Sunday, January 29, 2006

analyze me

I had a dream.

Apparently there is a range of sounds in Western-style hand-clapping that cannot be produced by the Japanese way of hand-clapping. A lecturer was giving a lecture on the subtle but important difference between the two ways of clapping hands. A whole bunch of Japanese grade school kids listened intently, then practiced the Western-style hand-clapping, imitating the enthusiastic lecturer. When they all nailed it down, they marched out of the hall into the street lined with neighvorhood produce stores and fish markets, clapping their hands in the Western way, producing the impossible sounds unknown to the Japanese thus far. They were VERY proud of the noises their little hands made, as onlookers stood amazed.

I wonder what Freud has to say about this.

keywords: psychoanalysis, psychology, dream, dream analysis, Freud, East-West

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

the horror of milk tofu refuse

The most horrifying food experience in my life, thus far, came right after my family moved back to Japan from Bangkok, where we’d lived for five years. Among other changes, I was to be introduced to the wilderness of school lunch, out of the cozy protection of home-cooked lunches. My mother, never a big fan of cooking, was giving a sigh of relief, but I wasn’t very excited.

After the first day of the new school, I studiously went over the month’s school lunch menu. My eyes got fixated at one item among other, more safe-sounding ones: milk tofu refuse. It was scheduled to be served somewhere in the second week of school. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was going to be bad. I hated milk. I went to my mother and asked what the “tofu refuse” was. Instantly, her facial expression changed into that of agony. Obviously, it evoked some painful memories within her. “It’s a byproduct of tofu making. After you squeeze the soymilk out of the beans, you get the refuse. My grandma used to cook those all the time. I never liked them,” she said. I pictured a bowl of lukewarm milk with fibery bits of soy residue floating in it. It seemed to be the worst food possibly ever imaginable. “But it’s nutritious,” my mother added like an afterthought.

For the next ten or so days, the horrible image lingered in the back of my mind. When the day came, I seriously considered playing hooky, but couldn’t summon up the guts to do so and headed out for school in defeat. At 12:30, I was looking down at my plastic plate. Instead of a bowl of milk with tofu refuse floating in it, there was a pale brown, moist blob of some fibery stuff with bits of carrots mixed in. I wondered where the milk was, and thought the moistness had to be the milk. I looked at other kids’ plates. They seemed to have gotten much less of the refuse than I did. I picked at it, and fled to the task of eating other things. When there was nothing else left on my plate, however, I had to face the milk tofu residue reality again. In Japanese schools, not finishing what you have been served isn’t an option. It’s impolite, unhealthy, and wasteful. I poked at the brown blob a few more times, trying to keep the tears welling up in my eyes, in vain. I had no proof, but I was convinced it was the yuckiest thing in the world. The mere thought of putting the substance into my mouth was more than enough. By this time, most of my second-grade classmates had finished their lunch and gone out to play in the schoolyard. The teacher noticed my torment and came over to me. Probably because I was still new in school, she decided that I could “take home” the milk tofu refuse just this one time. She gave me a plastic bag from her desk, and I put my archenemy in it, knowing very well that no one would eat it back home.

In a few weeks, I realized that the school lunch was a great system. I liked most of the food, and the variety was fantastic. But I never got over my ingrained fear of milk tofu refuse. I didn’t have to suffer much, though, for I quickly developed a skill to sneakily give it off to some of my hungrier friends whenever it was served. As a result—I still don’t know what it tastes like.

keywords: school, childhood, food, lunch, school lunch, horror, Japan, tofu, tofu refuse, okara, culture shock, culture

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

flight from dishes--a domestic sketch

My boyfriend never does dishes, except for two occasions: when someone outside of his immediate family is visiting him during my absence and when he has no clean dish or cup to use (and he has a large collection of dishes and cups, I don’t know why). There is no exception to this rule. When I’m sick, he just waits for me to get well enough to do the dishes. On such unfortunate occasions, though, when he absolutely has to perform the daunting task, you’ll find him standing in front of his kitchen sink, at a loss where to start. He’ll eventually pick up a cup with a coffee ring on the bottom or a knife covered with congealed butter and start washing them reluctantly (with liberal dose of annoyed sighs), but apparently it takes an enormous will power to even touch them.

I don’t like doing dishes, but I prefer that to having a pot of fermenting water (in which some pasta was boiled a week ago, maybe) sitting on top of the stove, so I usually give in and wash the dishes, cursing myself silently for letting him have his ways yet again. He would be surfing on the Internet in the adjoining room. In a few minutes, he would sneak over to the kitchen and fondle me from behind, making noises that he believes to be guilt-ridden. “You’re too nice,” he would say. I’ve learned better than that. After all, we’ve been together for close to two years now.

One night, when his sister and I were doing dishes (surprise!) after a Thanksgiving dinner, his dish-escapism became the subject of our conversation. "Does he ever do the dishes?" she asked.

"Hmm, I'd say very rarely," I said.

She grinned knowingly. "Yeah, he tries very hard not to do it at all. Once he told me that he didn't know how to."

"That's a great excuse."

"Yeah, and I showed him, right there, how to do it. Oh, was he unhappy!"

We laughed, a laughter of kinship, consisting of a part annoyance, a part affection, and a part forgiveness.

His sister continued. “You know, Patrick is not sexist or anything. He escapes from dishes not because he believes that women are solely responsible for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman or a man who does dishes for him. He’s not a sexist. He’s…” She posed for the right word.

“Just lazy,” I filled in the blank.

keywords: boyfriend, girlfriend, relationship, power, politics, domestic power politics, dish, dish washing, lazy, funny, feminism, gender

Thursday, January 12, 2006

spray your coat with grease--a night of tapas bar hopping in Madrid: part 1

Although its appeal felt slightly faded after coming back from the epicurean country of Basque, we found Madrid with a great range of tapas bars to offer. One of the convenient clusters of tapas bars scattered across the city is the Santa Ana area, about five minutes walk from the tourist-and-pickpockets-filled Puerta del Sol. On our third night, which we inadvertently spent in Madrid waiting for our backpacks that disapperaed during the flight in, we went to the Santa Ana district for a night of tapas-bar hopping.

tapas hopping
Figure A: Spaniards hapily tapas-hopping in Santa Ana.

The streets were literally filled with people overflowing from busy bars (Figure A). Smell of garlic (a Spanish staple) being fried in abundant olive oil (another staple) floated in the crisp yet welcomingly warm night air of mid-December. We headed to a tapas bar, which, according to my reliable companion's "Rough Guide to Spain," specialized in sea food to kick off our night. The place, despite its fluorescent-lit drabness, was packed with local customers mainly in their forties and fifties. A good sign. We squeezed in to get a narrow stretch of the counter and ordered a portion of gambas al ajillo (small shrimps cooked in garlic-scented olive oil in a small clay pan) and patatas bravas (fried wedges of potatoes smothered in spicy red sauce, my favorite dish from the last visit to Spain). The shrimps were ever so tender and sweet in themselves, and the bravas sauce impressed my companion, who delightedly wiped off all the piquant sauce with a piece of bread that came with the order. Drinking our Mahou beer (a rather nondescript beer ubiquitously found in Madrid), we looked around the busy establishment. Wisps of gray hair sticking out from a worn-out brown hunting cap of a working-class man, oily shells of shrimps (with tiny legs still attached to them) scattered on the tile floor, cheap paper napkins being passed from hand to hand--the place felt "authentic," which is often an euphemism for the mundane, even slightly shady drabness, but not this time. After eyeing at a few sticks of roasted meat on someone's plate behind my companion, we ordered two (by pointing fingers at them). It turned out to be pincho moruno, seasoned and roasted lamb. Very tasty. As we attack our lamb sticks, the place became even more crowded. There were people everywhere, waiting for a space to squeeze in. We decided that it was time to leave for another bar. The bill came out to be thirteen euros for shrimps, potatoes, two skeweres of roasted lamb and two beers. Great.

After spending some time in the greasy, smokey, stuffy environment, the night air felt wonderfully fresh. As we wandered in the star-ceilinged streets, we noticed that we were very thirsty--despite the beer we just had in the bar. With some notable exceptions in the Basque region, Spanish tapas are on the extremely salty side--sometimes excruciatingly salty--possibly in order to increase the sale of beverages. (Yet, alcoholic beverages are insanely cheap. For example, you can get a glass of beer for a euro, a small glass of hard cider for 80 cents.)

This time, we decided to put the guide away and sniff our way to the next tapas bar. Wherever smells good, must tast good. Plus, we could easily judge the good ones by the degree of "packed-ness," for it was hitting the prime bar-hopping time (which means it was around 10 pm--Spaniards are late eaters). Thus, following the guidance of our reliable noses and judging from the packed-ness index, we decided on Freiduria Rocio for the next stop (figure B).

Figure B: Freiduria Rocio, a tapas bar specializing in various forms of mussles.

This place was even more crowded than the last one--we couldn't get a space along the counter, which is usually the best place to occupy, in terms of the proximity to the bartenders and the ease of ordering things whose names we don't know by pointing at them. We squeezed ourselves next to a narrow, greasy wooden board protruding from the back wall, which worked as an additional counter space. Behind the counter, a bolding Spanish bartender (who appears in the above photo, proudly displaying his steamed mussles) and a Latin American cook were working like two frenzied hamsters in a fast-spinning wheel. Quickly looking around, we set our minds on a plate of mussle shells stuffed with something mysterious, breaded, and deep-fried. A group of young women were devouring these piping-hot creations one by one, using tiny spoons and smiling at each other in satisfaction. Those gotta be good.

After a few minutes of awkward attempts, I finally got the attention of the Latino cook (who was very sweet to us linguistically challenged) and asked for the fried shells. The guy grabbed six from a refregerater and threw them in the deep frier. Soon, an appetizing aroma of hot grease and spicy blend of seasonings started to tickle our nostrils. Then the cook picked them up from the frier, mounted them in a plate and handed it to me, saying "Tigres!" We dipped our tiny spoons into the soft filling in the shiny mussle shells, breaking the crunchy cover of bread crumbs. Inside was a mixture of bechamel sauce, spicy tomato sauce and chopped-up meat of the mussles heavenlily mingled together to create a dangerously hot, decadantly creamy mass of obscene calories, sodium and cholesterol. But who cares? We didn't come all the way to Spain to "eat right." So, we ploughed through these little "tigers," soothing our fiery (fiery from the heat, saltiness, and spiciness) mouths with gulps of beer. Six large shells of stuffed mussles came for a mere 4 euros.

Our coats had started to smell of grease by this time--but we weren't done yet. My gluttonous companion demanded for one more tapa. Though the angel on my right shoulder whispered no, her voice was obliterated by the devil that was my insatiable palate. We paid the bill and head out, making our way through the tight-packed crowd like an appetite-driven Moses.

[to be continued]

Friday, January 06, 2006

back from Spain

private balcony
a couple overlooking the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, as Madrirenos swarm around the tents selling Christmas fun stuff

I'm just back from my two-week Spain trip. It is my third time in Spain--if I count the second one, which lasted for less than a day, that is. (I had a plan to walk the Pilgrimage road of Santiago de Conpostela in Northern Spain, but had to fly back to Japan immediately after I got strangled and robbed of everything I had in Madrid... sigh). This time with my boyfriend, I revisited many of the places I wowed at five years ago with my dear friend--the thousand-arched Mesquita in Cordoba, peaceful little courtyards of Sevilla's Alcazar, and of course, the Alhambra Palace, boasting its infinite details and beautiful Arabic caligraphy. Revisiting the same places I visited years ago turned out to be more exciting and interesting than I had thought it would be. There were so many areas of the city, details of the architectural decoration, and tidbits of Spanish way of life I failed to notice the last time I was there. I realized how photography frenzy had changed my way of seeing and how it shaprened my attention to visual details. (In fact, I had hard time re-imagining how I had spent two weeks in Andalucia and Barcelona, without taking a thousand photographs five years ago! It had become such an integral part of my life...)

Of course, I wandered around in cities and regions I hadn't visited in the last trip, which included Cuenca (an avant-guard cliff-top town about 2.5 hours bus ride from Madrid) and the Vasque region (oh, the fresh seafoods so lightly/rightly prepared!!!!!). Bar-hopping (an indespensable, cheap, tasty part of Spanish life) was a new discovery for me--five years ago I was too young and felt too intimidated at the very idea of going to bars to fully explore and enjoy the wonderful Spanish bar culture along with its mouthwatering offerings of various tapas. Christmas closure of vertually everything gave me an opportunity to gape into the juicy world of Spanish TV, with its Spanish-dubbed Simpsons and stupid comedy shows (imagine: fully-grown baby Jesus in an oversized crib, diapered, displaying his armpit hair as he screams for his mom, who, in turn, is clad in cheap blue polyester veil--Spaniards definitely know how to make fun of themselves).

I'll sporadically post some sketches from the trip from now on, optimistically assuming that my bad habit of picking up a project only to desert it a few weeks later...