We had Kunyo's family over to our home the last time. At this party his wife, Yayuee asked me what kind of food was my favorite. Not at all yet speaking one another's languages well, I took her to my pantry and showed her what I usually cook. Before ever moving to Japan, my favorite food has always been sushi since my freshman college dorm roommate introduced me to it. Sushi dinners became a regular thing with my sisters and I over the years, also. Both my my college roommate and sisters taught me the way and I have been hooked on this light, healthy and artistic food for over 12 years now. So I showed my new friend my sushi-seaweed-rolling sheets (Nori) in my pantry and signaled in silly sign language that sushi was my number one favorite dish. She then explained to me, through our mobile phone translator application, that she would have a sushi rolling party for me and my family soon. I was elated.
When it came time to go to their home for our next dinner party, I knew it was the "sushi rolling party" this time around. What did that mean? Was I supposed to bring my own supplies to have for us or them, or to contribute? She knew I had my own Nori, was I supposed to swap sushis with her? Our language barrier was not so much of a problem until this past Saturday when I had no idea what to do or bring?! So I figured, she knew we were Americans and clueless about this kind of event. So like true Americans, we baked an apple pie and came with some other small gifts of gratitude to present to them and that was that. I felt good about it.
It was a joy to see their family again and to be in their home for our second time. All the kids started to warm up to the other family's adults. We all seemed to be continuing the getting-to-know-each-other-journey through sincere smiles and warm laughs and the growing small bits of education we struggle to have for each other's foreign language worlds. They even presented us with a wide array of Christmas gifts, knowing this was a big American tradition coming in December, which they do not really celebrate. They gave us things like Sake wine, Japanese fall jackets for both Chad and me, flip flops custom made with our daughter Mirabelle's name carved into the shoes, one shoe with her name in English, the other with her name in Japanese, a fabulous princess dress up set they knew she would love and for her also a gorgeous traditional Japanese wooden doll. They also gave me a card with Japan's islands and cities listed in English so we could better understand where the adults were all born and what cities each of our gifts were from. These are truly heart felt and wonderful, gracious gifts. They spoiled us with their abundant kindness!
After the gift exchange, came my favorite part of the evening, the table filled with FOOD. This was not just food. It was a plethora of nourishing, fresh and flavorful local fare. I felt at ease when she began to explain (through a translating friend) how she wanted us to dig in. The hostess did not make us feel dumb, Yayuee simply knew we most likely had never been to a home dinner party of this kind and I knew she was bringing out the best for us. She told us to each take a piece of Nori (seaweed-sushi roller paper) place on it a pile of rice, a piece of beautiful fish, lettuce, tofu, hot wasabi or whatever we wanted from the spread and she showed us how she rolled it right up and dipped it in soy sauce and began to eat it, without cutting it, just like a burrito. It was just like the sushi maki rolls you would see at any sushi restaurant or grocer, without all the cutting and presentation. I loved every second of it and we could personalize all of the food we each enjoyed on our own.
There was a gigantic bowl of sticky rice for the whole table to share. We each had our own rice spoon to use for constructing our rolls.
Even their children (who are 1 and 3) ate the sushi. My daughter does not seem interested yet in the seaweed wraps but we are working on it through continually offering it to her. I love how healthy all of the Japanese children eat from day one and so then, inevitably throughout their lives.
We had fresh, raw Salmon, Shrimp, Tuna and Mackerel to choose from, as well as Squid tempura and Mackerel tempura (which is lightly fried fish). There was pickled radish salad, salmon, cucumber and octopus salad, egg salad sandwiches, tofu with a scallion sauce, local seaweed salad, miso soup, spicy fried chicken, fresh bread and macaroni salad. If you could not find something you liked to eat at this table, there is something wrong with ya. We learned that not all Japanese people eat raw fish, just like Americans. So, there was something for everyone in their group of family and friends. I dove right in. The first time we were at their home I ate like a bird, pick, pick, didn't want to seem like a big, fat, rude American coming over. This time, and after knowing them better, I went for it. I ate the fish alone (sashimi style), in rolls and wasabi-ed up my plate and learned to enjoy and have a great time eating with them. I learned many things. For one, you do not have to be super tidy when eating their food. Often in sushi restaurants in America and Japan, I sometimes feel awkward while eating a hand roll or a piece too large to fit in my mouth in one bite. So what, they say! Get messy with it. Eat with your hands, devour, enjoy, if it crumbles and piles up on your plate with the first bite, scoop it up with your next bite. They often take their plates or bowls right to their mouth and literally shovel the goods into their head. I love it. It is very relaxing and it makes it seem (to who prepared it) as though you love and adore each bite you consume. Also, I had been told (I think by an American some time in my past) that it was inappropriate to take the wasabi and mix it around in your soy sauce creating a "wasabi soup" for dipping. Well, the woman who prepared the food, the lady of the house, a born and bread Japanese and a food expert who used to own her own food store, ate her wasabi and soy sauce that very way, stirred in. So never again will I feel timid about eating in a Japanese or sushi restaurant. Now I know what to do. For dessert were lovely hot cakes (they tasted just like American breakfast pancakes) with a soy and peanut paste topping. It was simply scrumptious.
The interesting thing about our friend's home is that their kitchen table is topped off by a huge TV at the foot of the table and end of the eating room! Their traditional Japanese kitchen table is on the floor, like usual, but what shocked me was how they watch TV the whole meal. A typical Japanese person will never have anything, not one thing left to prepare after their guests arrive. It is considered rude to be doing anything away from the conversation dinner table once a guest is in their home. If they have anything left to prepare after you have gotten there, they prepare it right at the table so as to not miss any time with their guests. It is quite a nice way to be. But then they had on show a variety of Japanese cartoons, game shows and movies all throughout our meal. The night was topped off with a television presentation of the home video of the wife giving birth to their 3 year old son! My husband and I felt completely natural about watching it while at their home and then snickered to ourselves after we left in conversation; "did you think that was odd?" "That would never be done in an American home dinner party!" "Would anyone like more squid?" We got a hearty chuckle. But like I said, it did not seem odd at the time, it just provided us with some laughing later on. They keep their delivery rooms and laboring Mothers very discreet with sheets and covering in Japan, as we clearly learned! They are laid back and kind, relaxing people to be around. We adore our new friends.
We adore as well, this invaluable experience the military has provided us of learning all about the details of the differences between our American and Japanese worlds, histories and traditions. We looked through Kunyo's high school yearbooks after dessert. They did not seem too much different from our own year books. I am pretty sure every single Japanese, school age kid wears a pristine uniform no matter where they go to school. And we could not understand what the hand positions were that they all made in their school photos? We asked and they did not know how to explain it to us. It was so funny, we would never wear uniforms at the public school I attended, but we would also never make a funny hand gesture in our school pictures, either! Mother would kill me if I didn't have a perfectly proper way to document myself at this age or that school year. It is so funny how things are backwards, different and twisted between the two cultures. What is proper at home is no big deal over here and vice versa. This brings me to a point that I feel in my bones and believe to be factual: though we may seem very, very different in specific, certain ways from one culture to the next, really when it comes down to it, we are all the same and balanced. It makes the heart sing and the belly happy to be spending time in another hemisphere and with these lovely people.