Friday, November 2, 2012

School Lunch

This has absolutely zero to do with school lunch. I just wanted to show you another nice picture of Chizu.

What I eat for lunch seems like one of those things that really shouldn’t be worth mentioning. Back in the states, school lunch was a non-issue. If you wanted it, you could get whatever mix of greens and flat pizza you wanted. There were salads for the pickin, and the ranch dressing flowed like thick, white, speckled wine. If that were the case I would not mention it.

But that is not the case here.

Now, you’re probably expecting some kind of horror story about some weird thing I was forced to eat in an elaborate foreigner hazing ritual. But that’s not true either. The truth is more like a box of chocolates. Sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it’s not, but you eat it all anyway if you can.
Let’s have a look at the rough patches first, because I like to end on a good note. There have been days when I’ve had a whole fish plopped in front of me, just cooked. That means you have to deal with scales, bones, and a previously unforeseen surprise: hollow eye sockets and a gaping but somehow depressed-looking fishmouth. I can only imagine how many people would soil their underclothes if you busted open a Long John Silver’s box in America and something like this peered out at you. People would go apoplectic. It’s not because the fish is inedible, or somehow foul, it’s just not what we’re used to. In America our fish is typically deep fried, or baked, or smoked, but I never remember eating fish heads that so closely resembled a living fish. I know some of you are thinking, ‘I could do that no problem! I bet it’s actually good!’. Well, yes, it’s fine, and I thought the same thing, but lets do an imagination exercise. I want you to think of a long, thin fish swimming in a river. Imagine the large eyes that look around kinda stupidly. The mouth which is always working noiselessly. How the fins move in the water, how it fights the current and appears to swim exactly in place.

Now imagine sticking your hand in the water, and grabbing the fish. Imagine how it feels, how it looks.

Now imagine just biting its head off. And washing it down with a glass of lukewarm, thick milk.

I could continue with the imagery of what that is like, but that should be sufficient. Keep in mind, it’s not a wet, wriggling fish there on the plate. It has been cooked. But this is the kind of thing that goes through your head before you chow down. Add to that the fact that I wasn’t making the thick room temperature milk thing up either. Every single lunch is served with daisen milk. It’s the local milk around here. It’s thicker than our D milk back in the states. Every meal also comes with a kind of salad, a meat which is not always fish but it is sometimes (read usually), rice, and soup. If you’re late to the table for whatever reason, your food is approaching room temperature rapidly. This happens really fast in the hot summer, because the school isn’t air conditioned. So it pays to be there when the portions are laid out. Generally everyone eats everything on their plate and expects you to do so as well. I don’t mean that you’ll be punished if you don’t, but you can expect to hear stuff like, “Oh, are you full? Do you like pumpkin soup?” or “How is the fish today? Is it ok?”. I usually don’t finish the soup because slurping tepid soup in the heat of summer just makes my stomach spin like a top. The rice is unseasoned-- just plain white rice. Usually, though, lunch as a whole is fine. It’s just sometimes a dish will slip in there that is just….well, revolting.

The flip side of this of course is when they knock it out the park. While the hard to eat stuff gets easier, the delicious stuff never gets any less delicious. On one cool day we had hot chilli, just today we had this cheese filled meat thing, we regularly have flavorful salads and from time to time I season the rice with other parts of the meal, livening it up. We had a kind of chicken soup which was not quite chicken noodle soup but still really good. Every day is a mystery because despite the fact I have a menu, much of it is in kanji. And who would want to ruin a good surprise anyway?
That'll do, pig. That'll do.

To add to the things in the good camp, every meal is prepared in-house and designed by a nutritionist. So even if I find it hard to stomach, the meals are tailored to balanced diets and an active lifestyle. Who can complain about authentic Japanese food with plenty of variety that is hand-picked by a nutritionist?

…I suppose anyone squeamish about chomping into whole fish heads might have a word or two. Who indeed?

PS: I write this a week later. This week was a mixed bag too but I came out on top overall. I did get one bone in fish, and I got the classic fish-in-your-salad trap sprung on me also. No joke, there were little minnow lookin guys in my salad which I only discovered after I had eaten most of it, and it was all I could see after that. But then we had these GREAT sweet potatoes, and another awesome dish. I've been going down to the lunchroom basically as they dish it out, and I eat quickly too. Great success.


  1. I remember school lunchtime being filled with much chattering and often boisterous behavior. At elementary school, the principal would utilize a realistic "traffic light" to monitor and enforce etiquette; setting it at green for acceptable noise/behavior levels, moving it to yellow as a cautionary devise, and to red should the cacophony require him to command a "grand pause" in order to clamp down & read us the riot act. This method did attain his desired result of getting us to tow the line, for the most part; shaming some, and instilling feelings of scorn in others...that's us wicked Americans for ya. I'm aware of the Japanese horror of public humiliation/reprimanding, but share with us the general scene. Are your sweet little cherubs (Right! We ARE talking about pubescent middle schoolers; albeit from a small and, I'm sure, restrictive community) chatty/gregarious at lunchtime? Does the principal string 'em up in the middle of the room as a warning to others? Also, does the staff eat at a separate table from the kids? Is there much adult conversation/interaction for you?
    I also might inquire as to what the reaction would be, should the food be so totally unpalatable, that you just could not begin to choke it down...have you become so assimilated as to share the same aversion to public scrutiny & gobble it down anyway (read, eat shit and die)? And, of course; being such an alien, with a natural propensity to fit in, with a strong desire to try new things and LIVE your new culture all serve to follow suit. But I'm also thinking in terms of following dietary restrictions (i.e. Koshrut, Veganism). Do folks bring their own lunch...I guess you could lay in your own rations, concoct some cockamamie scenario in order to extricate yourself from the milieux should you wish to avoid (rotten eel guts) personal and public disgust...Discuss!

    1. Actually, from what I can tell there is hardly any requirement for disciplinary action! Bear in mind that the students don't sit in a large cafeteria together- they sit in homeroom. So the population is fragmented as it is, and add to that the fact that as many as 3 teachers may be eating with the kids. The homeroom teacher, and at least one other unassigned teacher. Up until now I have been eating with the other/assorted staff in a room on the first floor. But starting tomorrow I'll be eating with a different class each day on a rotating basis. I'm pretty excited to do so, but other JETs have reported mixed results when doing this, but it's fairly a fairly common practice. The kids are chatty during lunch, but they're given more or less free reign. But get this-- the kids have to go and get lunch from the kitchens, bring it back and serve each other and the teachers. Then they have to clean up as well! On top of that, they play a prerecorded lunchtime "radio" session, where two students interview another student, they describe what we're all eating and then play two songs (by request).

      You asked an interesting question though, and it makes me wish I had gone into more detail about it. I myself tend to eat shit and die for a combination of the above reasons-- I want to try new things and show myself as very receptive and non-judgemental (because I would ask the same courtesy!). However, NO ONE from my school, that I am aware of, brings thier own lunch. We all tow the company line to a T. HOWEVER, they made extra sure in the beginning of the year that I had no allergies, and gave me the option to bring my own lunch. However, I pay like 20 bucks a month to eat this lunch every day. I'm getting crazy bang for my buck even WITH the few stinkers that come down the line.

      With that said, your idea to construct a cockamamie scenario to get out of eating eel guts appeals to me. I think I'm going to squirrel away a granola bar to eat in the bathroom after I tell everyone I have explosive diarrhea and that I must spend the rest of the lunch on the toilet.