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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Needled by the sound of noodles


Following are a few sounds people find aggravating and my personal takes on each:

Fingernails scraping across a blackboard.

No problem here. To me, almost a lullaby.

A mosquito buzzing in your ear while you're trying to sleep.

Again, not so bad. Especially once I find the bugger — and flatten it.

A person on the train popping gum with his/her mouth agape.

This time the answer is even simpler. I just walk away.

But . . . what can be done about the sound of slurping noodles?

You can't storm out and leave your own food uneaten. Neither can you take the offender and flatten him like a bug. Nor grab a blackboard and match them scrape for slurp.

No, if you are a noodle lover like me, all you can do is partake most such meals in the soundproof safety of your own home sweet home. Yet . . .

"Dad? Isn't this ramen great?" And then the boy lifts his chopsticks and goes. . . "SLURP!"

It wasn't supposed to be this way. My Japanese bride — a delicate eater herself — learned early on that her new husband wasn't finicky about food. Yet he was a fanatic about food sounds.

Such was the result of my upbringing. When I was a kid, we did not slurp our food — for two basic reasons. First, it was considered poor manners. Second, it is hard to slurp TV dinners.

That was the etiquette I endeavored to pass on to my sons. Alas, they grew up not amid the cornfields of Illinois, but rather among the noodle shops of Tokyo.

Nothing I could do could stop them. Springsteen said it best, sort of:

"Baby, they were born to slurp."

Yet, the redeeming point about noisy children is that sooner or later they grow up . . . and move away. One by one, my sons took their slurping ways Stateside for college.

We missed them, of course, but whenever I grew sad for their company, all I had to do was drop into a noodle shop. I could close my eyes and pretend they were home.

Yet, now the younger son has really returned. Health battles have brought him under the protective care of Nurse Mom. No one knows for sure the cause of his ailment — ulcerative colitis — but everyone agrees that diet control is imperative for a normal lifestyle. With one safe food being . . .

You guessed it — noodles.

So now we have noodles with almost every meal. Fortunately, Japan has a wide variety of such dishes. Unfortunately, they all come with just one sound.

SLURP!

"Can't you," I ask him, once I can control my facial tics, "just try to eat more quietly. I can do it. Why can't you?"

"This is the way it is supposed to be eaten."

"No, that's the way the Japanese eat it."

"Dad, have you looked at my passport?"

So what? It guarantees safe passage, I tell him, not safe slurping.

"I have two cultures," he says back, "And this is how one of them eats."

"But how about your Mom? She's Japanese and she doesn't slurp?"

We glance to my wife. Who eyes us back, pauses, and then lifts some noodles to her mouth to produce a very soft yet respectable . . . Slurp!

"See! And it tastes better that way, right?"

Slurped noodles have almost no taste whatsoever, she tells him. "But making the noise was fun."

So now I am entreated to slurping in stereo.

SLURP!

Slurp!

"Do it like this and you can make it even louder!" And he juts his lips in instruction.

SLURP!

In case you're wondering, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" is not my philosophy. Rather it's, "Grin and bear it till they run out."

"Got any more?"

"Of course. Our cupboards are packed with noodles."

"Please!" I beg. And then explain that all the blood vessels in my brain are about to rip themselves from my skull. In order to reach out and strangle them both.

"Oh, go scratch a blackboard."

In our house there's not even a spot to hide. The entire structure is little bigger than a camping car. Or an echo chamber.

SLURP!

"Isn't the sound cool?" says the boy. "Maybe I'll use it as my ring tone!"

But my wife soon tires of the game, thank goodness, allowing me to ask for a menu change.

"I'd like a baked potato and steak."

"Oh? Missing home?"

"No, I just wanna see him slurp it."

She admits she would like a change as well. "Maybe we've had enough of noodles for a little while. I've got some other healthy dishes in mind."

I exhale my relief, certain that serenity will again return to our dining room and my tortured nerves will get some needed rest.

Only to hear her say, "From tomorrow we're switching to . . . soup"

All I can do is gulp. And hope that he will too.



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