Why You Should Never Gift a Japanese Person Food in Tupperware
Our health depends on more than eating vegetables and regular exercise
We all know that to live a long, healthy, fulfilling life we need to eat well and get regular exercise — our doctor tells us this, we were taught about it in health class, and we see ads about healthy eating and exercise everywhere.
But there’s a missing piece to this narrative, for there’s another key factor to our well-being and health: our relationships.
What does this have to do with Tupperware etiquette? I will get to that later.
Lifelong health, happiness, and the strength of our relationships
The director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Robert Waldinger, revealed in a now-viral TED Talk that their lifetime study of adults in the U.S. has shown that the people who were happiest and healthiest were also those who had the strongest relationships with their family, friends, and community. A study conducted in 2015 also uncovered similar findings, that even when controlled for different world regions, loneliness and feelings of isolation may be as harmful to our health as obesity.
“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” — Robert Waldinger
I was not too surprised by these findings, for Japan’s elderly, who rank among the top countries in life expectancy, are well-known for being active in their local communities well into their senior years.
A survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office found that about 70% of people aged 60–69, and about half of those 70 and over are engaged in some sort of social activity, whether this be working, volunteering, or taking lessons of some kind. They are also aware of the positive impact of community, as the majority of elderly will cite “the mutual support of people in the neighborhood” as an essential factor to living well.
“My customers are wonderful, they’re like family. It’s the people in this community who have kept me alive so long.” — Shitsui Hakoishi, 103-year-old Japanese hairdresser
So how exactly do these healthy individuals treat their relationships, and how do they form strong bonds with the people around them? I found out first-hand when I made the fatal mistake of delivering a box of muffins in a Tupperware box.
Why you should never gift a Japanese person food in Tupperware
It was one lazy weekend when I had baked a few too many chocolate chip muffins, that my mom suggested I give away a few of them to our next door neighbor. An opportunity to do something kind of nice, so why not? I boxed them up in Tupperware, and handed it over that very afternoon. They seemed delighted, and I left feeling a bit pleased with myself for doing something nice.
So I was surprised when a few days later, I came home to my mom with an annoyed look on her face, accusing me, “Why did you give away the muffins in a Tupperware box?” I was confused, and said something about how that was the only clean container we had.
My mom gave an exasperated sigh before explaining, “You can’t just give away food in Tupperware. In Japan it’s considered rude to bring back an empty container, and so the receiver will always bring back some other food when they return your Tupperware. You didn’t know this, but you’ve just burdened our neighbors with the indebtedness to give something back to us.”
I told her I thought she was being ridiculous, that they wouldn’t feel such pressure. But what do you know — sitting on our table was our Tupperware box, not empty, but filled with small brownies.
Sometimes it feels like a bit too much (just accept my random act of kindness!) but it was at this moment that I realized how lucky I was: for the standard in my community was not only to do good and expect nothing in return, but to also do good and not make the other person feel indebted.
So much so, that it was common sense.
However inadvertently, sometimes our good deeds come with a price tag — how often do we silently think, I did the laundry last time, is it now not your turn? — which creates nothing but another’s resentment in unsolicited indebtedness and our own frustration when our expectations are not met. But our bitterness will age us, and we lose out on the most valuable thing we have to gain when we approach good deeds quid pro quo.
If a fish is kind to the water, the water will be kind to the fish. — Japanese proverb
It might seem like a tedious thing to take consideration of others this far, that gift-giving in Tupperware seems hardly of importance, but it is this underlying sentiment to do good, and let others feel they don’t owe you anything back, that is key to building strong relationships in a community.
So remember to eat well, and remember to exercise, but if you really want to live a long and fulfilling life, let your good deeds go forgotten, for this is how mutual trust and support between people are built, and which the foundation of our lifelong well-being is built upon.