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What I Learned While Eating a Sea Cucumber

Have you ever just been going through the motions of your boring, every day life and all of a sudden you stop dead in your tracks and have this incredible epiphany? That’s been happening to me a lot lately.

Living abroad will do that to you. I think it’s because you end up spending a lot of time alone with your thoughts. I have friends and I’m incredibly busy but there’s still a large portion of my day that’s spent on trains or just wandering around by myself.

Or eating in restaurants alone.

The other day I ate a sea cucumber. It tasted exactly like how I would imagine a sea cucumber to taste, chewy and salty and exactly like the ocean. But this post isn’t about sea cucumbers.

I’ve never been a picky eater. One of my talents has been that I’ve always been able to eat (and enjoy) pretty much anything put in front of me. I never thought this was strange until a friend pressed me to name a food that I didn’t like. “Come on, there’s got to be something you don’t like. “

Honestly, there isn’t.

Sure, I’ll always prefer certain foods over others but there isn’t a single thing I’ve eaten to date that I’d say that I’d never eat again.

I think this comes down to trying to keep an open mind. Sometimes I’ll put a new food in my mouth and my taste buds will react in shock, as in “Oooh, I don’t know if this tastes good.” That’s when I’ll stop myself and ask: Is it really that this doesn’t taste good or is it that it’s just unfamiliar and different? If the Japanese (or Korean or French or whomever) like this, then I can like it too.
So that got me thinking. Can’t I apply this same theory to life abroad? Shouldn’t I be able to teach myself to withhold judgement and see this culture from a purely objective standpoint? Because everything that may strike me as negative, immoral or just plain wrong about Japan, isn’t wrong. It’s just different. It’s all rooted in perspective.
I think the example that illustrates this idea best is how different societies view dogs.
In the States, a dog is a cherished member of the family. Little Fido has feelings and thoughts and a soul. Family members arrange play dates for him, dress him up in the trendiest outfits and even take him to psychologists when he is depressed or anxious.
In Muslim societies, like Saudi Arabia for instance, a dog is viewed as unclean and not something you’d keep as a pet, welcome into your house or want near your children.
In parts of Korea and China, dogs are raised to be slaughtered for food and dog meat is an expensive delicacy. In some states in Nigeria, dogs are eaten for medicinal purposes.
So who’s view of the dog is the correct one? Who’s right?
No one is. Everyone is. It’s all dependent on your culture background; on values that were instilled in you long before you even knew the meaning of the word. And it all operates on a subconscious level, for the most part.
I’ve been trying very hard to keep this in mind in the last few days. And it’s helped. Tremendously. It takes a lot of work though and I don’t think I’ll ever be this completely tolerant, accepting and non-judgemental person. I still don’t like Japanese comedians or Disney-inspired fashion 99 percent of J-pop. But I’m continuing to try.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
–Mark Twain
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8 thoughts on “What I Learned While Eating a Sea Cucumber

  1. I agree with this to a point, but I think that there also needs to be some sort of universal moral standard upheld.
    For instance, even though I understand what female excision means in the context of some African nations, I maintain that as it is based on a cultural assumption that women are lesser beings that need to be controlled by any means necessary it is morally wrong.
    Just my two cents.

  2. That’s a very good point. True. I think it’d be difficult to establish any sort of “universal moral standard” though. I can’t think of a single moral that every culture shares.

    Even something like murder, which you’d think every society would agree is “morally wrong”, would be up for debate. It would depend on how each culture defined it. Take capital punishment or abortion for example. Some cultures define those as murder, some don’t.

  3. Wow, I’ve never tried to apply open-mindness to physiology and I guess taste can be called a part of that. Seems there’s a limit in my respect for other cultures cause I’m pretty picky in what I eat.

  4. Hello I am of Arab origin and muslim living in London. I must correct you on the comment made about dogs in muslim culture… Dogs are not unwanted pests like cockroaches. They are respected especially salukis in the desert, dogs in the police force, dogs helping the blind etc. The reason they don’t have them in the house is the same reason people take their shoes off when they enter the house. It is because dogs are dirty and carry germs on their tongue and feet etc. Whereas cats are very clean and often clean themselves, so cats are usually allowed in the house whereas a lot of people prefer their dogs to either live outside the house in a kennel or in the house but not go up to the bedroom etc.

    Sorry this is long, but I thought make it clear.

  5. Ahhh, cultural relativism. It seems so easy, but it hangs up many anthropology students!

    I love eating new things. I think food is so integral to life that eating the food of a people can really help you understand them. It makes you ask, “OK, what position were they in to eat something that is as odd and intimidating as a sea cucumber?” or artichoke, or dog, etc.

  6. Living overseas can certainly make you more openminded and tolerant…You can only truly see your own country and self when you are outside of it!!

  7. Hi London Girl,
    Thanks for the clarification! Guess I should have fact-checked that a bit better before I hit “publish”. I’ll make correct right now and republish it. Thanks!

    Bo – Or even just seaweed? Who would have thought to dry and flaten it and do it whatever else needs to be done before it becomes the stuff you see wrapped around your sushi?

    But I guess that’s true with everything…flour, rice…how did they ever discover how to cultivate it? Sure there’s an answer to that somewhere. : )

    DDR – No! What’s that?

    Catherine – Yeah, that’s true. But I think that for some people travel makes them more close-minded because it reinforces stereotypes. I think that’s especially true of Japan. You kinda need to stay here a while to really begin to see past the surface of things. I guess that’s why I think it’s important to not just travel abroad but to live abroad as well.

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