Do you know the difference between a ramen shop in Los Angeles and one in Tokyo? Let me tell you, it’s not the availability of kae-dama (noodle refills), the language in the store, or even the taste and quality of the broth. Blindfold me, take me to any noodle shop in the world, and I would be able to tell whether that shop is in Japan or somewhere else. You know the trick? Listen for the slurp.
I slurp my noodles. And if that doesn’t bother you at first, let’s get a bowl together sometime, and I’ll bet my loud, obnoxious, constant, and wildy satisfying ズルズル noodle-noshing noises would make you stir uncomfortably in your seat
Here's a beautiful demonstration by my uncle
If you’re not a slurper yourself, you’d probably give me a judging look - or someone sitting across the room from us definitely would. “What a total barbarian,” at least one person would think. I’ve seen that look so many times from other customers at the shop, and yet still, in my mid-20’s, I slurp my noodle. Why? Well, you wouldn’t be the first one to ask me.
The answer to that question lies in the very definition of what being “American” means. When my parents came to the states in the 70’s/80’s, they were told to assimilate - to forgive and to forget. But that’s not exactly how things went in my household (luckily!) when I was a kid. My dad scolded me when I spoke English in the house, even though I thought we ought to all speak English (#murica, am I right?). My mom cooked miso soup and rice with fish, even though I wanted a greasy pizza. When I got in trouble, I had to sit in seiza (sitting on your knees) and get smacked in the face - over and over and over. My brother and I were sent to Japanese immersion school every Saturday (#kumon too, don't forget!). We shopped at the many Asian markets in LA metro.
In the family, such was the situation. I wanted to be “American,” while my parents decidedly kept things Japanese. What might surprise you though (if you’re not a child of a recently immigrated family) is that outside the house, we might’ve seemed like the most white-washed buncha yellow fellows you’d have met. Our outward appearances at times belied our inward upbringing. But it wasn’t always that way.
My dad and his two brothers got their start in this country like many other immigrants: by working three or four jobs, from farm-hand to dishwasher. Every once in a while, the immigration police would do raids at his workplaces.
He tells me that the only reason they never got deported from the US is that the cops were too busy arresting Mexicans, leaving my dad and his two brothers a chance to escape.
Such was the world my dad lived through, and such is the world many immigrants face today, right here, right now!!
Can you blame him for wanting to (outwardly) assimilate to the “ideals” in this country? That was the way my parents kept us safe, kept us… palatable to the richer, more powerful folks. That was the way my parents believed we would find the most success in life. And you could hardly blame them.
Let’s go back to noodles though. I get it. The norm in this country (you should be asking: who set these norms?) is to eat silently. Slurping noodles is decidedly an Asian thing.
For every noodle I slurp then, I make a stance against the idea of assimilation and for a new definition of who and what “American” really means.
He/she/they, the “American,” may or may not slurp noodles, eat with their fingers, cook rice and beans on Thanksgiving, say “football” instead of “soccer,” or have grandmas who wash their feet in the sink of a bathroom at Sears.
I wager that people can do all these things and be no less “American” than a Mayflower descendant. And in the outdoors, they can surely do all these things and still wear #Chacos sandals, plaid shirts, and #Patagonia jackets.
The next time you hear some dudes slurping in the corner of a cramped noodle restaurant, smile and give ‘em a thumbs up. They’re not rude, they’re brave.
Anyhow, I’m hungry. Bowl of noodles, anyone?
About the Author: Jay Hideki Horita
A second generation (first raised in U.S.) Japanese-American with a passion for all things noodles and outdoors, preferably both at the same time.