My blog I've ignored for 2 years while attending the Brandcenter
I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the story of love, friendship and the humiliation that’s sometimes involved with both.
It’s a story about a young half Japanese boy from Dale City, Virginia who grew up eating a lot of soup.
While his friends were fed chicken noodle when they felt sick, he would enjoy a hot bowl of miso. Instead of chunks of chicken and noodles, he had tofu cubes, and tiny diced green onions often accompanied with a steaming bowl of white rice.
When it was cold outside his mother would fix him and his sister a bowl of Ramen noodles for a quick snack. Eating these noodles was how they both learned to use chopsticks. Their mother would build them training chopsticks by folding a piece of paper into a tight rectangle then attach it to the two wooden sticks with a rubber band. The folded up paper would hold the sticks in place and allow them to squeeze the tips together to grab floating tofu or mouthfuls of noodles.
That half Japanese boy was, of course, me and that’s how I learned to eat Ramen or as my Japanese mother would call it – “Lamen.”
Like many Japanese, my mother has trouble with her “R” and “L” sounds. To her, they both sounded the same.
So every time my mom asked if I wanted a bowl of Ramen it came out “Lamen.” It’s important to note that I have been eating Ramen my entire life. And from those early years learning to use chopsticks to me in high school making Ramen for myself, she/we always pronounced it Lamen even though it said “RAMEN” on the front of EVERY PACKAGE EVER. After a while, it became one of those inside words that families have. Words or phrases that if used in mixed company would cause a person’s eyebrow to arch upwards in a “what are they talking about?” expression – This was one of ours.
And there it would have stayed if not for one fateful grocery store run with my roommates.
I had just moved into my first off-campus townhouse with four fraternity brothers. I was 20 years old. I was paying my rent and food for the first time of my life. The past couple of years I shied away from the Ramen mostly because of convenience but also partly because I was sick of them by now. Instead, I was enjoying Ramen’s Irish cousin – the Cup O’Noodles.
Without a campus meal plan to rely on anymore it meant that we needed to supply/cook our food. Like every 20-year-old college student, our grocery budget was 80% beer, 10% toilet paper and the final 10% “Other” which included food.
So our decision making came down to two priorities: 1. Cheap and 2. Lots of it.
As two of my roommates and I strolled down the “Ethnic Food” section of our local Giant Food one of them spotted a bright orange bundle. It was a brick of Ramen noodles. Inside were 10 or 12 individual Ramen packets all for the affordable price of $1.99. At the sight of this instant noodles treasure, I was transported back to my childhood. Memories of Ramen noodles flooded my 20-year old brain. I felt a warmth in my chest much like after guzzling the last drop of a hot bowl of Ramen on a cold afternoon. I remembered all the vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and fish cakes my mom would throw into these soups to make them extra delicious. I was so distracted by this onslaught of instant noodle memories that I didn’t even think about the words falling out of my mouth…
“I love Lamen!” I proclaimed.
My two roommates froze. They stood there staring at me. It had only been half a second, and we were still in the grocery aisle, but suddenly I felt like all the lights in the store had gone out. There was only one light on now. It was a searing spotlight shining directly down on me. I had felt this uneasy feeling before. When I was in elementary school, I stayed over at a friend’s house. We played video games all night, and the next morning we were eating scrambled eggs with his family. Everyone was chatting and enjoying the food when I innocently asked my friend’s mom for some soy sauce for my scrambled eggs. I can still remember the sound of his little sister’s fork bouncing off her plate. Suddenly four pairs of eyes were staring at this little Asian boy who needed soy sauce for his scrambled eggs. My friend’s mom smiled and apologized for not having any soy sauce. She then handed me a bottle of ketchup and patted me on my head. It was the first time I remember thinking I eat differently than some people.
This old memory dissipated with the sound of my roommate saying “What did you just say?”
“Ramen” I quickly shot back praying that they were so enthralled with the $1.99 deal that they would believe me. I was not that lucky. Time slowed. For the first time in my life, I realized that I’ve been calling it “Lamen.” Hearing my mom call it Lamen for so many years, ingrained it into my brain, EVEN THOUGH IT SAYS RAMEN ON THE PACKAGING. I remember looking at the other instant noodles on the shelves. My eyes darted quickly over every colorful packet, cup, and box. It must be here somewhere. That’s obviously the not one I had growing up. If I could just find it and show it to these two hyenas, they would believe me. But there were no instant noodles called “Lamen.”
“No you did not.” one of them shot back as a smile starting to creep its way across his face. My roommates and I were like sharks. We could smell blood in the water miles away. But instead of blood, it was personal insecurities. And I had just nicked a vein and was beginning to gush.
“You said Lamen” he plainly stated as a way of saying “You done fucked up.” They weren’t moving. They were still standing there in the same place before I made my declaration of love. They were just looking at me smiling, but I felt as if they were circling me. Faster and faster they circled preparing to strike but savoring the moment. I was a goner.
I remember thinking to myself how my roommates sure had a lot of teeth because I was able to see all of them. I don’t want it to sound like I’m bashing my roommates for laughing at me because I’m not. They were acting like what early 20-something guys do when one of their friends says/does something dumb. They laugh unmercifully at his expense. Over the next decade, we each would find ourselves under the spotlight countless times. I gave it as good as I got it. Unfortunately, on this day, I was about to get it.
Movies and TV have provided many examples of Asian characters doing something stereotypically “Asian.” Sometimes they’re harmless.
Sometimes they’re kinda cool.
Sometimes they were so far out there you just shake your head and realize how far we’ve come.
But this was the first time my roommates experienced it first hand by someone they knew was born and raised in this country.
I played it off as a slip of the tongue, but they made sure never to let me forget it. It became another one of our stories we’d retell after the appropriate amount of beers. We would sit outside with friends around a picnic table in the backyard with a cooler by our feet and opened packs of Camel Lights and Marlboro Lights scattered around the table. Eventually, the stories would start to come out, and we’d take turns retelling some embarrassing moments about each other. It became one of those defining characteristics for me that just the hint of a package of Ramen noodles in a TV commercial would bring a sideways glance, a smirk and followed by a race to get in the first one-liner.
I haven’t thought about this story for a long time. But as I sat at my kitchen table the other morning watching my oldest son slurp up his Ramen. He looked up at me and smiled. I laughed at myself one more time and thought about how much I miss those nights around the picnic table.
Then I patted him on his head and told him to enjoy his “Ramen.” I’m going to find him a piece of paper and a rubber band.
established 2013, curated by the Hour After Happy Hour Writing Workshop
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Mr. Fenske is a professor at VCU Brandcenter in Richmond VA. The site is an extension of his efforts in the classroom, except for the cartoons, which seem to grow out of some disaffection he feels with the world. Thank you for visiting. © Mark Fenske
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