Toshiyuki Yamada had worked the entire fifteen years of his young life for this and now he found himself in an exchange student program living for a year with a host family on the banks of the Licking River, in the town of Pataskala, Ohio. To get here Toshi had excelled in school – top of his class at Shimosuwa Secondary School, high in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. He had studied English since the age of seven and had tutored other students for the last six years. Now he was living the dream.
The trip had been extraordinary; his parents had driven him to the station in Nagano. He caught the Shinkansen from there to Tokyo Station, by himself, and transferred by conventional rail to Narita where he met up with others in the exchange program. The next morning they all took Japan Air Lines non-stop from Narita to Chicago; then he and his escort, Ayumi, took another flight to Akron-Canton where they were met by the Nelsons, his host family. He enjoyed traveling with Ayumi, she had been an exchange student in Ohio when she was his age and gave him a lot of advice about the gaijin who lived there. She was scheduled to stay with him for two days and make sure he settled in alright.
Pataskala is about half the size of Shimosuwa and most of the residents had never seen or spoken to anyone from Japan before so, he was quite the celebrity as soon as he arrived. The small Pataskala Press sent a reporter to interview him, she was also the editor and press operator, and she was waiting in the driveway when Mr. Nelson wheeled the Suburban in with him and Ayumi. She asked him questions about what he was looking forward to and how he had been chosen for this trip. He answered her questions as best he could and then she spent some time quizzing the Nelsons.
The Nelson family was wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson had two children: Andy, who preferred to be called Andrew, and Linda, who liked to go by Lindy. Andrew was two months older than Toshi and could only talk about how cool it was going to be when he got his driver’s license. Lindy was twelve; she was curious, kind, and resourceful. Toshi liked her right away even if she did ask endless questions about Japan. He thought it might help him to talk about home and his family. It might keep him from getting homesick.
The next day he enrolled in school, and checked in with the program, headquartered in Chicago, letting them know that he had arrived and needed nothing. He wrote down names and phone numbers for his case workers who would come to visit him monthly. Soon enough Ayumi left and Toshi found himself on his own with the Nelsons.
Lindy wanted to know about Japanese foods. He told her about rice, sushi, sashimi, yakitori, tempura, and teppan cooking. She was amazed that he ate raw fish and wanted to know if it made him throw up. “No, no, it’s really good,” he told her, “and fresh.” She told him that she wanted to try it and asked him to prepare her a Japanese meal.
“I can’t do that, Lindy,” he explained. “A sushi chef must first be an apprentice and train for years before properly preparing food.” She was adamant and after at least two weeks of pestering she had convinced him that perhaps, indeed, he could.
He went shopping for fresh fish.
The problem getting fresh fish was that he was living in a small town in rural Ohio. Certainly they had river fish but he had no idea what to do with them. They were unfamiliar ingredients. And frozen fish simply wouldn’t do. Finally he found fresh Tako and bought it. When he got it home and unwrapped it he realized that he did not have the faintest idea how to go about preparing it for Lindy.
He served it anyway.