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Plants and animals

Illustration by Marco Mancini

I can remember a biology lesson from high school a long time ago. The subject was "The Classification of Living Things," posing the question, "Is it a plant or an animal?" Mr. Jarvis taught the lesson well - so well, in fact, that I can still recall the golden rule: If it's got four legs, or a trunk, or something like that, it's an animal. On the other hand, if it's got leaves, it's a plant. It's a simple rule that I've carried about inside me ever since, and it's testament to the genius of its creator, Charles Darwin, that it still works today. A pig? That's an animal. A potato? A potato is definitely a plant.

You might like to play this game ("Animal or Plant?" you could call it) with friends, and you would find it a pleasant, if slow, way to spend an evening. But for the mercenary type of person, I have a gilt-edged proposition: play it for money, against a Japanese person, and you shall win big, because none of them have the slightest idea.

I know this because my girlfriend is vegetarian, and in Japanese restaurants, it's always the same ... When we order, she says (in Japanese, mind you, and in a great variety of ways) "No meat or fish please". (A tip: Never say "I'm vegetarian" because they think Vegetaria is a country in Eastern Europe). This is invariably met with a confused frown, and then begins what is for me the real entertainment - the waiter trying to work out what she can eat.

He'll say (this is always first, I don't know why) "Is corn OK?" to which we reply, "Yes, all vegetables are OK." Then "Are eggs OK?" (I can see where he's coming from here) followed by "Are potatoes OK?" (I can't here).

Much, much later, after the helpful intervention of all the diners in the place, the food arrives, and the vegetarian option that the waiter and chef were at such pains to prepare, will contain one of the following: Meat (ham is common), or Fish (usually katsuo bushi - papery flakes of concentrated nastiness).

Now I'd like to ask the waiter in what type of field the pig that produced the ham was planted, or answer that, "Yes, potatoes are OK, providing they've been humanely slaughtered," but my Japanese isn't up to it.

A memorable evening occurred at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo, where we (eventually) ordered tofu salad, followed by spaghetti with a vegetable sauce that the chef was pleased to prepare specially for us. The tofu salad came with something like 2000 dead baby fish in it (they call them shirasu boshi and they should be banned) and the vegetable in the vegetable sauce was tuna.

And how about this one: A Japanese friend who runs her own restaurant gamely rose to the challenge of feeding my vegetarian girlfriend. All the initial suggestions she made fell on the wrong side of the animal/plant fence, but eventually, to our relief, she got it. "I know, it's no problem!" she said triumphantly. "You can have shrimp."

I bet Charles Darwin's turning in his grave...

Many thanks to Andrew Vickers for this Rave.

Metropolis Online
381: The Crisp Linen Suit Syndrome
Unbearable heat and crisp linen suits
380: Smile
Smile when you see another foreigner
379: What sign are you?
When signs start to complicate life
378: Off with the gloves
Battle of the readers
377: Stop before you shop
Stores that scare away gaijin
376: Home sweet home
Modern housing in Japan?
375: Nihonjinron
Theories of Japaneseness and insecurity
374: Plastic bags
Do we really need them for everything?
373: Doctor knows best?
A scary visit to a Japanese hospital
372: Don't forget the finger wagger
So you've never complained about Japan?
371: A-choob tale
The Sneezing Salaryman
370: The gaijin language snob
Dare to cross his path
369: Nihongo
One man's struggle...
368: Making sense of Roppongi
Why do I keep going back?
367: Hateus Japanus Expatricus
Great bar bores of the world
366: Plants and animals
Darwin's turning in his grave
365: No more groping - for now
Women only train cars
364: Man's best friend
Pets have it rougher
363: In praise of Tokyo taxi drivers
A good ride all around
362: The Big Boot Brigade
Masters of the oversized-shoe
361: The case of the missing garbage cans
Where art thou o garbage can?
360: Ramen for the soul
Japanese chicken soup
359: Revenge of the nerds Part II
Geeky guys with hot girls
358: Little old ladies
Grandmas packing a punch
357: Starbucks sanctuary
Stop the Starbucks insanity
356: Pet name problem
My sweet little... carrot?
355: Unclean Jeans
Jeans McNasty
354: My chosen profession
Lindsay Nelson's the name, English teaching's the game
352/3: Merry Christmas... sort of
Merry and not-so-Merry Christmas in Japan
351: Last temptation of rice crackers
Breaking big bills the hard way
350: Revenge of the nerds
Gaijin girls are just jealous

ISSUES 300-349
ISSUES 250-299
ISSUES 233-249