Onigiri & Ugly Sweaters


These are two things that have nothing in common. Onigiri is a Japanese staple food: a rice ball that is often filled with a variety of foods, sometimes fish, vegetables, and/or other meats; it can be wrapped in seaweed or not. The rice may be plain or mixed with fish, veggies and/or-you guessed it!- other meats. It’s most often eaten at lunch, or (depending on the filling) at breakfast as well, although that’s less common. Ugly sweaters are an American Christmas staple item. You can find them in thrift stores, second-hand shops, and now even major department stores are getting in on this ironically cool trend. Some people (like various members of my family) will even take a reasonably nice sweater and ‘ugly it up’ by adding faux greenery, gaudy Christmas lights, tree ornaments, and those cute mini Christmas present things.

The other day, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making onigiri at one of my schools; it’s a bit trickier than you’d think, or maybe I’m just inept. The smaller of my junior high schools Takamori *East*, had a special school lunch last Wednesday; all the teachers, students, and even moms from the community got together to cook a big meal at the school. One of the dishes was- you guessed it- not onigiri; actually, it was inari sushi, a fried tofu pouch filled with rice, the leftover rice was used to make onigiri! Anyways at school, in front of the moms and two of my third year students, my onigiri skills were pitiful; when I couldn’t get the hang of perfectly cupping the rice mound in my palm to get a triangular shape, my students suggested I tried forming them into simple balls- that was also not working because my hands were drying out and the rice is very sticky! The trick is moisten your hands with water before every dip into the rice, and I would sometimes forget to do that, so I kept getting clusters of rice stuck to my hands and fingers.

After several failed attempts, it was clear that I was not going to get the hang of onigiri right then in that moment; in fact, I had barely been able to make two severely misshapen blobs before the rest of the women and girls had expertly packed every last grain of rice into neat little triangle shaped mounds. But, all in all, it was such a fun day. I chatted with my students and the other teachers in broken, slightly awkward Japanese (on my part), and simple, sometimes broken English (on their part). We all worked together like a big family, and I felt lucky to be a part of it.

Later that day, I stayed up late to perfect my onigiri skills, and the products of that labor were pictured above.

Earlier this week, in my other, much larger junior high school, I got to share with the students my Mexican-American heritage by showing them how I celebrated Christmas with my family. One tradition that my family and I have really come to enjoy is our annual “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party”. The students got a kick out of the pictures I showed them of my family’s party sweaters from the past couple years, and got a chance to make their own. I put them in groups of four and gave a sweater template printout to each group. As I wandered around the classroom to inspect their progress, I watched as my second year students collectively worked on their sweaters by passing the sheet around so that everyone in the group got to draw or color something. That was real teamwork, and I couldn’t help but think that that was definitely not how group projects went when I was in school back in the States. With my first years (ickle firsties!- you get bonus points if you get the reference), however, it was a different story! A few groups did the same kind of division of labor, but a few others had one student (usually a girl), who ended up doing most if not all the work, and she also turned out to be the better artist. It was hard to tell just how this happened or what dynamics may have been at play, so, as a former psychology major, I couldn’t help wonder about it for the rest of the day. But, rather than bore you with my theories as to what was going on, I’m just going to show you pictures of some of their work.

In my second year class, it was clear that the sweaters weren’t supposed to be cute or fashionable, so there were some real funny looking ones, and I’ve pictured my favourite. I liked it because the students had the creative idea to draw Santa as a blobfish, which (according to this article) was once voted ugliest animal.


In my first year class, the students and teacher all thought the sweaters were actually kind of cool-looking (I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder), so they went the more fashionable route and created some really cute and classy sweaters.

This first one was done by a group that shared the workload equally the way that my second year students did.


This sweater was mostly done by one particularly talented girl out of a group of four students. It’s definitely impressive, and so kawaii!


It’s exactly these kinds of cultural exchanges and experiences that I hoped to have when I decided to come out here. So that’s all that I have to share for now. I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures.


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