Copyright 2005 by Meredith Hodges-Boos
You don’t run into many blonde, southern Methodist girls in Japan. There’s also a distinct lack of chicken and dumplings, collard greens and fried tomatoes in the Land of the Rising Sun. But being a southern girl living in a Japanese fishing village straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha, you learn to deal with doing without. But some things, like grits and religion, are harder to shake than you’d think.
Now to fully understand southern Methodist culture you have to understand one simple word…potluck. Every fourth Sunday of the month, our congregation huddled together in the glaring light of the basement kitchen worshiping with the smells of half a dozen different fried chickens and homegrown vegetables. Everyone would bring their family specialty simmering in mismatched bowls covered with glinting aluminum foil that put the old ladies’ best dresses to shame. It was the height of the congregation’s month. Moms only had to think of one thing to cook, kids had their pick of about twenty different desserts and dads didn’t have to worry about doing the dishes, if they ever did worry about that in the first place. The lunch lasted longer than the service and entailed a heck of a lot more fellowship. And just to prove we were good Methodists, we also had second Sunday cookie time to make sure the little members of our church didn’t feel left out from only having twenty items to choose from at the normal potluck. I grew up swaddled in that culture where we took the idea of the Last Supper to a whole new level. So by the time I left for Japan, I knew more recipes for apple cobbler and casseroles than scriptures.
When I left my church family, my real family and the comfort of any food I knew how to prepare, much less eat, it knocked me for the proverbial loop. Replacing my beloved fried catfish on warm paper plates appeared raw slices of pink salmon and dishes of wet, cold and equally raw, sea urchin creeping over elegantly sculpted square dishes. And instead of deviled eggs and baked beans, pickled radish, cabbage, plums and goodness knows what else served as side dishes. Until Japan the only pickle delineation I knew of was either ‘sweet’ or ‘dill’. For such an advanced culture, the Japanese sure found a lot of time to test out pickling just about everything. I mean, who else would think to pickle squid innards, much less eat them? But I could do without the catfish, I guess. I mean it wasn’t like we were completely outnumbered. That’s the opinion I held in foolishly optimistic regard until they brought out the live sea snails that looked like they’d gone under the same radiation fall-out as Godzilla. Maybe they were some sort of pet, I thought, until my supervisor dug one wiggling, black lump out the shell and proceeded to slurp it down with gusto. My optimism died as slowly and as strangely as the poor sea snails that night.
In my quest for normal food, I was not disappointed. In the next town were the staples of American fast food, including a McDonalds (now with the new mochi rice cake burger) and a Kentucky Fried Chicken complete with a statue of the Colonel the workers dressed in traditional Japanese garb for New Years. But fast food can only carry a good southern girl so far. Luckily, I found a buffet restaurant called Suteiki (Steak) One that had potato salad and a western motif complete with a sign in English. By that point I was thrilled to be able to read anything and my heart pounded when I saw it and smelled the tale-tell fragrance of cooked meat. Granted the sign said, “Scrape the shit off your boot as you come in” but it felt familiar with pictures of cowboys and lassos strung up on the walls. Or it did until the speakers started blaring ballads by Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra as the waiters served your food wearing cowboy hats and bandanas. Most dinners at Suteiki One felt like a mix between an ol’ time train robbery and a music appreciation class I took in college. The steaks went a little too close to the way of sushi and most times the meal was sent back again to get the pink out, but Steak One served as a refuge when I could stand bowls of rice no longer.
Religion in Japan was equally baffling. Most of my colleagues practiced both Eastern Buddhism of the monotheistic vein, and Shintoism, the uniquely Japanese polytheistic religion, together. That’s sort of like being Methodist, Jewish and Wicca at the same time. Go figure, it worked well for everyone I met during my time in the baffling fishing village. You aren’t supposed to be real passionate about things in Japan and that went double on trying to convince someone what you thought was right. There are many degrees of ‘right’ in Japan. So sweet Methodist me kept her pretty little American mouth shut and steered away from the topic when possible, even though my stomached cried out for fellowship of the food based kind every fourth Sunday of the month. When people brought up questions about Christianity, my conversations swerved back into the well worn ruts of my undertaking to master the art of ‘creative’ Southern cooking with only half the ingredients that I really needed. Then I’d smile and nod to whoever I was talking with while edging around the culture gap on tiptoes.
For two years, I acclimated myself to Japan. Bowing became more comfortable than a handshake, stares on the buses and trains started to subside and I became comfortable. I learned to eat the raw, love the raw and crave the raw. Part of my upbringing faded away, slipping through the busy schedule, the sheer wonder of a new culture, and slowly, I forgot to miss my Sunday religion and my iron skillet cornbread. There were so many new ideas to delve into to keep myself from being homesick and I truly feel my co-workers appreciated my enthusiasm, even though it was a bit uncouthly passionate in their eyes. Then, as if it was all a strange trick of time, the Southern Alice was ready to wake up from her Japanese Wonderland and tumbled back home to the cradle of the Appalachian Mountains. My contract was winding down to an end.
With the end of my time in Japan came the inevitable slew of parties. Teachers work hard in Japan and have the respect usually conserved for doctors and philosophers but they loved an excuse to let their hair down and relax. Usually we had what I dubbed ‘low-tide’ cuisine, the most Japanese of Japanese food. The fish was twice as raw as normal and four times as abundant. Although I liked to see my co-workers in a less stressful atmosphere, I dreaded the onslaught of course after course of the strange food. The snail incident still liked to slime my memories.
My farewell party consisted of the most straight laced Japanese business men one could imagine. Usually the more businesslike the members of the party were, the stranger the food served. But instead of sushi and pickled squid guts, I was met with the strangest smell and the most nostalgic sight. Sitting on the low table, hovering like a mirage above the weave of tatami mats was a clutter of mismatched dishes, rimmed with aluminum foil and smelling like a hundred fourth Sunday potlucks. My teachers and superiors had made fried chicken, an attempt at cornbread, green beans with little pieces of bacon hiding in the juices, creamed corn pudding, sweet potato fluff with something that didn’t look like marshmallows on top but sure did taste like it, and to top the dinner off…apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
I was speechless as we sat down on the floor cushions to say our usual Japanese version of ‘grace’. Hunger and excitement blurred my careful composure and I started to clap my hands together and say, ittadakimasu and get down to eating, when one of my teachers put her hands over mine. Tears sprang to my eyes as my principal, who spoke almost no English, began to haltingly recite the Lord’s Prayer and my co-workers all bowed their heads and joined in. I couldn’t breathe; my heart was too full for my lungs to have any room for air. In that moment, it all came rushing back, my heritage, my memories and all my warm feelings for the home I’d left behind and would return to. And on its heels was a fierce love and new homesickness for the culture of Japan that had bent around to care for me when I thought even simple acceptance was impossible for a Southern Methodist girl.
So, let me end with a word to the wise. It’s
awful hard to eat grits with chopsticks…but it can be done!
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