I don’t remember much about my kindergarten year in Yokohama, Japan, but I do recall I enjoyed every minute of it. That’s where I played hooky for the first time (I went fishing), and that’s where I was served my first fish that still had its head on it. Minutes before the meal, I was lead to the restaurant’s indoor trout pond and waterfall, where I was given a bamboo pole with a dough ball neatly wrapped around a tiny hook. Three seconds after dipping the line in, I yanked a pan-sized trout out of the water. Zip, zang! The trout – – MY trout – – was clipped with a double, V-shaped identifying tail-notch. Flipping and flapping, the trout was quickly carried off into the restaurant’s steamy kitchen.
After a while, a waiter delivered the very same fish to our dining table. He pointed at the double, V-shaped tail-notch and grinned, but I was more interested in the fish’s head end, where a single, crispy-fried eyeball stared up at me from a bed of fluffy, white rice and lettuce.
I fiddled with my chopsticks.
“What’s the matter, young man?” asked my father. “You love fish.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “But this one’s LOOKING at me!”
Mom reached across the table and sliced off the fish’s head with a knife. She wrapped the head in her napkin and placed it beside her plate. “There,” she said. “Just like the way Grandpa cooks them.”
I ate the fish, but had a difficult time keeping my eyes from wandering to Mom’s folded napkin. The trout’s nose was sticking out of a corner, and I knew the rest of the head was waiting for the napkin to slip just so it could sneak another peek at me.
Soon, the meal was finished, the table cleared, and Mom’s napkin forgotten. Later that night I laid awake and thought about the trout.
I think that was the first time I realized there was a difference between the fish I caught back home — the headless and anonymous kind that Grandpa cleaned when nobody was looking — and the more personal one I had yanked out of that Japanese Restaurant’s trout pond. No doubt, if I had been that fish, I, too, would want to stare at whomever was eating me.