If I had a hundred yen for every time someone asked me if I liked 納豆 (natto), I’d have enough money to bribe my way out of ever eating it again.
What’s natto? Fermented soybeans in all their sticky glory. Which doesn’t sound too bad, right? I thought so too.
I love Japanese food beyond sushi and ramen. I ate もつ鍋 (motsunabe), essentially stewed organs, for every second meal I was in Fukuoka. When I have friends visiting, I take them out to eat raw horse (馬刺し: basashi) and raw chicken (地頭鶏たたき: jitokkotori tataki), half because I want to give them a unique experience and half because I want to eat it.
Granted, I haven’t tried pufferfish (河豚: fugu) because it’s expensive, or whale, because… well, they’re whales and I can’t.
But natto. It’s something else. It’s healthy and cheap and part of almost every local household as far as I can tell but. No.
Touch it experimentally with your chopsticks and watch the stickiness invade everything else you plan on eating that night. The flavour will instantly permeate through whole dishes.
If you love it, I guess this would be a good thing. As someone who doesn’t know how to appreciate it, however, it’s a nightmare.
So as soon as a housemate equated natto with Vegemite, my inner patriotism was unleashed.
“Ok, Vegemite is not that bad,” I said immediately. The others within earshot had already started えぇ(ehh)-ing at the revelation. “You guys like soy sauce, right? It’s the same thing. It’s black. It’s salty. Old soy sauce.”
“しょうゆじゃないよ (shouyu janai yo: It was not soy sauce!),” she countered, having lived in Australia before.
This whole conversation was all in Japanese, by the way. I’m just too lazy to write it out. Also, now that I realise how many Japanese people read this, I’m a little embarrassed by how terrible my speaking is. Shh. Don’t judge me.
“When I was in Australia,” she continued, “they slathered it onto their bread in a thick layer. It was so bad.”
I laughed. “Yeah, you ate it wrong,” I said, thinking back to when my mum used to buy my after school snacks from the local Brumby’s bakery.
Five minutes later, I was making Cheesymite toasties in our toaster oven and converting whoever was in the kitchen to the
dark Vegemite side.
A glass of Milo, a piece of Cheesymite and the lingering aroma of my milk tea on the kitchen counter. For a moment, I was home after a long day of school. But I wasn’t. I was speaking Japanese and trying natto again for the n-th time.
Recently, I’ve had to ask my brother and his wife to spread the word to our mutual friends: please don’t ask me to go home to Australia. Not for a while, anyway.
I understand that this is always said with good intentions – an indicator that I am missed – or sometimes even as a joke. But I find myself getting a little emotional at the request lately.
There are, as always, a few reasons as to why it’s starting to get to me. For one, I’m spending more time at home than ever since coming to Japan to save money, meaning the sense of adventure has lessened somewhat. For another, I no longer live alone and can experience home comforts more often, familiar but different.
I’m insecure about my future. The holiday season is approaching. I’ve been here for over two years.
But in truth, it’s my new niece, Bao Bao, so soft and pure, who has given teeth to my homesickness, making what was once a dull ache something with a sharper bite.
I’m lucky to have a sister-in-law who I’ve gotten along with for a long time, even before my brother started dating her. We went to the same high school and the same church. I remember doing maths with her around the same dinner table with One Tree Hill playing on her laptop.
“I love the name Hayley,” she said. “Doesn’t it just sound nice?”
Fast forward to earlier this year during her pregnancy, about ten years after that conversation. Our family started chatting about potential names for Bao Bao over text messages. As she and Aaron listed out a few names and their meanings, I recalled this sentiment.
“Ally won’t let me name her Latoya,” Aaron messaged.
“Dang it, Ally!” I laughed as I wrote. A few people on the train turned their heads. I looked down and pretended nothing happened.
“What does it mean?” asked Mum, forever the voice of reason.
I could almost hear the resigned sigh in Ally’s next message. “It actually has a good meaning. It means victorious one.”
I briefly imagined Aaron insisting that they look up the name’s meaning. Then I remembered our high school conversation. “I always thought you’d name your daughter Hayley.”
“Hayley means hay,” Aaron shot out immediately.
“Yeah, I like Hayley but it literally means hay,” Ally confirmed a second later. I tried, without success, to smother another chuckle.
“Beyonce was my second choice,” Aaron added.
“What’s that?” came Mum’s reply. “French?”
I snorted. Loudly. Two minutes later at the next stop, I was still giggling as I settled into a new train carriage. The conversation ended with Bao Bao’s eventual legal name. (I say ‘legal’ because let’s admit it, her true name is Bao Bao.)
It smarts that of these two conversations about Bao Bao’s name, the one I got to have in person with them was the first inconsequential one.
Similarly, I cringe at the knowledge that I wasn’t there for the pregnancy or the birth, and I won’t be there for the foreseeable future. It stings that I have to check my Internet connection every time I can call to see and hear from them. I crave and dread, in equal measures, learning about the things I’m missing.
And most of all, I want to hold my niece.
On most days, お兄ちゃん will send me photos of his baby. Now that she’s a few months old, her cheerful and mischievous personality is becoming increasingly apparent in every photo that he sends through.
When I visit every few months, however, I still find myself surprised by her actions and reactions. When I first went to visit her, I would relish in the moments when she wasn’t crying and way her body sank into my arms.
Now, I find myself enraptured by the smell of her hair, the pitch of her laughter, the wet stickiness of her fingers. The softness of her belly when she tries to crawl over my legs. The way her face scrunches up when she laughs. The surprise in her eyes when she hiccoughs.
I know that no matter how often I FaceTime my family, no matter how many photos and descriptions are sent to me, it will be nothing like when I first meet Bao Bao. It’s hard not to compare what I’m doing now in Japan to what I’m missing back home in Australia.
As I’m writing this, I can almost imagine everyone else I’ve left back home getting a little offended. What, they weren’t enough to make me this homesick before Bao Bao came along?
There are times when it catches me off guard.
I have a friend – more of a platonic soulmate, to be honest – whose recurring punchline is that she cannot cook. But recently, I woke up craving her balsamic onion tart.
Last week, I scrolled through my Tumblr feed and read something in the voices of my soul sister’s family members.
I keep getting teased for making dad jokes (親父ギャグ: oyaji gyagu) across English and Japanese. I find these genuinely hilarious and wish that my brother was here to laugh about it with me.
But, more often than not, I can anticipate the triggers.
I’ll go to a museum or an event or a certain part of Japan without a friend who I would have dragged along with me had I had the option – or who would have dragged me along, come to think of it.
I’ll take a good photo and wonder if my brother, who taught me how to hold a camera, would like it.
I’ll eat steak or Pho or fruit or cheese or something that’s just not the same here in Japan.
I’ll listen to a song that we’d scream to on road trips. I’ll get sick. I’ll reread one of my few physical books I carted to Japan with me. I’ll mention a pop culture reference that no one will understand.
The funny thing is, I don’t avoid these things the way I thought I would. They comfort me as much as they make me wistful.
On the other hand, even given this, I still want to live abroad. I still want to travel. I only wish that Australia was closer. On the same continent. In the same hemisphere. I wish it was just a tap of my shoes away.
But I’ve accepted that every coin comes with two sides.
Natto is healthy at the cost of taste. (I know, this is just an opinion. Whatever.)
‘Hayley’ sounds nice at the cost of meaning.
And on the flip side of adventure? Home.
Just, try not to remind me of that for now.