There’s been one drawback to my small town upbringing. Whenever I find myself in a genuinely “big city” environment, I find myself getting self-conscious. There are times when my family will go to a museum, and my personal defenses will go up. We could go to a restaurant that’s a little more upscale than what I’m used to, and I’ll start getting small twinges of fear. I guess the years of my parents saying, “Now be on your best behavior” has manifested itself into the fear of making an ass of myself in new situations. During my whole trip to Vancouver, this fear was dormant, until L revealed the one big plan she had for me on my trip. She was all convinced that I just had to try some sushi. So, since Wednesday was a grey, rainy day, it was on that night that Chuck, L and I set out for her favorite sushi place in town.
As soon as we walked in the door, I was feeling out of place. As on all grand adventures, I was wearing my Tilly Hat, considered to be the best outdoor adventurer hat in the world. But, to the uninitiated, it is often mistaken for a cowboy hat. In the sushi restaurant, I was sure I could whispers of, “Look at the stupid redneck in his cowboy hat.” I stood up a little straighter. My movements became slower; more calculated than just running on instinct. My parents words from my childhood echoed through my head: “Now be on your best behavior.” The server showed us to our table, and I tried to relax.
I took a few deep breaths as the menus were presented. Since all this was about broadening my horizons, L took the lead and ordered the first round. The beverage of choice was green tea. To start us off, L got us all a bowl of meso soup. Before the waitress left to get this, she left us our cutlery: chopsticks. Now, my experience with chopsticks had been minimal. There was that one social studies exercise in Grade 8, and that was about it. I expressed this trepidation to Chuck and L. “Well, you know,” L said, “If you want, you can ask for a fork.” I found this suggestion to be just a little…insulting. I had degrees in math and physics! I had learned the secrets of three-dimensional integral! I had made Newton’s Laws my bitch! Surely, I could master chopsticks. “No no,” I said, in my best over-eager voice. “I can figure this out.” Truth was, I wasn’t going to wuss out in front of my friends. Fortunately, you don’t need chopsticks to eat soup. I stopped my practicing with the wooden cutlery to sip my soup.
As I sipped, L took advantage of the opportunity to begin explaining the intricacies of sushi. Firstly, she explained, there’s two types. There’s sushi, and then there’s sushini. Suhini is what most people think of when they think sushi. It’s just raw fish. There it is, in a slab. Enjoy! Sushi, on the other hand, has been prepared somewhat. You have your raw fish, but it’s used to wrap up a chunk of rice. Or, the fish will be rolled up in the rice with some vegetables and stuff. Then, of course, besides sushi, the restaurant served such other Japanese delights as tempura and other things we weren’t really interested in. Our main objective was to stuff ourselves silly with the all-you-can-eat sushi special. As we finished our soup, the waitress came by to take our first order. L volunteered to order the first round, a few chunks of sushini, and a tempura platter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short life, it’s that when you have an expert in the field with you, it’s best to follow their lead.
As we waited for our first order, I continued practicing with my chopsticks as we all made polite dinner conversation. It wasn’t too long before our tempura platter arrived. I was treated to all kinds of deep-fried delights: deep-fried carrots, deep-fried celery, and I’m sure there was a deep-fried shrimp or two in there. It was time to try and see if had mastered this chopstick-thing. With sticks in hand, I ventured towards a deep-fried…something. I spread the sticks wide, and picked it up. With slow, steady hands, I raised the tempura chunk up to my mouth. I placed it in my mouth, and began to chew. I did it! I used chopsticks! Sometimes the smallest victories are the sweetest, and the tempura wasn’t bad either. I began to relax…a little.
L, before ordering the next round, asked if I wanted to order. I politely declined. I just wasn’t ready yet. L offered up a sampling of sushini. Before long, I was presented with a few pinkish slabs of salmon before me. With chopsticks in hand, I scooped up one and plopped it in my mouth. A little cold. A little slimy. But not bad. From here, L ordered the next round. Again, she asked if I wanted to. Again, I declined. This time around, she ordered for us some of the rolls. The one that sticks out in my mind were the avocado rolls. They were sweet and had a bit of a squishy texture that made them fun. I was starting to get the hang of this sushi-thing, if I was still a bit awkward with the chopsticks. With the wooden platters empty, the waitress came by to take our next order. L again offered to let me order, and I again declined. I wasn’t ready just yet. For round 5, L offered up some of the conventional sushi: simply a clump of rice wrapped up in some fish. It was important to L that we try at least one of each kind of fish: salmon, tuna, red snapper, squid, and some I don’t even remember. The one that sticks out the most in my mind is the squid. It was tough, almost like an overdone steak. It took a while to chew, but in the end, it was good. It was a good experience, though. With every bite over the past few rounds, I began feeling more and more confident in these surroundings. The fear of making an ass of myself was subsiding. I was enjoying myself. I began scanning the menu for an exotic name that sounded like one that hadn’t been tried yet. When I had formed a partial list in my mind, I locked eyes with L and made my intentions clear: I’ll order next.
When the waitress came by to hear the next selection, I blurted out what I wanted with equal parts fear and confidence in my voice. I stumbled through the exotic names with an elocution I have not known in ages. With my order placed, the waitress left and I felt the rush I had not felt since my junior high thespian days. I turned to Chuck and L like a child turns to his parents after the recital. I humbly asked, “How’d I do?” They smiled. I had pleased Mom and Dad.
When my order was brought, I tied into it with gusto. I had finally conquered this place. The highlight of my order was something unique. I forget the name, so let me try to describe it. It was the cone of seaweed, and tucked inside was rice, salmon, and some kind of hot sauce. What can I say? I like spicy food, and simply seeing the word “spicy” in the one of those complex Japanese names intrigued me. This item was rather large. Most sushi is bite-sized. This thing was minimum two bites; three if I didn’t want to seem glutenous. L looked at it and said, “OK, for something that big, it’s OK to use your hands.” Putting down my chopsticks, I cracked my knuckles and gripped the cone. I placed the wide end in my mouth, pushed it in about halfway, and bit down hard. The seaweed was a little tougher than I thought it’d be, so I had to bite down again to cut through. I could feel a trickle of the hot sauce on the back of my throat. That’s always where hot sauce burns the most. When I finally had that first bite in my mouth, I savored every bite as I chewed and swallowed. I made the face and let out the exasperated sigh that we always let out when we discover that the food is a little too hot. “That’s good,” I said. I had a sip of green tea to cleanse the pallet, and grabbed that second bite. It was just as good the second time around.
At this point, we were all starting to wear out. I can’t vouch for Chuck and L, but I know I was starting to get the beginnings of an “I ate too much” tummy ache. But there was one avocado roll left, and I felt guilty for not having it. L wrapped it up and took it home. We knew we had to get on the road, because I really wanted to get back to Chuck and L’s place to watch the pilot of Enterprise. I stood up with a newfound confidence. I wanted my mannerisms to speak volumes. “That’s right,” I wanted to say. “Look at the redneck! He knows how to use chopsticks! He likes green tea! He thought the squid was delightful!” I put on my Tilly hat and stood up straight, not out of fear this time, but out of confidence. The self-consciousness had melted away. The fear was baseless. I had not made an ass of myself. I had enjoyed myself. And Mom and Dad will be glad to know I was on my best behavior the whole time. I came. I ate. I conquered. That’s right! This small town boy can survive in the big city.
And curse you, L. I now often find myself craving avocado rolls.