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Questions that keep eating me

by Thomas Dillon

Here’s a short list of some of the questions I first heard in my early days in Japan, in the mid 1970s.

“Can you eat sushi?”

“How about natto?”

“And have you ever tried salted squid guts?” (shiokara, in Japanese)

The odd thing is I continue to hear these same questions even now, over three decades later.

Pin me into a party conversation with a fresh Japanese acquaintance and sooner or later these old queries all pop out, along with the predictable slobberings over how well I can handle chopsticks.

And my answers?

Well . . . I have never been a sushi fan. I do not care for natto. And I don’t even like to say “salted squid guts,” let alone eat it.

Yet, something about the automatic nature of these questions merits comment.

I mean, why these questions and not others? Why not . . .

“How come you left the States? Are you a loser?”

Or . . . “Hey, if you’re not gonna eat your squid guts, can I?”

I wonder . . . do people grasp for these same worn food inquiries when stuck with other Japanese? Somehow I think not.

So what is it about the foreign face that brings out such tired attempts at dialog?

Perhaps the answer is merely that simple offerings are best. When lost for words, people just reach for what’s convenient.

But the invocation of food items sometimes seems an attempt at establishing position. The building of a cultural barrier made not of bricks and mortar but of wasabi and rice.

As if the questioners were really saying: “There is a distance between you and I that you will never overcome; these questions are proof thereof.”

OK. Two can play at this. So here is my anti-list. The foreign foods that most Japanese will decline to eat.

Beginning with . . . licorice.

“That’s not fair,” says my Japanese acquaintance. “Licorice is a candy, not a food.”

An argument I thwart with a fib. I tell him I stick licorice into ham sandwiches.

His eyes bulge. “Really?”

“Why would I lie about licorice? So, c’mon. Mix it with your squid guts. It might be good, you never know.”

Of course he won’t. For most Japanese don’t like licorice and will refuse it under any circumstance. Tastes too much like medicine, they say.

So I say back: “Medicine can be good for you.” Especially if you’re feverish over culture.

Next: celery.

“Oh, I can eat celery,” he says.

And he can. But he can’t make his kids eat it, unless he first ties them down and threatens them with licorice.

For celery here is an acquired taste, an adult taste. People use it in cooking, but if you want to give someone the willies, pick up a stick of celery and eat it raw right before their eyes.

“I like to fill the curve with cream cheese. But you could use natto.”

“Are you human?” he asks.

Licorice, celery and then . . .

Oatmeal.

“Aha!” he says. “No problem there! Oatmeal is good!”

Of course, he is thinking oatmeal cookies. That is not what I’m thinking.

Which is just a bowl of boiled oats. Slap on some milk. And eat.

He blinks. “It’s true. You’re not human! You’re a horse!”

I tell him he could add sugar, if he likes. Or butter. Or raisins. Or nuts. Or licorice.

“A demented horse!”

And now for the coup de grace:

“Forget the oatmeal. How about a nice bowl of . . . rice pudding? I can fix one now.”

“Um . . .” I can almost hear him sweat.

“You love rice, right?”

“Yes, but . . .” He glances at his watch. He glances at the door.

Glances which mean that he doesn’t want his dinner rice pumped with sugar. The very idea makes his intestines retract.

My own mother, on her first chance to feed her brand new Japanese daughter-in-law, outdid herself with a tremendous rice pudding.

Which my bride wouldn’t touch.

“Please don’t make this anymore,” she said. “I can’t eat it.” Reasoning that honesty was the best policy, even with fresh in-laws.

The funny thing is . . . serve some rice pudding without saying what it is, and many Japanese — especially kids — will wolf it down. And then ask for more.

Going to show that taste in food is not the best tool for drawing cultural lines. Everyone is different and likes and dislikes underscore our variety as individuals rather than our separation into groups.

A separation that in Japan might be emphasized too much.

“For example,” I tell my acquaintance. “Have you ever lived abroad?”

Yes, he tells me, he has.

“And how many times did people there ask you if you could eat licorice, oatmeal or rice pudding?”

“Never.”

“See my point?” I say. “Likes and dislikes just depend. You shouldn’t use them to draw conclusions — about people or culture or anything.”

He soaks that in, nods slowly. And says . . .

“OK. Now . . . how about raw horse? Can you eat that?”