“SQUEEEEEEE!” The abalone’s death cry pierced the air in our private dinner booth, while my boyfriend sat opposite me with a soppy smile on his face, completely oblivious to my utter mortification.
I am grinning as I write about that meal, warmer and safe with a hot chocolate beside my writing wrist. I am looking back at that birthday dinner through the rosy hues of hindsight. What is embarrassing, a little humiliating and awkwardly funny now was a fantastically horrifying meal then.
That particular experience is a typical cultural story that will no doubt sound familiar to most of you. It was familiar to me too—so much so that I had an out of body experience while that poor creature died in front of me. The real me floated above the dinner and hollered “it’s happening!! You are a foreigner in a new home country. You knew you were bound to get thrown into the deep end and here it is! Ava? AVA! Hellooooo?!”
My boyfriend from back then organised a surprise birthday road trip for me during my second year in Tokyo. The two of us drove out of the city and stayed in a high-end ryokan in the mountains with an onsen where a lavish and traditional dinner and breakfast was also served. (It would have been really impressive if it wasn’t all expensed to his mother’s credit card—I really wish I had been a bit more discerning back then.)
I had my first Japanese hot spring experience. Despite his flawed financial approach to the trip, it was a sweet idea. The onsen was a private one, so we were able to book entry for just the two of us. I’m not allowed to bathe in public onsens because I have a tattoo which inks my skin from elbow to wrist on my left hand, and I wore a long-sleeved top when we checked in to the ryokan, so we (unfairly) got away with it.
Visiting an onsen often means being paired with an elaborate, multi-course meal after your soak. Sitting in comfortable, woven yukata at our private dining table, our evening proved to be no different. Platters of sashimi, meats, delicately carved vegetables and small bright pickles flickered across our table as the meal unwound into the evening.
The waiter slid the door open and placed two small coal burners on our table, mine right next to my right hand, and popped a grill over the red heat. Before I had time to fantasize about what the next dish might be, a live abalone was plopped onto the crisscrossed steel.
I didn’t even know what abalone was. That’s an ugly oyster, I thought, and was ready to move on. Until it started rocking back and forth.
It’s still alive! Okay. Oh my god. Okay. OH MY GOD! Okay. Okay. Just ignore it. This is such an expensive meal. Alex just wants me to have a nice birthday. Wait. WAIT! What is...is it squealing? It’s squealing. Oh. Fuck.
Of course it was squealing. Even now I can clearly picture what it’s last moments on earth were. One idiot human loomed over it doing nothing as it was cooked alive while the second human made puppy dog eyes across the table like a complete dope. Those must have been squeals of rage as much as they were squeals of impending death.
At one point it lurched and almost toppled off the grill. My muscles twitched as I prepared to fling myself out of the window in shame.
It eventually, well, died. I pretended the whole thing hadn’t happened.
Did I do the right thing? By my partner, probably. Underneath the agony of those few moments (for both myself and the poor abalone) my third culture training kicked in, and I understood I was finding the whole scenario unsettling because my experiences with food had only stretched so far. I knew better than to colour the meal ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. Did my partner do right by me? Maybe not. It never hurts to have a quick check-in before a new cultural experience or a quick debrief after. As a girlfriend, could I have been more respectful and trusted my partner enough to speak honestly about my discomfort? Yes, I could have and should have. To this day, I haven’t told many about this story.
I’ve watched those funny travel shows and hilarious movie moments where the protagonist chews a grasshopper uncomfortably while a twitching leg pokes out between their lips or they swallows a local delicacy with a wobbly smile. I would roll my eyes and tell myself they weren’t bold enough to tell the truth about their dining preferences like I would be. For a long time I was embarrassed about not speaking up when that moment didn’t play out the way I had always anticipated it would.
Now that I know myself better, I see that my empathy won out and I put my boyfriend’s feelings before my own and I can’t fault myself too harshly for that. In fact I chose to do the same thing again a few days later at a very intimate family dinner of his when (and this still breaks my heart) turtle soup was served as an extra course by the chef just for our table.
I learned how to navigate those situations quickly. I realised that I wasn’t black and white in my approach and was happier putting others first during their special occasions when it came to food. I was very thankful I never judged others for their choices. I also learned to flex my “no” muscle. I began to understand that it was perfectly fine to accept and empathise with a cultural practice and still not take part in it.
A few years later I was walking with him and his mum through Chinatown in Bangkok.
“Lunch!” His mum pointed to Shark Fin Inn.
“I’m completely happy to join you two, but I won’t be eating any shark.” I said with a smile.
And that was that.