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July 18, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Culture shock, schmulture shock

(January 28, 1999)

Culture shock. I’ve never figured out if I had it. Some would say that’s a good indication of its degree and magnitude.

In my view it was more like this: By the time we got here (arrived on June 1, 1975) after a year on the road, we had seen and experienced so much that for our first month in Japan all I thought was: It’s OK to drink the water. The whole place seemed like a piece of cake because of that simple fact. During our journey overland, drinking water (which we can all agree is basic) was our basic concern.

Japanese squat toilets certainly didn’t present any difficulty. I’d had to deal with some facilities for which “toilet” was a euphemism. While describing them here would not be appropriate, let’s just say they were both challenging and memorable.

Can’t read the signs? No problem. We hadn’t been able to read the signs since we crossed the northern Italian border into Yugoslavia.

I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. Not to worry. I could recite parts of the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra).

Food was how I made my entry into Japanese culture (not counting the early films of Kurosawa, the writings of D.T. Suzuki, Paul Reps and Alan Watts, and some experimentation with sake). Food can open a door on a culture, and it can shut it too. It can be a culture’s biggest shock. I know people who have left this country because they couldn’t stand the cuisine.

Long before I’d even thought about going to Japan, Japanese food was familiar because my husband had studied Japanese cooking and taught me a bit. I could already make a decent o-musubi when I came here, knew never to boil miso and to toast nori before using it.

I knew umeboshi could be used as a digestive aid and that nimono should be covered with an otoshibuta to cook properly. I found nothing strange about shaving a chunk of petrified katsuo to make dashi.

Although my husband (then my friend) did not make much of an impression with me when he introduced me to raw fish in Japantown in San Francisco in 1967, I didn’t find anything odd about eating it when I came here. (And I long ago figured out that the best answer to the question “Can you eat sushi?” — my favorite food — is an unhurried, “Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you invite me to a sushi bar and I’ll give it a try.”

I’d had no experience with cold noodles and found nothing tempting about dipping into noodles served in a bowl of water and ice, but I loved soba from the first. These buckwheat noodles had been one of the staples of our traveling diet because they’re nutritious, store well and cook fast.

When I was first served grilled eel I thought, “Yeah, right.” My only experience with eating eel had been in Denmark where they smoke it. When I tasted the sweet-salty, sticky kabayaki I thought the Japanese had gotten it all wrong. (It’s now at the top of my list of favorite dishes.)

And everything was just wrong about natsu mikan. I had just come from eating the world’s best oranges in Turkey. When I had a taste of the big, thick-skinned, sour, pale-orange thing, the thought that ran through my mind was: “These poor deprived people. They don’t know what an orange is.”

I admit it took me a full year to even try konnyaku, and putting natto in my mouth was simply a leap of faith, but now I eat it regularly. It had been recommended by a Belgian friend who swooned about it in the way my friend Keiko is in raptures when she talks about fresh shiokara. Somehow, I have yet to eat shikokara. I don’t find anything particularly mouth-watering about salted raw squid innards, but I haven’t purposely avoided it.

Like many others, I think the biggest culture shock was the first time I bit into bread with sweet bean paste in the middle. No can do. Not then. Not now. Ditto melon paste bread.

I’ve always loved rice, but I have a British friend who lives in Nara who told me that the only reason I like rice is because I’ve been “brainwashed”. While he sings the glories of potatoes and will not suffer them to be maligned (in fact he suffers very little because his [Japanese] wife is an excellent French cook), he says he simply cannot see the “point” of eating rice. I can’t go many days without it.

Since I’ve neve studied Japanese cooking, I wing it a lot and make up all sorts of dishes. When I make o-zoni,  I tell my family “This is how they eat it in Tottori-ken,” or “This is the way it’s eaten in the Hokuriku region,” and there’s no one to contradict me.

When a neighbor in our old village had my o-zoni and told me he liked it better than his mother’s I knew I had arrived.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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