BY HATSUNE AMANO
When I moved to Lexington, Kentucky from Japan, I met an American guy. He invited my husband and me to his house. He grabbed a can of Natural Light and said to me, “This is American lower class beer.”
What is lower class beer? Poor, miserable beer? Blue collar beer? Uneducated beer? No health insurance beer? One day, at a cafeteria, I ate macaroni and cheese with an American friend. I enjoyed the American food and its taste. But she said, “Did you know macaroni and cheese is kind of lower class food?
Once, when I cruised with my husband and an American friend on I-75, we passed the restaurant, Waffle House. I thought it was a patisserie, serving many kinds of fancy, sweet desserts with a lot of fruit and whipped crème. So I said to the friend, “I want to go to the Waffle House.”
He said, “I don’t want to go because it is a lower class restaurant.” I missed that chance to go to Waffle House, but I was so curious about it. I went by myself later. Honestly, I was disappointed because it was not a fancy patisserie at all. The food was greasy, and I was the only female customer. I stared at one man’s arm, well muscled and tanned with a big dragon tattoo. But I liked to listen to these guys talking about their jobs and their families with other customers. The restaurant was filled with ordinary people’s daily lives.
Eating scrambled eggs and bacon with french fries and waffles, I remembered what my friend said, “And Kentucky Friend Chicken is also a lower class restaurant.” In my hometown, Toyota City, there are four or five Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. They are all clean and neat, and cashiers are very polite; they have sweet smiles. The customers are mostly high school kids and young women. I loved the restaurant because it served cheap delicious food in a hospitable style. However, American people seem to have a different point of view.
What on earth is class? I have often heard words-upper class, middle class, lower class and under class-here in the United States. I have also heard that most American people think they belong to the middle class. I think Japanese people might feel the same way, but instead of thinking they are middle class, they just consider themselves ordinary people. I can’t claim categories don’t exist in Japan, but I think Japanese people don’t emphasize class very much. I have seen poor people and rich people in Japan, but I’ve never thought of them as lower class and upper class. It might be a cultural difference between the United States and Japan, or between Lexington and Toyota City.
But I don’t understand why people would put food and drinks into certain classes without considering their quality. Why does beer have to belong to a certain class? I hesitate, but want to say a few more words. Budweiser and Coors are sold in Japanese liquor shops as expensive import beer with other European beer, like Heineken and Guinness, but I have never thought of them as upper class.
The popular Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, who used to be a Modern Japanese Literature professor at Princeton University, wrote in his collection of essays, Yagate Kanashiki Gaikokugo, that he felt strange to hear a professor at Princeton say to him, “As you are a professor at Princeton University, a kind of intellectual elite and upper class person, you should not read local newspapers like The Trenton Times. Upper class people should read The New York Times or The Washington Post.” He knew Murakami loved to read The Trenton Times. Then he noticed professors in Princeton always drank European import beer at parties. They never drank Budweiser and Coors. I bet they don’t even know about Natural Light.
Murakami wrote that such people might ignore a professor who drinks Budweiser, reads all of Stephen King’s novels and entertains guests with Kenny Rogers’ music because he is acting contrary to the rules that the intellectual elite has established. He felt the United States is a country that values class and status more than Japan. He called this lifestyle “social snobbism.” So he tried to pretend to be like Princeton professors in public, reading The New York Times, listening to operas and drinking Heineken, while he secretly enjoyed The Trenton Times and Budweiser at home.
When I read Murakami’s essay for the first time, I thought social snobbery worked only around Princeton. But since I moved to Lexington, I have had similar experiences. If the United States is a country of freedom and equality, why do Americans always think of class? It is a culture shock. Should I pretend to read The New York Times? Should I avoid eating macaroni and cheese in public? I don’t think so. I am glad I am not tied down by class categories. If we enjoy the taste of cheap, local beer, that is fine. If we enjoy the taste of macaroni and cheese, that is enough. Beer is innocent. Macaroni and cheese is blameless.
I love the United States as well as Japan. I love American food as well as Japanese food. For me, what I love is the most important. If I cared too much about class category, I would miss the chance to encounter things I might love.
I happen to live in Kentucky and love it. I love tasting Kentucky food at the restaurants. I like Kentucky hot browns and roast beef on bread with gravy at old family restaurants and small, unknown restaurants in the countryside. Some people might think that is lower class.
One day, in the southern part of Kentucky, I found a restaurant that looked interesting. It was small and filthy. All of the customers looked like farmers or factory workers, wearing overalls and sweaty shirts. A chubby waitress with gray hair and thick red lipstick served sweet tea and said, “Hey, y’all.” I liked their fried chicken with corn bread and french fries. And I liked the waitress. She saw me off, saying, “Bye hon. Y’uns have a good day.” Yes, I really did have a good day.