Against All Odds: An Oral History of PEAK’s Komaba-Sai

A roundtable talk by Ricky Negishi, Minghao Xu, and Eriko Yamada in 2019.


The students:


Ricky: Third year ES[1] student. In charge of the PEAK[2] booth for Komaba-sai[3] in the year of 2018.

Eriko: Second year JEA[4] student. In charge of PEAK booth in the year of 2019.

Minghao: Second year JEA student. Worked alongside Eriko for PEAK booth in the year of 2019.


The talk:


M: Why tornado potato last year?

R: There were a lot of restrictions on the food items. For example, you can’t use dairy products or cut ingredients at the booth due to health concerns. Out of all the options, tornado potato seemed to work best as a base to add flavors from different countries. In the end, we had eight. I think this year’s youtiao (Chinese churros) is also similar since you can customize it with other toppings.

Tornado Potato (Eriko Yamada)

Last year I was trying to have fun and get the PEAK community to get out and about. So, a lot of people did come to our booth. I hope people, both within and out the university, got to know a little more about PEAK. I know this year you guys had PEAK quizzes, right? How did that go?


E: I think the questions served the purpose of letting people know more about PEAK. I think people also enjoyed answering them and it added some fun to the ordering process. Plus, you get a discount if you answered correctly.

PEAK QUESTION EXAMPLE:

Which of the following is NOT a student club or organization founded by PEAK students?

A) Bi

B) D. P. Theater at Komaba

C) Komaba Times

D) All of the above are founded by PEAK students.

R: Last year, we did encounter some problems. One is that I had zero funds to begin with. And so, we held a fundraiser by selling PEAK themed T-shirts. We also simply asked for donations, which would not be possible if the PEAK community wasn’t as strong as it was.


E: One of the most stressful things in organizing the whole thing was the expectation to earn money. I didn’t realize that was our main goal. At first I just knew that we had a budget of 140,000 yen from last Komaba-sai, and not that it took so much hard work to get! So, when I was planning, I planned to the scale of the budget we had and did not plan to save any money because we wanted to advertise PEAK as much as possible, which created some problems during planning.


M: Nevertheless, this year, we had four flavors: Chinese Plain Flavor, Thai syrup, Chocolate and Sugar Frosting, and Parmesan and Oregano. They are all there for a reason. The first flavor is how you would normally find it in China. In our research, we found people in Cambodia, Thailand, and many other East and Southeast Asian cultures also eat youtiao, hence the second flavor. We also read about scholars theorizing that youtiao inspired churros, so we have the third option, which is basically doing youtiao in the churro style. The final option is actually the most popular flavor from last year’s potatoes, which we took as a “PEAK legacy.”


E: We also intentionally tried to be more sensitive to cultural appropriation with the menu this year. We avoided using country names in our menu if no research or evidence justified such usage. We initially had country names for the last two flavors but decided to take them out because when we think about what we are trying to represent, we feel it is hard for us to attach a country to a kind of food and say, “this is it”, while it might not be the case. And I guess it can be hard for customers to grasp such nuanced aspects (?) of cultural prejudice, so we thought the best solution was to not have the country names when they are not duly deserved.


M: One thing we also did was to avoid making the PEAK booth too much of a “Chinese” or “Asian” one. We also wanted to be inclusive and not exclude a large chunk of the community. Thus, I came up with the idea of selling snacks handpicked by PEAK students from their home countries. I always believe that diversity works best when it is an organic process for everyone.


E: I do think selling the snacks is a good idea in terms of inclusivity, but one problem was that when we were advertising, many people were confused about what we were selling. We were saying that we had Chinese Churros, and then that we had snacks, and that we also had the quizzes. Sometimes it did feel like our booth had too much information.


M: It could’ve been worse! (laugh) In the very beginning, we had this idea of selling a few more fried food items alongside youtiao. I even messaged an upperclassman on how to make Filipino Fried Banana! (laugh) However, it didn’t work out for us because in the second meeting held by the Komaba-sai committee, they told us we could only sell one main food item. Sometimes the rules can be a bit confusing especially when we were not made aware of them in the very beginning.

E: I think there’s a discrepancy between some of the rules and how they are applied. For example, on the set-up day, we waited until the time on the manual they gave us to pick up the equipment. When we got there, we found out that some booths in our group had already claimed their equipment. I guess it really depends on experience at the end of the day.


PEAK Questions (Eriko Yamada)

Another thing is that at first, I was trying to order a lot of things through the committee because I thought that was the thing we were supposed to do. At least the manual made it sound so. Later on, I figured out it was actually expensive through the committee, so we switched to the wholesale supermarket called Hanamasa.


R: Oh yeah, last year when we bought the potatoes and oil, we also opted for Hanamasa. It was just considerably cheaper and easier for us without the paperwork.


M: Besides the rules, I think another factor we didn’t take into consideration was the rain. It just poured so relentlessly on the first two days and only stopped midway through the last day. In a weird way it felt like a sweet finisher to reward all the hard work and everyone who weathered with us all the way through.


R: I felt last year we got a really bad location, so I was actually surprised when you chose the same location. If I could do it again, I would choose somewhere more to the center where there is a lot more food traffic.

Regardless, I do like to think we’ve achieved something quite remarkable. A lot of upperclassmen have moved out of the dorm and they don’t get the chance to meet many first years. By helping out and sharing the space together, people do get to bond with each other even if many are only meeting for the first time.


E: Going off Ricky, one thing we realized was that using Facebook or other social media platforms for advertisement is not enough. It works a lot better when we do it face-to-face. Even for people who know each other, I guess spending time together helps create bonds.


R: Last year, PEAK professors also came and helped at one point or another, be it buying T-shirts or stopping by and purchasing the potatoes. Professor Woodward was really heartened by the fact that we got a booth going as a group. It was quite moving that both students and faculty can and do get involved in the process.


E: This year, it’s really funny how we just started singing naturally. There was always someone with a speaker, and there was always someone willing to sing or dance. Maybe this is a PEAK thing since no other booths were basically silent? (laugh)


R: You know, things go wrong on the day. You gotta innovate and work out the kinks. I think that’s the beauty of it.


M: And that got us sales! It also made the whole experience a lot more fun and showed the school our PEAK spirit, pun intended.

E: I think the message was duly delivered. And it was not only people in the university, or what we call the “Todai community,” but we’d like to believe we are doing our part to connect people regardless of where they come from.


M: This one guy who was born in China but grew up in Japan and was working at the booth across from ours came every morning for a youtiao and we actually got to talk quite a lot. In the end, we exchanged contacts. I’d like to think that through Komaba-sai, I got to build relationships with people I would not be able to meet otherwise.


(Eriko Yamada)

R: Since PEAK is centered at Komaba, I wanted to open a booth specifically at Komaba-sai. I think the fact that we continued the booth this year in itself is a legacy that I like to think I created, and I hope through Komaba-sai and all the events leading up to it, we can encourage interactions within and between year groups.


E: Speaking of legacy, I think selling fried food itself is a legacy I deliberately tried to continue. (Laugh) I felt that since our senpai started with fried food, I didn’t want to suddenly switch gears and do something entirely new. So instead, we built upon what we did before.

By the way, I do want to let whoever is going to work on the next Komaba-sai know this: the actual experience will be a lot better after the stressful preparation that does drag on. Once you meet people and have people doing this together as a group, it’s much more fun. So please look forward to the actual experience. Don’t lose hope because there will be people helping you.


M: Finally, what are you guys most proud of?


R: I’m actually really proud of Eriko for stepping up and continuing the booth! Komaba-sai really is a wonderful experience when all is said and done. So, I really do hope it continues and becomes a tradition for the PEAK community.


E: Thank you. I think I’m proud of PEAK as a community. I feel very fulfilled and grateful for everyone who came and shouldered the load together so that we got to represent our amazing community. There was one YouTuber who came to interview our booth. At the end of the interview, they said something like, “Wow! This booth can speak any language!” I was quite moved by that. In a way, it shows that we really ARE an amazing community.


M: For me, I’m most proud of being part of the process from the beginning through the end. You don’t get to work on projects like this often. It’s the people, the obstacles, the laughter, the all-nighters, the hugs, the music, the dancing, the handshakes, the heating patches, the glow sticks, the food, and ultimately the love we have for one another that made every moment something we’ll treasure for life.

Endnotes


[1] ES: The Environmental Sciences program in PEAK.


[2] PEAK: Programs in English at Komaba. The only English collegiate programs offered at the University of Tokyo.


[3] UTokyo has two school festivals: The May festival at Hongo Campus and Komaba-sai at Komaba campus.


[4] JEA: The Japan in East Asia Program in PEAK.

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