Omiyage

In 2005, I became involved with a British guy. Involved seems to be the right term, reflecting back on it. Unspecific and indeterminate. We’d met because he had been coupled with a friend of mine. We’d chitter away at each other. We’d talked around their breakup. He was, to some extent, my friend, but I didn’t think about him very much.

Then he offered to bring me some Irn Bru.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Irn Bru. It had something to do with SS, that’s all I really remember. JV was into it. Somehow I got some, tried it, and became attached to this bright orange soda. I probably loved it because it was impossible to get in America and I liked being difficult. I drank Brainwash and Jolt. My heart jumps at the mention of Moxie. I don’t actually like soda, I dislike the feeling of the bubbles, but endlessly I get excited about these seemingly hard-to-get drinks.

The Brit’s offer of Irn Bru was received warmly and ended up being the starting point of our (brief) affair. It was also the second omiyage someone gave me.

Omiyage is one of the Japanese words for souvenir. According to the teachers I had, omiyage are souvenirs with some implication about being specific to the place you visit. The idea that I got is that they are something the area is known for–e.g. Hershey, PA and chocolate. This is specific to something the region makes, not just something evocative of the region–e.g. the Eiffel Tower and Paris. I guess it doesn’t really count as a souvenir if the person is from the area, but it felt that way to me. It was a special thing I couldn’t get at home.

At some point in time it became such that you could get Irn Bru in America with the advent of the internet. I’ve never done this because of the aforementioned not actually liking soda. Something about Irn Bru coming from far away makes it special.

My parents were the ones who taught me that food makes places special. They might not have set out to do this, but it’s what happened. My parents always enjoyed trying different foods and eating out, so trips had a tendency to highlight what made an area culinarily special. Certain things we’d only ever eat when we were at other places–Klondike bars belong to Florida heat and my grandparent’s chest freezer. These were all personal experiences. I knew I could go buy a klondike bar anywhere, I just never did.

I was first introduced to the differences in snacks and junk back in middle school, when I mailed a box of oreos and a bottle of Snapple to New Zealand. A friend of mine there knew how much junk food varied by country and wanted to try these crazy American sweets we talked about with such high regard. While I was sending Hershey’s to South Africa and Denmark, I was being mailed Kinder Bars and “proper” Cadbury chocolates. This sort of idea carried when I began traveling myself. The first time I left the country, it was to England (I’m not really as much of an Anglophile as I’m letting on). I brought back Jaffa Cakes and Irn Bru. My trip to Eastern Europe involved me returning with poppy seed cakes. When I left Mongolia, I stuffed handfuls of Super Kontiks into my shoulder bag. Once my dad bought me a box of soft pretzels to take back to university, and more than once I acquired canolis from the Termini Brothers. In Korea, MM’s dad sent him a box with Tastykakes and Peanutchews inside. Visitors from PA regularly bring me Yuengling, and I have, in turn, brought people Yuengling when it was available to me and not them. Someone I know always asks for Jaffa Cakes whenever they hear about anyone even being close enough to England to buy some.

While real food ties itself to memories and meaning, junk food seems to fit into the food as symbolism in a special way. This has more to do with the consistency of the product–and it’s branding–than the actual quality of the product itself. I prefer Sam Adam’s White Ale over Hoegaarten–which is realistically a better beer. No one makes blueberry pie like D does, truthfully only his blueberry pie fulfills a certain part of me, while every sip of Yuengling drowns me in a sensation of happy memories and melancholy nostalgia. Blueberry pies taste like blueberry pie–unless they’re D’s blueberry pie and then they taste like winter in Pgh. Yuenglings taste like summer and Pennsylvania and the smell of grass and porches and the first time I had one with DA when we were sweating and dying our hair. Thinking about blueberry pie is pleasant enough, but since there’s no simple iconic brand, or product, recognition. All Yuenglings are the same as the first one I had with DA, and looking at a bottle–or even really just thinking about it–gives me something concrete to latch on to.

I don’t know what Irn Bru tastes like. I remember being fifteen and being into weird soda, but Irn Bru doesn’t taste like being fifteen. As a symbol, it really belonged to JV. To him it was about being even younger and trying a drink quite like it with his friends: their sharing an elicit, highly caffeinated, overly sweetened, overly dyed soda. Still, I relish in drinking it—and having a source of it.

My newest source of omiyage Irn Bru–they appear periodically over the years as friends coming to America or going on trips to the UK–brought me two 500mL bottles the last time he was in town. I plan on passing one on to JV, so he can find his moment of youth and summer in the sticky orange sweetness. I’ll probably just mix mine with whiskey.

Photo one by BentleyCoon, CC-BY-SA.

Photo two by ella_marie, CC-BY.

Photo three by harunire, CC-BY-NC-SA and exempt from my CC-BY-SA license.

Photo four by richardland, CC-BY.

Photo five by sonnett, CC-BY-SA.

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One thought on “Omiyage

  1. That’s an interesting view of food. It’s not mine–I’d have to care a lot more about food before it became my view, or anywhere close to my view–but it’s interesting.

    I’m amused by your take on Yuengling. When I was growing up, Yuengling was what you drank if you lived in Pennsylvania and wanted to get your beer as cheaply as possible. My father drank Yuengling. By the case.

    Of course, I can’t really say whether Yuengling is a tasty beer or a good beer. I learned when I went to college and drank beer at parties (because that was all they had) that I can’t tell one beer from another. Good beer, bad beer, cheap or expensive beer, they all just have that beery taste to me, and I don’t like it. I won’t say I hate it. I’d rather drink beer than eat green beans, which I *truly* hate.

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