and into an adult life that seems more like a trap than anything else. While it’s true that the central tragedy of the series is a large reason behind the dark tone of the characters’ adult lives, it’s also true that the characters’ situations would not have changed much if the tragedy hadn’t occurred. Once high school was over, the adventure would have been over too. The characters might have been happy, or happier at least, but Takayuki probably still would have gone on to a job in the same town, and Mitsuki would have had to give up swimming eventually and become an O.L. just like she did in the anime. The two both gave up college due to the tragedy, but even if they had gone I got the feeling that they would only have been delaying the inevitable: entrance into the workforce, and acceptance of drudgery for the rest of their days. Compared to that, their time in high school, with the excitement of dating and tests and after-school activities and the promise of an open future waiting for them to write their names on it…well, there really is no comparison. Kimi ga Nozomu Eien is about loss of innocence, and what better way to analogize than to present that stereotypical seishun and then snatch it away?

I feel, therefore, that anime invokes a good deal of nostalgia when presenting high school life (and life in general), and that this can (and does) give misguided impressions to people from other countries. This is, of course, not anime’s fault. Anime is an art form, not a cultural primer. And that’s what people, the people Shaenon Garrity’s talking about (and me), need to remember.