We are thrilled to welcome Elizabeth Wilkerson, author of Tokyo Firewall–and she’s offering a wonderful giveaway! Read on for more…
Poisoning my dinner party guests wasn’t my intention…
I moved to Tokyo in the late ‘80s to study butoh dance. I didn’t speak Japanese, but I figured I could learn the language by osmosis just by being in the flow of everyday life. I was wrong. Not only could I not speak Japanese, but I couldn’t read it, either. I was illiterate.
Tokyo, like a lot of cosmopolitan cities, makes global travel comfortable for foreign visitors. Directions are posted in English, you can see recognizable shops. All the trappings of home while on the other side of the planet. You might even think you’re still in Kansas.
But if you scratch the veneer in Tokyo—and the veneer is washi paper thin—you’re no longer looking at signs with Roman letters; you’re confronted by Japanese kanji characters. And you realize that you’re on your own. And you’re illiterate.
What’s the station your train just arrived at? What’s on the menu of the restaurant you’re standing in front of? You could order a meal the way I used to, by pointing to whatever the person sitting next to me was eating. “I’ll have what she’s having.” My version of “When Harry Met Sally.”
I managed to sidestep my literacy problem by staying in areas of Tokyo that were easy for foreigners to navigate. Emboldened by my sense of cultural acclimation (translation: I’d learned to walk on the left side of the sidewalk to avoid getting trampled, and not to try to open a taxi door) the dinner party bug bit me.
I love throwing dinner parties. When I was a kid, my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Mumbai (Bombay at the time) named Homai. She shared a recipe for chicken curry which became the foundation of my failsafe dinner party menu. Add a tossed salad with a simple Dijon vinaigrette and I was ready to entertain. Easy peasy, no stress. And my dinner guests always enjoyed the meal.
Off I went to the nearby multipurpose store that sold food—not to be confused with an American-style grocery store—to get my dinner party fixins. Chicken, tomatoes, vegetable oil, vinegar, lettuce, onions. Foolproof.
Back at my apartment, I prepped the chicken and gathered the oil and vinegar for my salad dressing. Easy peasy. Until I poured my salad oil in the mixing bowl. The oil—bubbly and floral-scented—turned out to be dishwashing liquid. Uh. Oh. WWMD? (What would Martha do?)
Not to be daunted by a failed vinaigrette, I figured I’d whip up a salad and sprinkle on some vinegar. After chopping my tomatoes, I tore off a lettuce leaf only to discover that I hadn’t bought a head of lettuce—I’d bought cabbage. The produce in Tokyo is slightly different, but different enough. And I couldn’t read the store display. Because I was illiterate.
Japan’s literacy rate is 99.9%. Everybody can read. To graduate from high school, Japanese students have to know 2136 Japanese characters. And it takes every year of school from first grade through high school to learn them all.
In the States, one out of seven adults is functionally illiterate. As a reader and writer, I’m heartbroken imagining what it must be like not being able to enjoy books. Not to mention the barriers, vulnerabilities, and dangers of illiteracy.
Have you ever been someplace where you were plunged into illiteracy? Perhaps a foreign country or even a local neighborhood where the storefront signage was in a language you couldn’t read?
What did you feel? Off-balance? A sense of adventure? Embarrassment? Did you ask someone for help, make a best guess, or retreat to the known? I like to step back and observe how I react in new situations. The inner journey that mirrors the outer journey which is travel.
Please share your experiences in the comments below! One commenter will receive a signed copy of my book along with a bottle of Shichimi Togarashi from Yagenbori who’s been blending spices in Tokyo’s Asakusa district for 400 years.
My thriller Tokyo Firewall is set in the ‘90s, a time of dial-up modems and floppy disks. Alison Crane, a lonely American lawyer suffering from culture shock in Japan, tiptoes onto the brand new digital frontier looking for friendship only to find trouble when a twisted sexual predator targets her. As her stalker’s attacks intensify, Alison must parlay her legal smarts and budding computer skills to stand her ground, or she’ll lose her only sources of freedom. And maybe her life…
Tokyo Firewall on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tokyo-Firewall-gripping-psychological-thriller-ebook/dp/B07JG5WBW3/ref=nodl_
Check out the book trailer: https://youtu.be/JeTkfjUx0i4
Homai’s Curry Chicken
1 fryer chicken, cut up
2 large onions, diced
Butter or ghee
3 to 4 tomatoes, sectioned
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
3 bunches of parsley, chopped
1 cup shredded coconut, optional
Simmer chicken in one cup of water with salt and pepper for about 20 minutes.
Sauté onion in butter.
Add chicken and other ingredients with about ½ cup of water, reserving 1/2 of the parsley and 1/2 of the coconut.
Simmer for about 20 minutes until chicken is done.
Add the rest of the parsley and coconut.
Serve with rice or poori.
She lived in Tokyo where she practiced securities law, studied butoh dance, and founded a company to present African-American culture to Japanese audiences.
A native of Cleveland, she graduated from Harvard and holds JD and MBA degrees from Stanford.
Get in touch at www.elizabethwilkerson.com.