Monday, March 24, 2008

Natto And Other Rituals

My mother calls him Shaka. The world knows him as Buddha, and before that his sanskrit name was Siddhartha (just like a certain personal friend of mine who shall remain...well, he can't remain nameless because that is his name).

Anyway, the man-turned-deity shares a birthday with my mother. Isn't that too weird? Like Shaka-Buddha-Siddhartha, my mom was born on April 8. Astrologically, that makes them both Aries which, to me, doesn't even begin to characterize anyone who would devote his or her entire life to saving the world. Aries is pretty carnal. The first sign of the zodiac, it's about ego which is precisely what Shaka-Buddha-Siddhartha was not about. Neither is my mother--most of the time. She has her days, of course, but for the most part she enjoys serving others.

This weekend, she made whole wheat bread from scratch then told me a story about natto as she beat the stuff into frothiness in a small bowl. For the uninitiated, natto is fermented soybean. I've read that even Japanese people aren't real crazy about its smell and taste, but I've eaten it since I was a child and I love it. It has a sort of bitter aftertaste, and the slime can get to me sometimes, but there's nothing like it sprinkled with a little green onion and served over hot gohan. The stuff my mom gave me on Sunday came frozen in a box, and she carefully added a little mustard and beat it with a chopstick until it was sticky with long tendrils of what looked like snot. In my pre-vegan days, I'd eat my natto beaten with a raw egg.

My mom's story about natto is simply this: when she was a kid her family bought it freshly made and stored in a straw pouch. A man would have rolled up several servings, and walking around the neighborhood, he would sing out, "Natto! Natto!"

It's hard to imagine how such a simple memory could stay with someone for so long, but it's quite lovely to think about. I don't suppose it's the same as having an ice cream truck racing down the alley blaring some disco version of a children's nursery rhyme.

Back to Shaka. Describing a statue she had once seen of him, my mother demonstrated how he stood and held one hand skyward while the other pointed towards the earth.

"As above, so below?" I asked, but she didn't hear me because she was too busy talking about the matsuri or festival for O-shaka-sama.

Celebrants, she said, would pour a sweetened tea or amacha over a doll resembling Shaka amid much chanting. That sounded right up my alley, and made me long for Asian Pacific Islander Week or something. I mean, I love elaborate Asian rituals even though I shunned my Japanese-ness as a teen.

As a matter of fact, one of my worst experiences as a young girl of eleven was my first day at a mostly white grade school. And, why was that? Was it because of the clothes I wore? No. My mother let me pick out something that looked just like everybody else's outfit. My hair, perhaps? Maybe a little. At that age, I still wore two long pigtails, but so did a few of my classmates. My ethnicity, you think? Probably a little, although the other kids hadn't had time yet to really figure out that I was so different from them. Certainly not on the first day.

No, the big culprit was my lunch pail! Or, what was not a lunch pail by American white kids' standards. While every other child in that school carried a tin box with some cartoon character embellished on the outside, I--horrors of horrors!--hauled a huge leatherette pouch that encased a matching thermos with a Japanese crest on the side! Everyone, but everyone, stared at me as I placed it on top of one of the cafeteria tables during lunch. To make matters worse, my very Japanese mother believed in creating an aesthetically pleasing lunch. Not only did she cut my sandwich neatly on the angle, but she also wrapped precisely sliced pickles in plastic and topped a halved boiled egg with a sprig of parsley! It was weeks before I was able to talk her into allowing me to buy lunch (oh, the expense!), but since she worked outside the home, too, she relented because it saved her time.

Today, I love eating my mom's cooking anywhere, anytime, as long as she doesn't toss any animal parts into it. Even her natto rocks.

That's me in the photo, at about age five, in Germany contemplating deities like Shaka. Actually, I was probably thinking about the natto we were going to have for dinner.

Your Hip Hapa,

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