Near the end of my stay, to thank me for my efforts, six Japanese executives took me to dinner at a very upscale Tokyo restaurant. I had read guidebooks that highlighted cultural differences and how Americans abroad should behave, but nothing had prepared me for this.
Mr. Mizutani sat next to me, serving as translator for the three men who did not speak English. These included Mr. Wada, the senior exec, a jovial, take-charge gentleman who ordered assorted appetizers for the table just after our drinks arrived. Wada made certain that I was the center of attention; through Mizutani he asked many questions. Although at 27 I was the youngest, all the men listened intently to my responses as if I were offering great wisdom.
When it was time to order, Wada spoke in Japanese to Mizutani, who turned to me and asked, “Kotora-san, what you like to eat?”
“I like everything,” I replied. This was generally true. I am an adventurous diner.
Mizutani translated, but Wada was unsatisfied. At his urging, Mizutani spoke to me again, “Mr. Wada ask, what you really like to eat?”
“Please, have Mr. Wada choose. I do like everything. You’d be hard-pressed to find something I don‘t like.”
Mr. Mizutani translated, and Mr. Wada looked at me with raised eyebrows, then smiled broadly. He jawed energetically with two of the other men, then motioned for the waiter. There was a rush of Japanese from Wada, interlarded with the waiter’s “hai” each time Wada paused for breath.
A few minutes later the waiter returned with one small dish which he ceremoniously placed in front of me. I looked around. All were smiling and nodding.
“Just for me?”
“More food coming,” Mizutani replied. “You eat.”
I looked down. A flaccid, orange-brown glob rested in what looked like an egg cup. It was shiny and seemed to be covered in a thin membrane. “What is it?” I asked.
“Not know how to say in English,” Mizutani answered quickly.
“Is it animal, vegetable, mineral? Where does it come from?” I persisted with a smile.
“Come from bottom of ocean.”
I looked for chopsticks or a spoon. “How do I eat it?”
Mizutani made a motion indicating that I should lift the cup and pour what looked like an egg yolk that was past its sell-date directly into my mouth.
I lifted the cup, and as it reached my chin, I saw six pairs of eyes watching me intently. Too late to reverse direction, I tipped the blob into my mouth and bit.
It had the consistency of Elmer’s glue and tasted like what chemical toilet disinfectant smelled like. At that instant, my brain ceased processing any sensations coming from beyond my mouth and nose. I saw, heard, and felt nothing. I was still aware, however, that I should not embarrass my hosts, so I swallowed quickly, and without obvious signs of distress. With dignity and careful pacing, I reached for my sake, swallowed a full cup, and the lights came back on again.
Everyone was looking at me.
Wada spoke. Mizutani translated. “You like that.”
I smiled. “Yes. Very good.”
Mizutani relayed. Wada was quick with his response. Mizutani turned back to me. “Mr. Wada ask, you really like that?”
“It was okay.”
This time Mizutani’s words initiated a vigorous discussion among everyone at the table. I couldn’t understand their words, but disagreement was obvious. Finally Mizutani, clearly uncomfortable, looked back at me and said, “Mr. Wada want me to ask again. You really like that?”
“Well,” I said, “since you’ve asked me three times, I’ll tell you…no, I didn’t.”
Mizutani’s translation immediately occasioned an animated discussion. The not-so-carefully-hidden delight troubled me, but I merely asked, “I would really like to know what it was I ate.”
Mizutani motioned for the maitre d’ and asked. The maitre d’ bowed to me and said, “I not know how to say in English, but we have boy in kitchen who went to college at UCLA. Maybe he know.”
A minute or so later the maitre d’ returned, bowed again and said, “Is called …sea cucumber guts.” He smiled broadly and retreated.
After a pause during which I inventoried my knowledge of the life and habitat of this unattractive invertebrate, I asked Mizutani to summon the waiter.
“What you want, Kotora-san?”
“I so greatly appreciate the excellent hospitality Mr. Wada has shown me. I would like order one of these…” I pointed to my empty egg cup. “…for each of you.”
Mizutani looked stricken. He started to respond, but spoke first to Wada. Wada shook his head hard and issued an anxious, but unequivocal order.
“Mr. Wada say, ‘Not necessary.'”
“Very expensive. Not necessary.”
“Please call the waiter.” I looked over my shoulder. Wada’s obvious agitation was amplified by Mizutani’s words to him, so I altered my plan. “Please ask Mr. Wada if he likes sea cucumber guts.”
Wada shook his head. I looked at each of the others in turn. All answered with emphatic negatives.
“I’m confused,” I said to Mizutani. “If all of you dislike this so much, why did you order it for me?”
I soon learned the perils of translation. I had said, “You’d be hard-pressed to find something I don‘t like.” Somehow, “to press hard” had translated as “to dare,” and Mr. Wada had accepted the challenge of finding something that I definitely would not like.