One universal aspect of the expat experience is talking about what food you miss. When I first arrived in Ishikawa, all I wanted was a hamburger, as cliche as that sounds. I know the theme of this blog is “I’ll make it myself!”, but I started making an effort to eat less red meat went I left for uni, and so I rarely cook/ed beef at home, and this was before I figured out how to make veggie burgers and buns at home. And so I dreamed of hamburgers at Zingerman’s and Blue Tractor.
During a work conference in Chiba that first fall, I ended up out for a quick lunch at Big Boy, which is essentially a hamburger-and-standard-“American”-fare family restaurant in the US. In Japan, as with most “Western food” family restaurants, Big Boy has been cleverly localized. There are no hamburgers, only hamburg plates.
Hamburg (ハンバーグ) is a hamburg steak, essentially a hamburger patty with a bit of veg and rice or bread on the side. The similarity in kana—hanbâgâ vs hanbâgu–feels like a trap, even though it makes perfect phonetic sense. And it’s not that hamburg are bad, just that they are 1. not a hamburger, the thing I wanted to eat, and 2. not something Americans eat, even though they appear in every English textbook for ESL because its “Western food.” It’s like what American “teriyaki chicken” in the US vs Japan’s concept of teriyaki.
Every American expat in Japan has their own hamburg story, but what I find more interesting is the mascot. In the US, the Big Boy statue has a hamburger on a platter. In Japan, he carries a hamburg.
Good localization is to make it do what it says on the box, so to speak.
The funny thing is that since I’ve been back, I don’t feel the need to consume hamburgers like I’ll never see one again. I’ve gotten some veggie burgers, but the beef can wait. It’s not like I’m going away.