While I’ve gained a lot from solo travel over the years (confidence, independence, an appreciation for first-world flush toilets), it was an afternoon with a sea cucumber that taught me my most valuable lesson to date.
It was 2008, I was 25 and I’d just traded in my job on a cruise ship for a job teaching English in Japan. In those early months in Tokyo, my Japanese reading level was about as advanced as a three-year-old Orangutan’s, which made ordering in a restaurant difficult, to say the least. Unable to read the menu and too embarrassed to ask for help, I’d stab my finger at a random word, smile at the waiter and murmur a Japanese phrase I’d practiced in front of the mirror at home: “Kore wo kudasai.” This one please. A few minutes later, the waiter would come back with a bowl of ramen or chicken curry and I’d mask my surprise with a sip of tea and a “domo arigato”.
But on this particular afternoon in November, the dish the waiter placed in front of me wasn’t ramen and unless it’d recently come out of the rear end of one, it wasn’t chicken either. It didn’t even look edible. Sprawled across a plate of mushrooms and green vegetables like he owned it, was a black, log-shaped creature. Cautiously, I poked him with the tip of my chopstick and watched in shock as he shimmied across the plate in response. Holy crap! It’s alive!
Forgetting my embarrassment, I turned to the man seated next to me at the bar: “Kore wa nan desu ka?” I asked. What is this?
According to my dictionary, that’s a sea cucumber. I’d learn later that the Japanese character for sea cucumber, ??, literally means “sea rat”, an odd choice of a name for a Japanese delicacy, but fitting, considering it looked about as appetizing as its dumpster-dwelling cousin, the land rat.
Though I contemplated paying my bill and leaving right then and there, I knew I’d be blowing my cover and the waiter and everyone else in the café would know me for the illiterate faker that I really was. Thus, skewering the creature through where I imagined his intestines to be, I lifted him to my mouth, and trying not to wrinkle my nose as I did, I took a bite. And then, very cautiously, I chewed.
Gross! Was my first reaction. It was raw and chewy and slimier than I had expected. I wanted to spit it out, run to the restroom and wash my mouth out with toilet bowl cleaner. But I stopped myself.
Are you sure it’s gross? I remember thinking. Or could it be that it’s just different? The Japanese clearly considered it worth eating, as did the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and Indonesians. If they all liked it, couldn’t I learn to like it too? I forced myself to relax and taste it. And what I found surprised me.
It didn’t taste bad. Sure, it was no filet mignon (it tasted like a salty cross between a squid and an eggplant) but when I didn’t think about the fact that I was eating the ocean’s version of a vacuum cleaner, I had to recognize the fact that well, while I didn’t exactly like it, I didn’t hate it either.
While this may seem like an insignificant event (I’d discovered a new food, not a cure for cancer), for me, it was pivotal. While I slowly finished eating, it dawned on me that sometimes what I believed to be feelings of dislike were in actuality, feelings of shock at experiencing something completely foreign. In my world, a sea cucumber was the slimy disgusting thing your little brother threw at you during trips to the beach. In Japan, a sea cucumber is an expensive source of antioxidants. For the first time in my life, I began to question my perception of reality and reexamine many of the thoughts and opinions I’d previously regarded as facts.
It’s funny that it took moving 7,000 miles away from my home in New York for me to learn how to be more open-minded, but as Mark Twain once said: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Sometimes it takes being a fish out of water (or eating one) to become the person you were meant to be.