The Banana Incident(s)
(Editorial Note: Internet has been acquired! We’re back!)
Like any “good person,” I researched quite a bit before starting my new life in Japan. While I had previously experienced some minor ins-and-outs of Japanese culture and etiquette, living by myself was going to be a whole new venture. The first time, I was simply a guest; this time I was a guest with a longer period of stay on my visa. One of the multiple things I prepared myself for was the tradition of “Omiyage,” or the giving of gifts when one enters a new place of employment, comes back from a vacation or moves into a new home. While there were some older JETs that said to not worry about this custom, I thought it surely wouldn’t hurt to try to at least give something.
This would be a lot more confusing than anticipated.
For my neighbors, I decided to purchase the legendary Tokyo Banana. No, I’m not even joking when I say these things are pretty mythical: I’ve heard people down in Kansai talk about the treat that is only grown on Tokyo banana trees*. Imagine a Twinkie, but with an even softer cake and then filled with fresh banana mush. In fact, they’re so fresh they warn you about the expiatory date right on the box, which is usually just under a week. To say the least, they are pretty tasty and are a staple Omiyage for anyone that had just traveled to Tokyo. I can only imagine that it turns into some weird form of pre-baked banana bread if not consumed. *These don’t exist.
I bought a box of 16, enough to give at least give three to my neighbors above, below and to the sides of me. This is kind of a “sorry in advance for being so loud” gift and also a pay-it-forward if you ever need help around the apartment. After prepping my little Japanese speech for each of the recipients, I grabbed my box of bananas.
I decided to work my way down and start with the neighbor above me. I rang the door bell and waited.
After waiting a considerable amount of time, I decided to go down the flight of stairs to the neighbors on my right and left.
Again, no answer.
I started to get a bit worried. Sure, I may appeared to have been a “trying-to-sneak-into-their-apartment-and-kill-them” scary white kid, but my predecessor was a bigger white guy than I was. And he lived here for three years! I couldn’t imagine that having another foreigner move in was going to be that traumatic for the residents.
I rang the bell for the neighbor below me and after about three minutes a petite woman with a small perm opened the door, a little shocked at my presence. Finally with the chance at meeting one of my neighbors, I told her I was a new resident, what my new job was and that I bought these “legendary”* bananas just for my neighbors. As I handed three of them to her, she bolted off, yelling a name that I didn’t quite catch. Not even ringing the doorbell, I saw her run into another apartment when two other, equally petite woman came out. One looked considerably younger than my downstairs neighbor, but the second looked considerably older. My neighbor then began to speak rapid-fire Japanese to them, as she tried to give the other two woman the same bananas I just gave her! The younger and older woman began to tell my neighbor that it was ok, when the youngest turned to me and asked me some basic questions: where I was from, what I was doing here and if I knew the guy who lived in my apartment before me. Downstairs neighbor, with a very soft voice, continued to speak rapid-fire to the younger woman, who replied with reassurance that everything was OK. They all thanked me for the bananas and went back into their rooms. *I didn’t actually say that.
To say the least, I was a bit shelled shocked after this first encounter: why did she rush to the other neighbors? And why did she try to give away the bananas so quickly? I thought this might be another chance to catch one of my other neighbors, so I returned to the neighbor on my right to see if they were home.
As I rang the doorbell, my downstairs neighbor caught me and starting yelling for another name. Then, a man in his late 30s appeared and walked towards me. While I really couldn’t catch everything he said, there were a lot of “It’s really great you did this, but…” and then listed off reasons for, what I can only assume, I really didn’t need to do the task. The man asked me some same beginner questions and then said his final thanks and left. Not really sure what happened, I entered my apartment still with 13 bananas that apparently no one wanted.
A couple of days later I saw the neighbor to my right exit her apartment and we began to talk briefly. She was also a bit older of a woman, which I think is just the common trend in this apartment complex. I remembered all the bananas I had and I told her to wait when I went to grab them. As I exited my apartment, once again, my downstairs neighbor was there to see the exchange and called for another person to come ref the situation. And, once again, a new older woman came and talked to me that “it’s great that you did this, but…” Both the neighbor to my right and the new woman declined the gifts and left. Once again, I stood at front of my door with bananas treats that were going to expire soon.
I still don’t really understand why most of my gifts were not taken, even when I try to parse out the random assortment of information people said to me. When I first came to Japan, I was told the act of gift giving was an important one, especially to people that you’d be living close/near to. At first it was my host family, that graciously accepted the gifts for allowing me to occupy a room of theirs, but this time it was a group of people that seemed to avoid every chance possible for a gift of the same mentality. After the incidents, I decided to give away the bananas to the other ALTs I had met on the island, all of whom took them without a second thought. Not that it was a bad thing; They needed to go anyways.