I’ve alluded to my Canadian-born, world travelling step-brother, Gerry Patterson a few times in my posts. Gerry lives his life by a different play-book from the majority of us. He does things many only wish to do, but don’t because they lack the opportunity or courage to follow through. I’ve often said, “Regret is the cancer of life”. Given the things Gerry has done and seen; regret is the last word that describes his life to date. Gerry has a long list of adventures that he's crossed off his “Bucket List”, a few include, cycling his bike across Australia; hiking through the Himalayas, and spending a week in a Tibetan Monastery while being nursed back to health by Monks, he and his Japanese-born wife, Shoko, who also has the same craving for adventure, walked the 780km “Camino de Santiago” from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago du Compostela, Spain, to mention a few. Check out his blog for a complete list of his adventures: Patterson Goes to Languedoc
Gerry comes from Gaspé Bay, Quebec, and when his father died when he was a young boy his mother (my step mother) and he moved to Toronto, where she went back to school and studied to become a nurse when she was in her 50’s! Gerry has travelled across Canada, but has spent most of his adult life travelling the world. That said, Gerry has strong ex-pat roots to the country he still calls home, Canada. Gerry would say he’s anchored his life in two countries outside of Canada; Japan where he lived for 9 years and his current address in the South of France. Having lived and become part of the fabric of these two nations (speaking fluent Japanese, French, English and a few other languages with a lot of hand signals), in combination with his other world travels, Gerry has the opportunity to provide us with first-hand experience how other nations and their people live and respect their personal health. He can provide a perspective that can’t be read in book or studied through their statistics.
After my last two blog posts (Growing Portions and The French Paradox) that observed the differences in attitudes towards diet, exercise and health. Given Gerry's extenssive travel experiences I asked him to be a guest blogger to “No Finish Line Blog” and provide us with his unique observations and thoughts how North American’s can learn from some of the healthier nation’s and possibly apply the best from these cultures to our own personal health and lifestyle practices.
Thanks Gerry and Enjoy the Ride…..Rob
Mr Patterson living in Japan
Having lived overseas (I’m in France right now) for most of my adult life I always experience a bit of reverse culture shock when I go back home to Canada. My last trip this summer was no exception and I was immediately hit by the size of everything. Cars are bigger; houses are bigger; bags of chips are bigger (this, I have to admit, didn’t disappoint me!); and yes, people are bigger, too. Rob just wrote an excellent article on the ‘paradox’ of the French, that turned out not to be such a paradox after all. I would like to give a few comments on another place I’ve hung my hat – Japan.
I’m no expert on Japan, but I did live there 9 years and have a Japanese wife, so I’ve got that going for me. Japan you know, if you have ever been there (or seen ‘Lost in Translation’), is a culture shock for most Westerners. The language is, well, impossible at first; the efficiency of just about everything is hard to wrap your head around; and the people are, with few exceptions, small.
Now, I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all. Asians in general (the ones who live in Asia at least) are far leaner than North Americans. This, I think, is not a radical statement. Here are a few differences between our cultures that I noticed over my years in Japan:
- Japanese don’t drink soft drinks. This is not strictly true, since the Coca-Cola Company has a huge presence in the country. However, in the thousands of vending machines you find all over Japan you might see a Coke, then 5 or 6 types of canned tea. An image that is indelibly stuck in my mind is that of a group of teenage boys on a train outside Tokyo someplace, drinking liter bottles of unsweetened Japanese tea instead of pop!
- Portions are small. As Rob illustrated in his last post, larger portions lead to larger people. It is no surprise then that portions in Japan are small. It took me some time to get used to the size, to be honest, but Japan has, without a doubt, the best quality food in the world. You can argue with me but I won’t listen! You’ll be hard pressed to find bad food in Japan and this simple fact probably got me from meal to meal. I just didn’t need to snack (much…Japan also has great potato chips!) between meals because I was eating really good food.
- Individualism is frowned upon with food, too. With rare exceptions, you never see one thing dominating the dinner plate, like a steak for example. Japanese meals often involve a variety of small dishes, with fish or meat playing second fiddle to the ubiquitous bowl of rice. There are always a few types of vegetables served, as well. The balance makes for a healthy eating experience.
- Carbohydrates – simple. Rice is the main carb for Japanese people. Unlike potatoes or bread, rice is always eaten as is, i.e. there is nothing added to it to give it taste. Unless I eat delicious German bread, I need butter AND peanut butter (you can take the boy out of Canada…), but rice, at least in Japan, is eaten white, with your meal.
- Tea vs. Coffee. Japanese people love coffee – the explosion of Starbucks all over the country is a testament to that fact - however, this is still overwhelmingly a tea culture. I won’t argue the benefits of tea or coffee, but it is a simple fact that Japanese tea is drunk without sugar, cream, or anything else. I don’t need to remind you what goes into the mochas and such that have overtaken the menu at all our favorite coffee shops back home.
- Food appreciation. Japanese are taught to ‘eat with their eyes’, which means that part of the dining experience is to appreciate the arrangement and color of the food. Food is meant to be beautiful. This is taught from an early age, so the aesthetics of food become a trigger for the brain, telling the person what will be good and what won’t. Of course, the more colorful the food, the more varied it is and, inevitably, it is healthier......My wife also told me that in Japan all kids eat healthy school meals until at least the end of elementary school. Monthly menus and nutritional facts are posted on classroom walls. She even told me that when she was young kids weren’t allowed to eat outside the meals provided. Can you imagine getting busted in the schoolyard for a snack? In my high school we even had a smoking pit!
- Sweet – it’s relative. My wife, like most people, likes chocolate. But she just can’t get through a North American chocolate bar. It’s way too sweet for her. At first I thought that was nuts, but after some time I realized that the sweets in Japan (they don’t forego dessert) have less sugar in them. In fact, many sweets in Japan are made with ingredients that you want to taste (e.g. sweet potato and bean paste), instead of the sugar overdose that you get with most desserts in North America.
- Dairy-free zone. Although this is changing with the influx of all things North American (and European), Japanese people generally don’t eat much dairy. I’ve never seen anyone just drink a glass of milk, for example. Cheese is pretty popular, but really miniscule when compared with back home. My vegetarian wife goes crazy when reading North American cookbooks because they all seem to think that the only way to add taste (and protein perhaps) to a dish is to slap on cheese.
- The lonely frying pan. The Japanese do fry, but a lot of their food is either totally fresh (Sashimi! Sushi!), steamed, boiled and grilled. They use very little oil, in my experience.
- Public transportation – it makes you walk. A vast majority of Japanese live in huge cities that are most definitely not made for the car culture (I know, a paradox, considering they make such great cars), so nearly 100% of the people I know use the train (or possibly the bus) to get to work. This involves getting yourself to the station near your home, then hiking it to the office once you’re in the city, i.e. using your legs. Shopping, also, is usually done either by train, by bicycle or by foot. All these little bits of physical activity add up.
It took a long while, but after a decade in Japan I left with engrained eating habits that will surely stick with me for the rest of my days. I never drink soft drinks now, for example; it’s just not on my radar at all. I rarely eat past satiation and my concept of what is a ‘normal’ portion of food has reduced significantly. Changing lifelong, unhealthy eating habits is not a simple task, especially if you live in a ‘supersize’ culture. For me it’s been all about those little changes adding up over time. The Japanese say ‘ichi nichi ippo’ – ‘one day, one step’.
Enjoy the walk! Gerry