Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Kick down the walls, drag out your dreams."

So I mentioned that it's a sad hobby of us ALT's to translate what we can of the upcoming lunch menu? I start from the end of the month so we aren't working on the same meals. Yesterday we were engaged in this when I froze at an entry and my eyes got wide. "Hey," I caught A's attention, "Check out next Friday. It's Nattou Day." We both gaped at this in wonder and a little fear. See, people ask us constantly if we "can eat" Japanese food, especially nattou (it's up there with "can you use chopsticks" to which I want to reply, "Can you use a fork?"). I don't think it's fair to judge our openness to aspects of a culture by dishes which even most native Japanese won't eat. I might try a bit of it just so I can say I did.

It certainly won't be the first time here (or in America for that matter) where I've consumed something distasteful. Yesterday's lunch vegetable was tsukemono - picked things - which I usually love as it's much lighter and subtler than pickles from back home. Except this time in addition to the usual suspects cucumber, carrots, cabbage, there was strips of wakame, a type of kelp. Now, I love nori, the thin dry seaweed that is wrapped around sushi, and will eat it in sheets like chips. And konbu is the thick stiff kelp that is boiled to create the dashi broth that is the basis of so much Japanese cooking, and hence very useful. But I've never cared for wakame, in its taste or texture, and somehow the pickling process so complimentary to most foods only made it more unbearable. So a salad chock-full of it is just about torture for me. I could only eat it by holding my breath and barely chewing, and with the stern admonition back in training that we had to eat everything given us so as not to offend. Luckily, servings aren't huge of anything, so it wasn't too painful. But as I finished, a teacher walked by and plunked another dish of it on my desk with the cheerful cry of "extras!"

I couldn't do it. I couldn't eat another bite if you promised me 10000 yen and a trip to Nara. So I waited until I thought no one was looking and snuck to the service table. Now, extra food is dumped back into the mostly empty main pot, so there has to be a rallying cry of, "Is everyone done?" before the first people start to clean their trays. I tried to stealthily lift the lid - and of course another teacher came up next to me and started to scrape his own bowl into it. "Mottainai, ne?" he asked. "Ah, hai," I said in weak agreement.

Mottainai? I hear it all the time, but I couldn't think off the top of my head what it meant. So as soon as I'd put the lid on my sin and snuck back to my desk I pulled out my trusty electronic dictionary. It didn't come up the way I typed (I heard an e) so I was about to give up when a hand came from behind me and typed it in correct. It was the same teacher, and the entry that came up was, "What a waste!" Ah, it was as I'd feared. There was no way I could I could get anyone to have a good opinion of me. "Gomen nasai," I apologized with my head bowed. "Mottainai!" he said again. Yes, I heard you the first time, I'm a terrible person and you don't need to pound it into me. "Gomen nasai!" I said again, trying to remember the really humble "moshiwake arimasen." He must have got that I felt terrible because he went back and tapped on the pot indicating he meant the waste of the main dish (a delicious curry, by the way, of which I had eaten every bite give me) of which three inches remained, and not the unpleasant side dish being dumped into it. Even when I understood it wasn't me he was criticizing I was already in that anxious state and went to hide in a bathroom stall for a bit until I'd calmed.

But before you tell me, "You are weak," well, it'd been a hard week. That morning I'd followed the route the kids on bikes take, which includes a gauntlet of little old ladies who stop traffic with gloved hands to let the yellow-hatted elementary school kids go by in a duck-line. Usually they greet me with an ohayou gozaimasu, and the first week it was ganbatte kudasai (work hard!) but yesterday when I went to turn right by cutting the corner the way every kid in front of me did, the traffic lady pointed sternly at her feet - "koko!" - and then at the other corner across - "kochira!" so I felt like the smallest idiot to ever exist, unable to follow the simplest rules of traffic. Well, there are just those days when you can't do anything right, ne?

But the highlights were a fire-drill - sure the kids were a little louder and slower than the staff would have liked, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight to see that many children in coordination, much less chaotic than the drills I remember from Carnation Elementary.

And we were on the topic with the second years of "He is called ____" which is very useful because of the Japanese fondness for nicknames. We used various music and TV examples, including the extremely girly pop group Morning Musume - "They are called Momosu." Musume means daughter or girl, and they're about as bubblegum as it gets. For some reason, several of the boys in class decided spontaneously to form a group called "Morning Musuko" - musuko being son. I don't know what sort of image they're going for, but if it's anything like the cheerleader-ish original group it'd be highly entertain to see on mid-puberty boys.

There's an incredible Japanese news story about a homeless woman who snuck into a man's house when he left the door unlocked and lived in his closet FOR A YEAR before he started noticing food missing and set up a camera system.

1 comment:

Beeniac said...

You left us in suspense --What is nattou?