(as seen in the March 2008 issue of The Grapevine, at Skokie Public Library)
Maiko and I met in August 2002 when we started our graduate studies. We were friends for several years before we began dating. This trip offered an opportunity to meet Maiko’s parents, mentors, professors and friends, and to better understand more of the culture from which she comes.
An American friend who once taught English in
Language. Every two or three weeks last fall, while carrying clothes to and from the laundry room, I would pump up my iPod. I would try to sort, wash, dry, and fold clothes while practicing the “lyrics” to Pimsleur’s Speak and Understand Japanese:
Watashi-wa [I] nihongo-ga [Japanese language] scochi [a little] wakarimas [understand], demo [but] mudda [yet] jozu jari masen [I am not very good].
This sentence emphasized the importance of modesty as a new learner of Japanese. I understand the importance of modesty, but it’s also just true: I Japanese language a little understand, but yet I am not very good. One needs not modestly downplay an ability one has not.
In her parents’ home, we communicated in fragments of broken language. One of my favorite moments was when, after much effort, I decoded Maiko’s father’s words, go-oru den reddo ribaa, first as golden red river, and then as Golden Retriever.
Food. Japanese cuisine was, like Japanese language, designed for a foreign tongue, but I found it easier to pick up, and swallow, literally, and figuratively. Indeed, my proficiency with chopsticks – o-hashi – was not merely noticed, but celebrated. Weekend chopstick academy finally paid off. I was so caught off guard by the praise that I forgot to respond with modesty. Some highlights of our 10-day food fest:
Better than a Zen garden. Mister Donut serves a “bitter choco” donut, which is filled with a decadent, dark chocolate cream – not brown-colored, shortening-flavored Cool Whip. Outstanding. Worthy of reverence. Sublime.
Tofu. Nishigaki-sensei, Maiko’s undergrad thesis advisor, took us to a tofu restaurant in
Sushi. My mother taught me when I was young that eating anything raw – other than fruits and vegetables – would certainly kill me (or if it didn’t kill me, she would kill me for risking it). Nevertheless, in the spirit of good old-fashioned, late twentysomething rebellion, I had become acquainted with sushi and sashimi a few years back, and discovered I really do enjoy it. (Please do not tell my mother.) I ate a lot of very tasty, very recently deceased swimming things on this trip. Amazing. But I’ve eaten my first and last raw prawn.
Ramen. In a traditional Japanese noodle shop, you can get a bowl of hearty, homemade noodle soup with meat and vegetables, starting at about $4, and slurping is encouraged. It’s a Japanese staple food, celebrated in Itami Juzo's culinary cult film, Tampopo. A comparable bowl of ramen on the 7th floor of Macy’s costs $9. (For a good value on American-style soup in
Vending yin and yang. Vending machines serve canned and bottled beverages, both cold (blue buttons) and warm (red) in the same machine. Whether you’d like iced coffee, warm green tea, Mountain Dew (cold only), or canned corn chowder (warm only), someone’s looking out for your beverage needs. Cost: about 20% higher than
To tip or not to tip: there is no question. The Japanese have extremely high standards of customer service, so a tipping system could cause the Japanese psyche to melt down. One simply knows to expect extraordinary service from every server in every restaurant. Bonus: there are no mental gymnastics needed to calculate “actual” food prices from the menu (taking a $17 entrée, adding 11% sales tax plus either 15%, 18%, 20% or more tip depending on your mood, your server’s mood, and the efficiency of the kitchen staff).
For more on the Epistelesslogical Rupture's Japan trip, see the Epistelesslogical Rupture's previous blog post (or next post, depending on how you look at it) on public transit; check out the YouTube video by clicking here; and visit our Picasa photo album by clicking here. Where was the first photo posting about the trip? Take a look on SkokieTalk!