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Tofu Grandma and Tea Man

by Carolie Brekke

August 5,2006

It was my first visit to JUSCO, the big Japanese department store. Near the entrance to the grocery section, several "booths" were set up by independent entrepreneurs. The first was a table spread with beautiful, brightly colored packets, and a man behind the table revererently offering tiny paper cups of steaming, strong tea. He spoke almost no English, but eventually I understood (he showed me photos) that he and his wife grew this tea themselves, picked it, packaged it and sold it—and it was organic (which was very important to him...it was the only English word he knew). I bought a bright red packet of tea leaves, which pleased him. He followed me around the corner to the next little booth, and either told the tiny, gray-haired proprietress that I was a nice girl, or that I was a sucker—I don't know which! She insisted that I try her wares, which consisted of three different kinds of tofu, each with a sesame sauce. They seemed astonished that I liked tofu, and were delighted when I bought some of the dessert tofu—about a dollar's worth.

Tofu Grandma then grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the next table. There were wide baskets, filled with something sort of silvery, like wood shavings. She peered up into my face as if judging me, then scooped up a little pinch of the silvery shavings, grabbed my hand, and placed a little silver pile into my palm. Turns out the silvery shavings were dried, whole fish (eyes, tail and all). I steeled myself, closed my eyes, and ate them, because I didn't want to be rude or gauche. They weren't bad actually, sort of chewy, and I couldn’t differentiate bones or anything squishy. Tofu Grandma and Tea Man were goggle-eyed—the gaijin didn't squeal, and actually ate the fish jerky! So Tofu Grandma decided I just HAD to try more of the fish, this time marinated in some sort of sweet soy sauce. Luckily, they hadn't rehydrated much, and I liked the saucy fish better than plain. Meanwhile, Tea Man rummaged in what I assume was his own lunch bag, and brought out a container of something golden brown and wrinkly—maybe they were preserved monkey ears. Who knew?

He thrust them at me, chewing and making "yum yum" noises to encourage me. It turned out to be pickled daikon radish, with a really surprising, squeaky crunch. Beaming, both Tea Man and Tofu Grandma hauled me around the corner to their buddy...the pickle maker! Pickle Chief was a HUGE man, like a Japanese version of an old-fashioned butcher in his navy blue apron and round cap. Tofu Grandma and Tea Man left me there, both beaming at a job well done, I guess! Pickle Chief proudly began to try and name each of his preserved wares in English—each vegetable/seaweed/fish was salted or vinegared or both, and it was all very colorful in the various barrels. I bought some pickled garlic, and some daikon, mostly because I could see Tea Man sort of hovering hopefully in the background. I finished my purchases, having spent less than five dollars and gotten to try several distinctly Japanese treats. All three proprietors came around their tables to bow and thank me. I bowed back clumsily, delighted with the whole thing, the air ringing with "domo arigato gozaimasu," sort of like those cartoon chipmunks: "Thank you!" "Oh no, thank YOU!" "No, really, it was my pleasure—thank YOU!" Luckily, I didn't crack skulls with anyone.

We headed home through the rain, past shiny car dealerships, flashy gambling parlors, rickety houses clinging to hillsides, alleys filled with rusted railings and laundry, and sign after incomprehensible sign. I thought about the three booth owners, and I realized that despite what may seem like insurmountable differences, Japan is more like Charlotte than not. I guess it’s a little like someone visiting the American South for the first time. There may be a language barrier (or a thick accent!), but that won’t stop communication. The food might be strange, but it won’t kill me. The people are kind and want to help. And really, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

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