Short Story set in Seaside, California.
So I went to this place Noodle Bar last night. It’s in Seaside. It’s Korean, anyway Koreans run it, shout to each other in Korean, I think. Very tasty and cheap, but there’s hardly any room to sit inside, just a counter with stools. Most people just order takeout instead of waiting for a seat. I was out to be out so after I got some cash from the ATM in the corner I asked the gal if I could sit down.
“Can I sit down? I mean, for here. Dine-in.”
A bit puzzled, she nodded and put a menu at an empty seat further down the counter toward the kitchen. I made my selection and opened my mouth to tell her every time she rushed by. After she rushed by a few times, she made eye contact with me again and I ordered a number 17 and a milk tea.
I thought the girl seated to my left was around my age. She had good posture and clear, fair skin. She wore stylish glasses. She was writing in a small notebook, so I figured she was by herself. Sometimes people talk to each other here. Diners barely have room for their elbows, let alone a plate, so you can forget about personal space. That’s okay with me. All the same I tried to mind my own business. I guess the little notebook suggested some measure of privacy.
When her food came, she put the notebook away. She picked up a barbecued prawn with the splintery little chopsticks and ate it.
I took my chopsticks out of the paper wrapper and rubbed them together. Then my food came.
“What did you order?” Asked the girl, turning.
“It’s, uh, it’s a number 17. I don’t know why I ordered it.” I looked at her and she took me in a little bit. I realized I was slouching.
“Is it delicious?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s good.” I indicated her bowl and said, “I used to order that all the time but…do you eat here a lot?”
“No, just—this is the second time.”
“I’m from Sacramento, and there’s—they don’t—well I guess I don’t like the romaine.”
She picked a piece of lettuce with her next bite and ate it. Then she asked, “what would you put in here instead, a different green?”
“What do you think, like cabbage? I think cabbage would probably fit. Napa cabbage?”
“I don’t know Napa cabbage. Maybe they just figured, you know, because it’s the salad bowl of America.” I made a circular movement with my arm, indicating our geographical area and maybe the rim of a salad bowl, I guess.
“Yeah, could be. I ordered the sauteed noodles last time but I decided to try something different this time.”
We both ate some bites. Now I got worried. After acknowledging her previous statement I didn’t know what to say, or even why I wanted to keep talking to her. It seemed like she was an interesting person, and even kind. And she wanted to talk to me.
I pointed to a sign advertising a sandwich shop over in Marina, probably owned by the same people. “You ever been to this sandwich shop?” I asked.
“No, do they serve delicious food too?”
“I’ve never been there,” I said.
“Oh, ha ha.”
I concentrated on combining noodles and pork together in my next bite, and then I told her, “I go to CSUMB,” even though I knew where the conversation would probably lead. But I thought maybe she might be a student too.
“Did you say CSUMB?”
“Yeah, I’m a senior.”
“What do you study?”
She laughed. “Oh, I was just listening to Prairie Home Companion on the way over here and they were—they’re always making jokes about English majors. They had a bit about an English major trying to land an airplane.”
I didn’t say anything to that. She looked at me and saw my humorless expression and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you…You must think I’m making fun of you…if I could go back and do it again, I’d be an English major. My brother was an English major, too. Good for you!”
“What’s your area of interest in English?”
“Well, I don’t…it’s not really in English…for the past couple of years I’ve been learning Japanese. I want to go to Japan and teach English. I’m not very interested in school.”
“Did you say you want to teach English in Japan?”
“Do you want to do that indefinitely?”
“No, just for awhile. I just want to teach to get my foot in the door and save up some money and then I’ll open my own business.”
“Oh. What kind of business?”
“I don’t know; it doesn’t matter.” I paused. “My parents own a couple of pizza places in Sacramento. I don’t want to work for someone else; I want to be my own boss.”
“I see,” she said, chewing. “So you’re from Sacramento?”
“I’m from Lodi. You know little Lodi, to the south?”
“Yeah.” But I didn’t really. I knew it was on the map but I had no experience of the place other than driving past its offramp.
She looked at her noodle bowl and poked around a bit; picked up a few peanuts and ate them. I looked back to my food. If I weren’t to resume the conversation, we could lapse into silence now and it wouldn’t be awkward; we’re both getting into our meals.
Then she said, “I taught English in Taiwan.”
“Yep. It was a great experience. But they were crazy about school over there. It seems like all they ever did! The students, I mean. It’s something to get used to. I thought a lot about it—teaching English to kids who were only learning it to pass a test and then, most likely, never use it again! I was there to perpetuate a system of outrageously competitive scholasticism. I thought it was kind of an arbitrary requirement, the English test. But then, I’m not Taiwanese.”
“Hm. What organization did you go with?”
“Well…my church body has a mission organization and I went with them, teaching at a school where they send…teachers.” I am nodding, but she says anyway, “The organization is called LCMS World Mission.”
“Did you say LDS?”
“No, LCMS. It stands for Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.”
“I was going to guess that you were a Lutheran.”
“Aren’t they always making jokes about Lutherans on Prairie Home Companion?”
“Yeah, ha ha. I guess I fit the demographic of listeners.” She smiled and raised her hand, still holding chopsticks, as if to say, ‘that’s me.’
“So, primarily I taught English, but on the side I…” she trailed off and took another bite when she noticed I was nodding again, kind of impatiently.
I know it was rude, nodding like that. But I didn’t want her to say the words I thought she was going to say. It seemed like she was willing to talk about just anything.
“It was a great experience. So do you plan to go with an organization too?”
“Yeah. It’s called JET, Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. It’s a government program.”
“Do they provide a place for you to live and everything?”
“That’s great! So you’ll graduate this spring and then go?”
“No, I still have another year.”
“But didn’t you say you were a senior?”
“Yes, but I also said I wasn’t very interested in school.”
“Oh, you’re that kind of senior!”
“Yep. So, is part of Taiwan the Republic of China and the other part is just Taiwan?”
“Good question, and it depends on who—whom? Is it whom? Do you know?” I shake my head. “Whom you ask. If you ask China, Taiwan belongs to them. But Taiwan believes it is its own; it has its own government, it’s not Communist—”
“China isn’t even very communist anymore,” I interject.
“There are still a lot of differences. The ones I know best are with their tolerances toward foreign missionaries. I had a good friend serving in mainland China. She was very selective about making her email address known, because she didn’t want careless people writing and dropping in words that would alert their filters—’pray’, ‘faith’, etc.”
“Wow, what would happen?”
“Their organization could be shut down if they start acting fishy—or, to put it more accurately, overt. Technically, it’s probably pretty clear to China what my friend’s organization is doing, but as long as it’s easy for the government to overlook it, they probably won’t have any conflicts.
“Yeah, but to get back to your question, all of Taiwan is called ROC, and mainland is PRC, People’s Republic of China. I’m not clear anymore on the history but I think at some point, a failed military skirmish left things undecided and the leader went back to Taiwan to rally forces and never actually got around to finishing the job. For the most part, Taiwan acts autonomously. I know there’s tension between them, and I often wondered what would happen if Taiwan ever tried to make a definitive claim or China exercised authority; where the alliances would fall, how important trade relationships are, how reluctant anyone would be to go toe to toe with a potential superpower. But I think it’s intentional that there hasn’t been any friction. I think they’re saving face for each other.”
“That’s very Asian.”
“Last summer, no, wait, last summer I was at home, but the summer before that I worked on a farm in Japan.”
“Wow! That is incredible!” She rocked back on the stool a little bit as if propelled by wonder. I could see she was formulating another question.
The couple to my right put some cash on the counter and left. I looked around to see if more people were waiting for a seat. It was getting dark, and the exiting couple navigated through five or six people waiting crammed in the corner or coming through the door. I still wanted to talk to this girl, and I think she still wanted to talk to me.
She looked over too. “Oh,” she said.
“Do you…want to get coffee or tea?” I picked up my mostly empty milk tea and shook it before taking a sip.
“Oh, I got the Thai tea…do they serve coffee here too? It must be off menu. What did you get? Is that coffee?”
“No, it’s a milk tea too.”
She misunderstood my question and I didn’t want to ask it again. I looked back at the group of people at the door. They were looking at menus together and addressing each other familiarly. There was no way they were going to get that many seats in a row, so the girl and I could keep talking.
“When I think of a farm, you know, I think of all the domestic animals of America. I mean, in my mind, the word ‘farm’ is linked directly with imagery that suggests distinctly American cultural icons…tractors and so on. Cows…and I’m just trying to visualize what that must have been like. It must be difficult to describe to people. What kind…what kind of animals were there on the farm?”
“Well, it wasn’t so much a farm with animals. It was a vegetable farm.”
“Oh! What did you grow?”
“Mostly beans, I think. And we foraged nearby to harvest bamboo.”
“Wait, you foraged? Isn’t it possible to plant it?”
“I…don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“And then did you take the produce to market or something?”
“No, there was no market day, farmer’s market, anything like that. I guess they must have had a buyer.”
“Were you able to learn about the different foodways, or how the Japanese farm industry works?”
“I was mostly just working on the farm. We planted other crops too, but I wasn’t there long enough to harvest them.”
“Oh, what did you plant?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Hm. Did you live with a family while you were there?”
“Yeah, the farmers themselves.”
“Wow, that’s really something. Is there an organization that sets this up?”
“Yeah, it’s called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.”
“Wow, that’s a heck of a thing, and worthwhile. I always questioned whether the work I did as an English teacher, the English part, was really helpful. But when you work on a farm, raising food, that’s something everyone needs.”
“Yeah. After that, everything was different. Man, I really hate school.”
“What do you mean? The school itself, or the work…?”
I had to think. I hadn’t thought it all through. My friends are all students; everybody says they hate school. But this girl is really listening. She sat on the edge of her seat taking little sips from her straw in between questions.
I told her, “I don’t know. Everything? The school itself, the campus so big you can’t get around without a car, and if you don’t have a car you have to take the bus to class! And you can forget about getting into town without a car…but beyond that…I’ve completely lost motivation. I just want to go back to Japan and I feel like…it’s silly but I feel like I’m supposed to be there. You know how you hear stories of people who were born male and want to become female? Or the other way around?”
“Yeah. Do you feel that way about Japan? As if, maybe you were born in the wrong country?
“Have you talked about this with anybody?”
“Well, my friends, I guess. But I can tell you because you’re a stranger.”
She straightened up and held aloft her cup. “And they don’t come any stranger than me!”
“It sounds like you’ve made up your mind what you want to do and you’re bored with waiting to get started.”
“Let me ask you something. After coming back from Japan, did America stopped making sense? You got used to the way things worked in Japan and then returning to see how they didn’t work in America, by comparison, it was frustrating?”
“Was the culture shock upon returning to America worse than the culture shock upon acclimating to Japan?”
“And everywhere you go, everything you do, everyone you talk to, you can’t help but think how much better everything is in Japan?”
“And it’s been, how long, over a year since you’ve returned?”
“A little over a year, yes.”
“That is no picnic. I can see why you want to go back.”
“I’ve never talked about this before.”
Then we were quiet for a bit.
Then she said, “I’m sorry, you know, I never even asked your name, and here we are, talking about things you’ve never talked about…”
“I’m Kent. K-E-N-T.”
“Nice to meet you,” she smiled and put out her hand. “I’m Anne.”
I smiled at her too and said, “Nice to meet you too.”
I kind of let the nice moment last, chewing up a few tapioca balls in my milk tea before I turned to ask her, “So what do you do?”
“I am a wife and mother.”
“Oh. Do you, hm. Do you live here?”
“Yeah, here in Seaside.”
“Where do you live?”
“Here, in Seaside. You know Hilby street?”
“Well, let’s see, Fremont goes east and west? If you go east on Fremont almost to Safeway, Hilby is around there. Up the hill on Hilby—that’s my neighborhood.”
“Yep, I just wanted a meal that I did not prepare, and a little break from my young children.”
“The bottom of the noodle bowl is always so hard to manage; there’s just not very much stuff to pick up! You have to start eating everything one at a time!”
“How do they do this in Asia? Are there manners for this in Japan?”
“Oh, now I remember. In Taiwan, anyway, there weren’t any kind of table manners, any way it seemed that way to me. You could just pick up the bowl, put it to your lips, and start shoveling everything in with the chopsticks.”
“Hm.” The waitress brought both our checks and I got out my wallet.
“But I imagine there are more manners in Japan…How far away is the campus?”
“Well it’s up…you know where the shopping center is, over on Imjin?”
“Yes.” She opened her purse and put her hand in.
“It’s in that area.”
“I remember now, a few weeks ago at church, there was a gal from CSUMB who said she had wanted to come to church but couldn’t because she didn’t have a car and the buses don’t run that early on a Sunday morning.”
“Oh. Where is…your church?”
“It’s up on Hilby too. Faith Lutheran.”
“When are the services?”
“9:45. We just have the one.”
“And how long does it last?”
“About an hour. Depends on how many folks are there for the Lord’s Supper, you know.”
“How long does the preacher talk?”
“Well, the pastor, he’s actually my husband, gives a sermon around twenty or twenty-five minutes. Now, you go to the mainline protestants, and the pastor will talk for an hour, and it’ll mostly be about stuff you have to do. Why, would you like to come?”
“No, I’m—I go with my grandma to her methodist church. I used to.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
“Here I was ragging on evangelicals…”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve been pretty cynical lately. Really cynical.”
“Hm,” she said, and she looked at me. “You’re in a hard time right now, Kent, I can see that. I would like to encourage you.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” The waitress came back with my change and I put it in my pocket. “Okay, nice to meet you, I’ve got to go.”
“Okay, take care, Kent.”