In general I am a confident person. That’s something I achieved in early adulthood, learning to be a respectful and responsible, while not giving a flying f*@# about what anyone else thought of me.
A running theme in my life since moving to a foreign country has been the turning upside-down and inside-out of everything I thought I knew about myself. And my overall confidence is often challenged by things that I otherwise would consider completely ridiculous.
One such example can be exemplified by today’s school lunch: udon.
I freaking love udon.
But whenever I see udon or ramen or some other noodle-soup dish on the menu for school lunch, my initial elation is quickly overshadowed by pangs of insecurity.
Why would someone be insecure about one of their favorite dishes being served?
Because I don’t know how to eat it.
That sounds really stupid, and it honestly is. But the Japanese method of eating noodles is one of those little cultural differences that goes completely unnoticed. That is, until you are the only foreigner in room full of Japanese who are so skilled at getting those noodles into their mouths and tummies without making an absolute mess that I feel like an incompetent imbecile.
What is this miraculous skill, you ask?
Slurping is something that American kids tend to do with their food because it sounds funny. They’re usually told not to do so in public – it’s “impolite” after all! It seems that in the U.S. generating any kind of sound with your mouth while eating is considered impolite and unrefined. Of course, people do whatever they want at home. And some do whatever they want elsewhere, too. But in general, Americans are culturally “quiet” eaters. I guess we make up for it with being big talkers during meals instead.
I try to explain to my friends and coworkers that I physically can’t slurp noodles properly. Growing up in a culture that simply doesn’t slurp seems to have rendered me unable to do so. I can maybe get a few strands, but I inevitably end up with soup all over my face and the table in front of me and probably anyone sitting in the vicinity. Ramen and udon and long-noodled soups are not a regular part of the average American diet. The closest thing we eat is spaghetti noodles. And when we eat those, we usually just twirl them around a fork.
While I’ve most definitely improved my noodle-slurping game in the 10 months that I’ve been living and working and eating in Japan, I still often find myself feeling like a bit of spectacle when I attempt to do so in the presence of my revered noodle-ninja-masters.
Though I suppose part of my job is providing insight into cultural differences, so maybe showcasing my awkward noodle techniques is all for a good cause. Yeah. Let’s just go with that. 😉