Morning exotica

A well-travelled friend once told me that breakfasts are among the severest tests of acculturation. You might be able to face sheep's eyes or bear's claws at some exotic banquet. But for breakfast you long for simple toast and marmalade.

I was reminded of this remark years ago, during my first visit to Vietnam. I had gone there wide-eyed from graduate school, determined to "meet the real people," whoever they might be. I had arranged for myself a fabulous tour of the Mekong Delta, dripping with local color. My hosts were members of the Cao Dai sect, whose pantheon included Lao-Tzu and Li Po, Buddha and Victor Hugo.

In a restaurant by the muddy Mekong, as wide as the Mississippi in flood, I had a marvelous Sino-Vietnamese dinner. According to my notes, it included baby oysters, lobster, ducks feet, pork stomach, roast pigeon, various kinds of salad and a crab and mushroom soup flavored with coriander. I learned to say ngon lamm (delicious) and no roim (I've had plenty, thank you), and from the middle of the feast both expressions punctuated my every sentence.

The moon was almost but not quite full. On the river, lights twinkled from boats and sampans; in the crowded street below the restaurant, preparations were going on for the autumn festival, celebrating the full moon of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. It was a happy, peaceful time, in the brief interval between the partition of Vietnam after the French defeat of Dien Bien Phu, and the resumption of war by the North.

That night I slept in a beautifully carved wooden bed, my only mattress a thin straw mat, my only covering a mosquito net that did not quite stretch to the foot of the bed. But my head and arms were well protected, and I was soon fast asleep.

In the morning I was awakened about four o'clock by the sound of a bell. Softly peering into the front room, I saw a Cao Dai priest in white robe and long beard, murmuring prayers, burning incense, and striking a bell in front of the altar common to all Cao Dai households. From all around the courtyard came similar sounds.

The ceremonies ended as the sky began to brighten, and while the men went to the river for their ablutions I took a short walk. Even without the crispness of more temperate climes, it was a glorious morning, with blue sky, green fields , glistening dew, the sound of splashing. Across a small stream feeding into the Mekong, smoke from cooking fires curled skywards. The women were already hard at work preparing breakfast for their menfolk. In tingling good humor and with a pleasantly anticipatory appetite I returned to my host's house and sat down with the family for the first meal of the day.

Then suddenly, the first steaming bowl of congee, heavily flavored with coriander and with bits of meat floating in pools of fat, culture shock hit me. The night before I had found coriander in the crab-and-mushroom soup fragrant and delicious. This morning it was an alien smell. The meats in the congee seemed alien; the vegetables likewise; even the rice gruel, the main element in last night's soup, repelled me. I could not rise from the table without being rude, so I sipped my congee without enthusiasm. When my hosts, out of politeness, asked me what kind of breakfast I usually had, a wave of homesickness assailed me.

And yet I took pride in my bicultural heritage. Japanese born, of parents who had lived in America, I was equally at home with scrambled eggs and toast, or rice and soybean soup. There had been just one oversight on my parents' part: they had failed to include coriander and fatty meats among my breakfast smells and flavors.

Since then, I have learned to enjoy coffee with iddlies in Madras, and deep-fried stick bread with frothing bean soup on the Taiwan-held island of Quemoy. I have acclimatized myself to elaborate Korean breakfasts, featuring perhaps fifteen different dishes and including that spiciest of condiments, kimchi, or cucumber and other vegetables pickled in garlic and red pepper. I still think that "meeting real people" should be the highlight of anyone's visit to any country. But I know now that real people include presidents and pedicab drivers, ladies of fashion and housewives, peasants and factory workers and captains of industry, with all the gradations in between.

If breakfasts are tests of one's adaptability to societies where shaking the head may mean yes, or a hailing gesture taken as one of farewell, it may be because breakfasts are generally such simple, unpretentious occasions, where no one dresses up for company, where the day is too fresh to be complicated with ritual and make-believe. A breakfast is an honest meal, and those who enjoy it, wherever they may be, are honest people.

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