“Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs.”
– Mark Twain: “A Tramp Abroad”
It may sound strange, but I found the way to comfort in Japan through French fries. But later; I should first explain how I got there, what a shock it was, and how I sunk to a lonely point of self-pity.
JET offered me the chance to go from my home in New York to Japan. Now, I’ve lived in many countries – China, France, UK – and am pretty adaptable. I’ve always been an independent and fearless person, and thought I could take on anything the world had to throw at me. But it is one thing to enthusiastically agree to uproot your life and move to a country where you cannot speak the language, and another to actually do so.
Arriving in Japan, for the first time in my life, I doubted myself. There was never a lonelier moment than when I first heard the door close from inside my empty apartment. I had been looking forward to finally being able to unpack and enjoy a few minutes of silence. But instead of feeling relieved as I had expected, I was suddenly afraid. With only my suitcases for company, I began to contemplate the enormity of what I had just done. I was afraid to leave my apartment for fear of having to face a situation that I could not handle on my own. Confrontation and failure was an inevitable daily occurrence and I shrunk from it like I had never done before. I knew it was cowardly, but I treated it with self-pity. This only made me feel worse about myself, and perpetuated the cycle of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me.
The first month on JET was excruciatingly tough. Not a day went by when I wasn’t tempted to make it the last. Staying was a daily battle. I now needed to rely on people to help me with mundane tasks that I had never given a second thought to back home. It frustrated me to be a burden, when I was used to being so self-sufficient. I felt like I had lost twenty-two years and had become an infant once more; I was unable to help myself or tell anyone what I needed. I could only bite my lip in silence.
Biting my lip must have given me a clue – for somehow I became determined to shed my lethargy and to embark on a Japanese culinary journey. Not a physical journey of course, as I did have to show up to work every day, but one in which I would do my utmost to both sample and learn how to cook Japanese food. I am very much a burger girl – I like ’em red, juicy, and full of flavor. Since my initial reaction towards Japanese food had been one of marked distaste, I figured this was a perfect place to start adjusting to my new life.
My first cooking experience was with a Japanese family. I taught them how to make burgers and fries, and in exchange they taught me how to prepare sushi. The children loved the fries and we ended up eating all of them before we even sat down for dinner. Instead of eating pre-made sushi on a plate as I was used to doing, we each prepared our own sushi at the table. There was a plate of seaweed, a plate of sashimi, and a bowl of cooled down rice, to which we were to help ourselves. We said a quick “Itadakimasu” – I humbly receive – before eating.
The youngest little girl, Yuiko, proudly demonstrated how to roll the sushi. She carefully placed a sheet of seaweed on her palm and began to spread a thin layer of rice on it. In the middle, she put a spade shaped “Japanese herb” and a piece of sashimi. This is a piece of cake, I thought to myself, as she rolled it all together with ease. Now all eyes were on me. Alas, it was harder than I had expected. After a few tries, I managed to get the right amount of rice evenly spread out, although the ends of my sushi were still slightly askew.
I was glad when they laughed at my mistakes, because it taught me to laugh at myself. It also made me happy to be able to teach them a little something from my culture in exchange. As we munched on the juicy, cheese filled hamburgers, there were murmurs of “oishii” (delicious) all around the table. We all had ketchup and hamburger juice dripping from our mouths. I had to suppress a smile, having never realized how messy hamburgers were, until I saw their contorted faces trying desperately to keep all the food in their mouths.
The next time I went to their house, they made fries the way I had taught them as a gesture of appreciation, and I felt strangely touched. They also taught me how to make takoyaki, or fried octopus balls from scratch. The kids helped make them as well. Cooking and eating together was a family activity. Having grown up on TV dinners, I had never experienced this before. Although I could not communicate with this family except through gestures, I felt more at home with them than I had ever felt growing up.
On my quest to discover Japanese cuisine, I also took several cooking classes in the city. In one of the classes we learned how to make soba noodles from scratch. Some professional soba chefs came in to teach. As soon as they entered the room, everyone fell silent in respect and watched in awe as the chefs solemnly set about demonstrating their craft. Each step was completed with the utmost concentration, as if it were a sort of meditation. When it was our turn to make soba I was especially conscious of the order and accuracy of the task at hand. Those chefs had been able, through years of training, to master the art of balancing speed and precision. As I kneaded the buckwheat dough, I thought about how I could apply what I learned today to my life in Japan. Soba noodles are so simple that it’s hard to believe it takes years of practice to perfect. As I sliced the noodles, one of the chefs came by. “Ganbatte”, or fight on, he said with a smile. I know now, that with patience, something that is hard can be done correctly and effortlessly.
I had begun taking Japanese classes at a local community centre. I told my teacher about my culinary quest, as she often invited me over to her house for meals. Eager to show me that Japanese dishes weren’t as bland as the average foreigner imagined, she served up a diversity of plates such as to sate the palate of even the most critical of Zagat reviewers.
The most memorable of these dinners was on one bone-chilling winter night. While my feet warmed under the Kotatsu, or heated table, I asked my teacher what we were going to sample that night. “Fugu” she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes. Having heard of the dangers of eating this fish, I swallowed a shriek. There were limits to what I was prepared to sacrifice on my culinary quest, and toying with death was certainly one of them. Fugu chefs must have a special license because it’s extremely poisonous. Eating fugu is seen as a rite of passage for a foreigner being initiated into the Japanese way of life. It poses the question, “How far are you willing to go to be accepted among us?” Seeing the look on my face, my teacher and her husband hurriedly assured me that there was no danger.
We were to have fugu in many shapes and forms. First, fugu skin shavings and sashimi as appetizers, and fugu fins in our sake. Four minutes into the meal, my teacher’s husband asked me if I was ok – “Daijobu desu ka?” – as that’s how long it takes for one to swell up and slowly suffocate. I nodded and tried on a brave smile. He was always the one in charge of cooking at the table. At my favourable reaction, he began to cook our second course – fugu nabe, or hotpot. Nabe, he explained, is a popular winter style of cooking in Japan. I would have liked to say they even came up with a fugu-concocted dessert, but alas, even blowfish has its limits. All told, fugu was delicious, and given the chance, I might just take the risk again.
If you asked me at what point I made the drastic transition from fear and loneliness to confidence and contentment, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I almost don’t remember a time when I didn’t love my life here in Japan. Even so, there are still moments where I feel helpless, frustrated, and homesick. Although these feelings inevitably remain, and although I am and will still be considered a foreigner no matter how much Japanese I learn, I will never forget what it took to get to this point. Although I may never live up to my own expectations, what matters is I fought as bravely as I could and most importantly, learned that I could overcome my self-doubt.
As the long winter months draw to a close, and the oden stands begin to disappear, I eagerly anticipate the new culinary challenges that lie ahead. Spring is a time for new beginnings, I reflect, as I lean against the plum tree and laughter echoes around me. Dozens of families have, like us, abandoned the kotatsu to picnic under the blossoms with sake and bentos. My laughter joins the chorus as a baby wades through the pale pink sea of fallen blossoms, into his mothers waiting arms. The JET journey is not yet over and I have so much more to learn. Every day is still a battle, but it is also a chance for discovery – the beautiful, momentous, and stunning that is Japan, the journey, and ourselves. And of course, French fries.
*JET Programme Essay Competition 2007*