What do expats and dieters share in common?

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One (and possibly the only) uniting aspect for expatriate life and dieting is to do with one’s pressing desire to have something they can’t have. I have spent nearly half of my life as an expat. I have spent at least half of my life on a diet. I know what I am talking about.

For instance, British expats miss their tea bags, Marmite and Cheddar, and Finnish expats miss things like rye bread, beetroot salad and Finnish licorice – and they miss them bad. Consequently, expats pay good money at specialized (online) shops for their favourite toothpaste or chocolate from back ‘home’. In fact, it is not just expats, who spend long periods of time away from their native country that find it difficult to live without some creature comforts from back home. For instance, some Brits do not leave England – even when going on just a daytrip to Dieppe without taking a stash of Yorkshire teabags with them (and possibly also their kettle!). Then again, when I went to England as a young language student with a friend (a looong looong time ago) we had to stop at services on our way to the Helsinki airport to have some Finnish food. My friend was convinced that she would not be able to eat anything in England during our 5-week stay there, that food would be intolerable there – that is, until we arrived to Brighton and discovered several Burger Kings there. Back then there were no fast food restaurants in my hometown, and my friend was more excited about Burger King than a teenage boy would be about finding his head between Dolly Parton’s boobs 50 years ago. And so was I.

Dieters, on the other hand, develop uncontrollable urges to stuff down their throats unacceptable quantities of crisps, cakes, caramel pretzels, triple cheese pizza, Häagen-daz or whatever rocks their boat usually by lunch time on the first day of their diet. I’m the first to admit that steering away from all sorts of unhealthy, E-number- and additive-ridden mouthfuls or sugar and/or fat and/or salt when the first blood sugar dip hits me in the mid-morning is as difficult as detaching a chewing gum from the back of your 3 year old’s head without a major meltdown.

My main point is that both groups (expats and dieters) can get pretty desperate for the things they can’t have. But let’s focus on things one expat can’t have.

After spending three lovely weeks in England, we recently returned to Osaka. It may not come as a revelation to many of you expats reading this blog, but on our way back from England our suitcases were as full as commuter trains in China. In fact, the operation of squeezing all our stuff in the suitcases has some remarkable similarities to that of Chinese commuter trains (link to a YouTube video below).

 

My commuter train suitcase was filled with the following:

 (1) Squash

By squash I mean cordial, i.e. a juice concentrate that you dilute with water. This drink doesn’t seem to exist in Japan – over here people (even young children) tend to drink (green) tea.

IMG_2202I’m sorry but lukewarm or even cold unsweetened greenish tea is not my thing. I know that green tea would be much better for me than the aspartame filled summer-fruit squash, but summer-fruit squash is what I want.

I have had a conversation about squash with several Japanese people, hoping that someone would know where to get some. The conversation always goes along these lines:

Me: You don’t seem to have squash over here.

Japanese person: Yeah we do! I play it every Sunday.

To avoid any further conversations like the above, a quantity of squash sufficient to quench the thirst of an army battalion made its way to Japan in my suitcase (see photo).

IMG_2079 (2) Cider

Japan is a country that loves beer and sake. I am not a big fan of either of these, and this is a shame because I am a big fan of drinking. For the past 10 months that we’ve lived in Osaka, I have been missing cider, my favourite alcoholic drink.

At first, I didn’t realize that I would struggle to find any cider in Japan because my Japanese acquaintances informed me that getting cider in Japan was not an issue – all you had to do was to walk into the nearest corner shop and buy it there. However, when scanning bottles at the drinks aisle of 7-Eleven, to my horror I soon realized that their ‘cider’ was something different from what I was referring to: in Japan the term ‘cider’ is used when referring to a certain soft-drink.

Mitsuya_Cider_BottleNo cider means that I’ve had to settle with plum wine or occasionally when there has been nothing else on offer (not even wine, or spirits and mixers) I’ve had to force down a barrel of beer. Not my favourite thing, but something I am willing to do during a 1 ½ or 2 hour ‘all-you-can-drink-plan’ (see photo) if there is no other alcoholic drink on offer.

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Anyway, so far I haven’t seen any alcoholic cider sold anywhere in Japan (other than in IKEA) and many of my Western colleagues are aware of this. So, a couple of weeks ago, a Hawaiian colleague sent me an email with a link to Strongbow for sale on Amazon-Japan. Hooray! Problem solved! Yes please – I want some! My colleague suggested that the ciders should be delivered to my work so that when the delivery company rings to arrange for the delivery there would be people there who know Japanese (since I don’t). That made me reconsider, and I decided that it was for the best if I did not order those ciders after all – I mean, me turning up at the HR office in a forklift to collect my ten crates of cider might not be the best thing to do for my career.

(3) Tea bags

I think I have turned into an Englishman. But in my defense, I am not quite as bad as the Brits who take their own teabags and kettles with them when they pop over the English Channel for a day trip to France.

(4) Deodorant

For some reason Japanese deodorants do not seem to do it for me. I am not publicly announcing that I have a specific problem – because I don’t (my husband and our au pair have also reported the same problem), but I have to say that unless I am wearing my Western brand of deodorant during the scorching summer of Osaka I am forced to keep my arms glued to my sides.

(5) Hair products

Many Japanese hair sprays hold my hair as well as my deodorant would. Because my scalp with a handful of hairs (hardly a mane) rely on its morning dose of liquid cling film – something that actually does more than my deodorant, I need to bring hairspray and other hair products (like hair powder) from England.

IMG_2082(6) Clothes and shoes

For those of you following my blog, this does not come as a surprise.

I’m UK size 12 (European: Medium or 38-40); my shoe size is 6-7. In Europe I feel like everybody else, but in Japan these measurements make me feel and look like Marshmallow from Frozen (or for those of you closer to my age – the Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters). This is not only in comparison to Japanese women but (painfully so) in comparison also to Japanese men. Not only does my ‘size’ give my self-esteem a hard time it also gives me a hard time when I try to find clothes or shoes in Japan. This is the case in particular when I’ve tried to find something fitting, like a trouser suit, dresses or tights. I have to say, I don’t really like the idea of having to visit ‘Size World’ every time I want a new top. So, spending 3 weeks in England during the post-Christmas sale gave me a perfect opportunity to acquire some new clothes, tights and shoes. Thinking back, perhaps I went a bit crazy in the shops of Brighton. I hope my husband won’t go ape shit when he realizes what the state of our joint account is in after my visit to England.

The above is just a short list of some essentials that travelled over to Japan from England with me. Ideally I would have also liked to bring with me many other things, which were too difficult (hallumi, houmous) or impossible to bring over (my house, my friends, my favourite restaurant and my favourite pub in Brighton). But I am hoping the current reserves keep me going until next summer and our next trip to Europe (or at least until my husband arrives back in Japan in 3 weeks time).

Yet another failed diet

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You might have read about me announcing a couple of months ago that I was fed up with the circumference of my waist and that I was going on a strict diet. The diet that I started can be added to the long list of previous diets that I have started over the years – and to nearly as long a list of diets that I started but which failed. I have practically lost no weight (or inches around my waist). We are going back home (i.e. to England) for Christmas and I am not looking forward to seeing my friends and looking like I’ve spent the last 9 months with a spoonful of Häagen-dazs permanently attached to my lips.

I suppose, the positive thing is that even though I haven’t lost any weight during my diet, I haven’t put on any either. Does this perhaps call for a celebration? I might have to open a bottle of wine and have some crisps to celebrate. Who the hell am I kidding here? Let’s face it – this diet has been a bloody disaster. Soon enough I will have to start shopping for clothes in ‘Size World’.

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My analysis of the reasons resulting in the failure of my diet (this time) include the following:

 1) Lack of discipline and/or motivation

This is my biggest overall problem with dieting, not just with reference to my most recent diet, but in fact with most of my diets. I am sure many of you who, like me, in an average year spend roughly as many days dieting as Madonna spends shagging some 21-year old, find that discipline/motivation is your biggest enemy. I can only speak for myself, but weakness is my middle name. I see food and forget that I was not supposed to eat it. I think I suffer from some weird condition in which temporary amnesia is induced by low blood sugar levels.

It’s not only that I forget that I was supposed to be on a diet. I also suffer from the same overall problems as many other dieters’. Namely, (a) if I eat it while standing up it kind of doesn’t count – and this isn’t because I think that the extra calories burned while standing up relative to sitting down would counterbalance the newly acquired calories. And (b) if I eat something quickly (preferably while standing up, straight out of the packaging) it doesn’t count either. The latter is similar to the Japanese with their gift giving. The Japanese like to give and receive gifts that perish quickly, so that every time the receiver of the gift walks past the mantelpiece on which the permanent gift is sitting they don’t feel like the object is eyeballing them and reminding them that they are indebted to the person who gave them that object. The good thing about a box of chocolates is that once it’s is gone, it’s gone. The chocolates won’t be eyeballing anyone from where they are at, and so there is nothing to remind you that you were given a gift (apart from your bulging waistline).

I have also been extremely lazy with reference to exercise. In England, I did zumba, step-aerobics and went to the gym. In Japan, I’ve practically done nothing. Guess how many times any local gyms here have seen me within their walls. If your guess is: ‘Once’ you are ever so slightly overestimating the frequency of my gym visits. I know, things will have to change.

 2) Amazing Japanese food

The food in Japan is delish. I will not attempt to describe the food here as writing that description would inevitably result in me rummaging through the kitchen cupboards for something to eat. So, I will just quickly add some photos here while keeping my eyes shut.

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3) portion sizes

Anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows that one needs to keep an eye on the size of their portions of food if they plan to eat anything other than perhaps cabbage, celery or ice-cubes. The rule of thumb is that one should try and not eat in one sitting as much as the whole competitive eater team would in a week.

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In Europe and America food manufacturers are creative and tap into markets with big bucks – like diet foods. Many food products there have greatly reduced calories, fat and/or sugar content. Not that I am a loyal consumer of these products but I do know that much that sometimes you can practically empty your cupboard from food and all you have accumulated (apparently) is about 10 kcal, i.e. you can eat nearly as much as a team of competitive eaters but you’ve only acquired the calorific equivalent of one grape.

In Japan this doesn’t quite work like that. Although, Japanese food manufacturers do produce low calorie options, overall I feel the Japanese have a better understanding of how to lose weight with controlling portion sizes. I mean, check out the ‘normal’ size of ice cream below. We’ve struggle to find anything much bigger than those tiddlers.

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The diet size of ice cream however does not do it for me. Having only one of those barely visible portions of ice-cream (below) is as satisfying as watching only the first 5 minutes of my favourite TV program instead of an hour. So, I tend to eat for the hour’s worth.

IMG_5114I’ve also attached a photo of some ‘low’ calorie noodles below. I don’t think there are any gimmicks here. The reason why there are only 49, 55 or 59 kcal per bowl of these noodles is because that bowl is the size of something you would use in your doll’s house. I don’t know about you, but those 3 strings of noodles did not fill me up.

IMG_3406 4) Wine

All you have to do is to have a look at the reference point in the ice cream photos above. The corkscrew-bottle opener was the object I automatically went for when going through the kitchen draw for a reference point for the miniature Japanese ice creams. This automatic behavior gives you a clue as to why my weight-loss program has been as successful as Charlie Sheen’s rehab program.

 5) I discovered caramel coated pretzels

These are sooo good! I never had them until about a month ago when I mistook them for crisps and accidentally bought them from an imported foods shop in Osaka (they were cleverly positioned next to the crisps so that any distracted mother with two kids in the shop might pick them up and become a lifetime addict in just one mouthful). Until then I was as keen on pretzels as a dog is on having its anal glands emptied. But one piece of those E-number coated bad boys and I was addicted. A word of advice: Never try these!

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 6) Fatty meat

Meat in Japan tends to be quite fatty. This combined with our poor Japanese language abilities means that we need to try to estimate the fat content of mince by looking at the colour of the meat (red is good, white is bad). But regardless of our best attempts to buy low fat mince, every skilletful of mince looks like the photo below. The layer of fat on our Bolognese sauce after having spent the night in the fridge is hardly any more attractive (see photo below). This kind of meat is likely to make anyone’s weight-loss program as easy as trying to push your child in a stroller that’s missing one wheel.

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I don’t think the list above contains any amazing discoveries – dieting is dieting. I just need to get my ass in gear and within the next two weeks shed that 5 kg that I’ve put on since March so that I can go back to Brighton and pretend that this weight gain never happened.

Big belly

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I know I have been putting on weight since moving to Japan, not only by looking at the digits on my scales but also by visible evidence. The other day my 3-year old daughter stood next to me in the shower, pushed her index finger knuckle deep into my belly and stated: Äiti, sulla on iso maha (Mummy, you have a big belly). I quickly pulled my stomach in and started laughing. Standing there, my daughter’s finger still stuck between the wobbly bits of my belly, I had a flashback of a blog post I had read a couple of weeks earlier. The blog post was written by a moderately overweight American woman who was first disgusted seeing a picture of herself on a beach in a bikini with all the blubber and cellulite. Her self-image improved when her young children saw the picture and commented on it by saying that she looked ‘perfect’ and ‘lovely’ and that that was the best picture of her ever. The blog post was shared thousands of times in social media and received many ’likes’ and lovely comments. And I also thought it was sweet, but was somewhat sceptical as to whether that kind of reaction would be the norm amongst children. The incident in the shower suggests that my daughter does not look at the issue of putting on weight with quite so rose tinted glasses as that woman’s children. But that’s fine. I think this just makes my daughter a rather observant 3-year old. I mean, there is no denying, my belly has recently got a bit bigger. Perhaps the reason why my daughter noticed my belly and the American lady’s children didn’t notice their mother’s belly might be related to the fact that we live in Japan and the American lady and her children live, well, in America. You see, Japanese people (both men and women) are generally extremely slim (see photo below). Practically no-one has a belly over here. American people as a group (New York and California excluded) are of course very different in this respect. So, the reason why the American lady’s children thought their mother’s moderately overweight body as nothing out of the ordinary is because (in many places) in America slightly, moderately or even severely overweight bodies are nothing out of the ordinary. In Japan, my slightly bigger belly sticks out like a Mars bar amongst bean sprouts. Yes, I’ve mentioned in my previous blog posts that I feel like an East German shot putter in comparison to Japanese women. And that was when I had just moved to Japan! So now, 5 months later when I have a bit of a bigger belly, I feel like erm… an American shot putter (see photo below – note that it is not ideally placed next to the photo of my skinny Japanese colleagues).

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I really don’t like the fact I’ve put on weight. You see, when I put on weight, the excess calories tend to get glued to my belly. I suppose I have, what they call, an apple shape body. That’s what most men tend to have if they’ve overeaten as much tempura as I have. Women are supposed to put it on their bum and legs and look like pears. But no, I look like an apple (too much testosterone perhaps!). But those of you who do not know me, I might have to clarify that even though I don’t have a six-pack I do not look like a darts player either. I mean, I am at my heaviest in 15 years but in the context of the Western World’s obesity problem I suppose my body shape can be still viewed as petite as that of Tinker Bell’s.

I know what the reason for my apple appearance is. As you might have guessed, it’s not apples. Instead, it’s the lovely Japanese food: bento boxes (see photo), delicious strawberry pastries that I have mentioned before (see photos), and ice-cream that I have indulged in during the boiling hot summer of Osaka, the flavor of the summer: pineapple, and a more traditional vanilla with a Japanese twist: cornflakes at the bottom of the cup (see photo). Japanese food is just too good to resist. If you don’t mind putting on a few pounds/kilos, you should come and visit. I promise I’ll ditch my diet and take you to the best places in Osaka!

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My recent 3 ½ week holiday in Finland didn’t help with all this because us living in Japan has made me miss European food (regardless of the fact that Japanese food is fantastic): Finnish BBQ meat, rye bread, mayonnaise based beetroot salad, cider, Finnish crisps and chocolate, English pub food, halloumi and anything oven made given that we do not have an oven in our apartment in Japan. Me completely letting my hair down and indulging in these favourites of mine resulted in our Finnish holiday leaving a bit extra on my waist. A disaster. But at least I had the courage to weigh myself on our return to Japan a couple of days ago. That helped me to build enough self-loathing to kick start a strict diet and so far I haven’t done my usual and quitted already.

While I was in Finland, I met up with some old school friends in a park over a picnic. It was a hot summer’s afternoon but many of us were wearing leggings under our skirts. This prompted one person in our group to mention that leggings had been mentioned in a reality TV show called ‘Swedish Hollywood Wives’. This is a TV show I have not had the pleasure of watching. In any case, these Nordic Hollywood babes had apparently criticized the fact that many women in Scandinavia wear leggings under their skirts and were perplexed as to why Scandinavian women do not want to show their legs. In case any Swedish Hollywood wives read the present blog post, it might be useful to clarify here the reason for the legging use (since the reason does not seem to be obvious to you). As one picture tells more than a thousand words, Swedish Hollywood wife please have a look at the picture below. That should clarify the issue here. (Photo taken from http://ic.steadyhealth.com/lose-cellulite-on-legs).

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I appreciate that leggings may not be the most flattering piece of clothing but neither is cellulite. Before I start getting nasty responses from Swedish Hollywood wives or their fans along the lines of ‘Do some exercise you fat cow’ I should probably explain that I am planning to start doing some, as soon as I have acquired a good enough level of Japanese so that I can take up on the aerobics classes I used to do in England. So, I’d say in about 2 years time. For the next 4 weeks I will also under no circumstances do any exercise other than perhaps clenching my buttocks for a couple of sets of 20 while writing my blog posts. Doctor’s orders. You see, while on holiday I broke my little toe, badly (see photo). No weight on the ball of my right foot or toes until bone has set in its original place. And this is something I don’t want to risk – I don’t really find the possibility of my toe permanently pointing east attractive. For one, it would make putting shoes on a little difficult.

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Anyway, diet has started and I can already see myself getting back in my usual East German shot putter shape. Wish me luck and if you see me please do not offer me any crisps, strawberry pastries or pineapple ice-cream.