by R. Paul Lege
I have always hated the proverbial statement: When in Rome do as the Romans do! It seemed to me that such a remark was counterintuitive to the way a host should welcome a guest. The phrase always seemed impositional, insidious, and imperialistic. Something used to test the mettle of the naïve or accidental tourist. The pitch is an uninviting meishi card or wicket gate meant to bowl over the unexpected traveler.
Hopping around the globe, I might abide by it, but I generally grit my teeth like a non-striking batter. Particularly when it is used as a weapon to get me to open my mouth to some nasty fare such as squid entrails, uncooked larvae, or monkey brains. Items on a menu that even most locals rarely select. And, even when they do, it is out of some drunken bravado, or their taste buds were incinerated years ago by some provincial hot sauce derived from a lava flow.
As with many such phrases, it was never meant to be weaponized. When St. Ambrose first expressed these words in a 4th-century letter to St. Augustine, he was simply explaining why fasting was not practiced in Rome on Saturdays. Ambrose did not intend to act as a wicket-keeper but more like an umpire establishing the playing field in Rome.
In general, I believe that as a prospective host I should not intentionally impose upon a weary traveler any form of the weaponized phrase as a measuring tool to see who will heave and leave in disgust. But, like so many words and phrases it has become weaponized, especially in Japan. What goes around, comes around as they are fond of saying at any kaiten sushi shop, and this is, in part, what this true story is about.
Common usage of the when in Rome phrase in Japan may have something to do with the need to winnow out the barbarian riff-raff seeking to land on these shores. That is, to separate the sincere sojourner willing to risk gaging on fermented viscera from the interloping tourist who sneers judgementally upon anything that is unfried. I get it. But, really, the Japanese should check visa status before blurting out such a phrase to just any foreigner.
I have lived and worked here for nearly thirty years and am very much aware that many Japanese reject the palatability of things such as nattoh (fermented beans) and kane miso (crab brains). Furthermore, I come from Louisana where catfish, crawfish, and maque choux are often served with a side beverage of Tabasco sauce. Where noodling has nothing to do with gorging on ramen noodles. And, despite the availability of such food items here in Japan, most Japanese express disgust at the idea of consuming this Cajun cuisine.
Before biting on my tongue, I want to make clear that I generally enjoy most of what is on the Japanese cultural menu. My wife is Japanese, and just as she controls much of our finances (a Japanese tradition, so I was told), she usually dictates what is served on the table. And, while she can and will dine on just about anything, including Louisiana cuisine, she holds to enough practical sensibility to know that taste buds in Japan are diverse, prejudicial, and politically incorrect. Even within her large family, she is the only one who can drink any form of alcohol and devour shirako (cod sperm), though she will draw the line at orthopteroid insects such as skewered inago (locusts).
In essence, my wife is a cultural cricket; that is, she takes an unbiased approach to navigating the world, which is great for me because I love to travel. In addition, she does not care for the When in Rome remark, either. In fact, before traveling, I must purchase special travel insurance to protect us from the fact that she might cause an international incident by punching a local person in the nose if they dared challenge her consumptive abilities. What I cannot figure out is how she gains so little weight in testing all the local dishes and wineries, while I become bloated chasing down obscure historical places of reference.
Years ago, I managed to land a teaching position at Nagoya University which afforded me many opportunities to travel (at least before Covid clipped my wings). Since our department includes a large number of students from East and Southeast Asian countries, I was able to participate in visits and lectures in colleges in these regions as well as recruitment jaunts, orientational prepping, and dozens of conferences. While no Anthony Bourdain, I have ventured enough down to these culinary zones and discovered what is suitable to my gastronomical sensibilities. Nevertheless, I want to relate one particular incident that occurred that will illustrate what is meant by NOT being a cultural cricket.
One of my Japanese colleagues who headed the international division of our department (she is now retired) and took care of many administrative issues was very fond of the when in Rome dictum. One of her roles in the department was to manage the travel budgets, and she often reminded us of this moth-eaten phrase before signing off on the requisite expenditures. She delivered this in the same formal robotic way as yoroshiko onegaishimasu. For her, this was the last of the bureaucratic hoops that the prospective traveler had to agree with before actually receiving any funding. You either nodded in agreement to what she perceived was sagacious advice or the whole junket was jeopardized.
She was fair and balanced though. She did not simply apply the phrase to the outgoing personnel but was often heard instructing the new incoming students that such an attitude was expected of them here in Japan. Not in a coarse, cruel, or menacing way but rather in a motherly tone. My colleague was anything but mean-spirited. Sincere, caring, dedicated, responsible, and hardworking were better adjectives that might describe her character. On this one point, however, she felt the need to orient her charges with the idea that student scholarships came with whatever was served on their plate, whether it was natto, shirako, or inago.
In 2017, I had scheduled to attend a language conference in Cambodia, and she asked to tag along. In addition, she was hoping that I could assist with meeting several of the faculty at two universities in Phenoh Penh. Though her English was quite good, she was less confident around those who spoke the language in accents (Southeast Asia and Southwest Texas). Given my own Louisanized form of both English and Japanese, I understood the problem. So serving as an accent liaison officer would be no problem, especially because this trip provided a chance to reconnect with some of the alumni who had graduated from our program over the past years.
Thinking that I now held the advantage, I agreed to the travel arrangement. After all, she was asking for my help; I had been to Cambodia at least seven times, she only twice; and I had been to the famed Skun Market, but she had not. This famous market is in Kampong Cham (about 70 km from Phenom Penh) and is known for selling all forms of crawly things that appeal to the culinary palate of the rural folk. Though she would never have gone to the Aeon Mall (yes, they have one in Cambodia), she avoided the Phnom Penh Central Market as well, content just to hang out at a café. Everyone’s cultural fast is different.
While I confess that I have not sampled all that the Skun Market has to offer, I knew that she had never even been there so her usage of the dictum was now nullified. I assumed, in this instance, she had no right to impose it. So, after signing off on the necessary budget requests, you can imagine my surprise when I was hit with her decorous refrain “don’t forget, when in Rome do as the Romans do!” I am sure my annoyance was visible in my rather weak smile and flimsy nod. But, the trip was on.
I should also mention that in all my travels in this area of Indochina (or Italy), not once have I been exposed to this rather obnoxious maxim. But, during our one-week travel and stay in Cambodia, my ear canals would be assaulted by her repetitious use of this phrase at least twenty times. Not from anything, I said, but rather she would project it when dissatisfied with something. When something negative would occur she would blurt out, oh well… when in Rome…, and I would merely nod in pathetic agreement. Upon reflection, I believe she did this as a tactic to cut-off anyone else from employing the phrase whenever she had a complaint.
For example, she said it after being unhappy with the wine list on the airplane; she said it after the heat slammed us upon arrival; she said it after asking for a room change at the hotel. Not once but twice! The first was because her room on a lower floor had too many mosquitos; the second time was because her upper floor was too hot, and the air conditioning was insufficient. She said it when getting caught in the horrendously dusty Phnom Penh rush hour traffic (something I warned her about). She said it after attending the conference for half a day, though initially, she had no plan to do so.
I do recommend anyone who has the chance to attend an overseas language conference to leap at the experience. Not just for the cultural experience but for the opportunity to observe and learn from what English language teachers are doing at the local level in other countries. I am interested in this because I hope to gain greater insight into what to expect from the students concerning their actual language abilities. On this occasion, I was presenting at the CAMTESOL conference, which was a three-day affair full of different learning streams as well as many serendipitous moments of cultural discovery.
On the day of my presentation, I found my companion waiting for me in the lobby of our hotel as she had decided to attend my lecture uninvited. I did not mind but was simply caught off guard, especially since she had not registered for the conference and had expressed no interest in it before leaving Japan. Since this was a Sunday, and technically we were both off, she wanted to see what such a language conference was about.
Something in my inner Jiminy chirped that this could end up being an ominous experience. I explained to her that I had a full day. This included my presentation, listening to a few other lectures, and then meeting Dr. Hap at noon as he was going to take me to the ruins of Phom Chisor Tam, which were located about 60 kilometers south of the capital city. I tried to make this last part of the schedule as unappetizing as possible. We planned to skip lunch, the road was narrow and dusty, there would be a lot of hiking in the sweltering sun, and we would probably return to the hotel quite late. Didn’t matter, she was all in.
As I said above, you can discover a lot by going to international conferences. What I uncovered that day was that my colleague, who was the model of self-assurance in Japan, was quite insecure about being alone when crossing over and into other boundaries. The fact that Dr. Hap, who had earned his doctorate in our program back in 2002, was coming only made her decision easier. Perhaps believing that he would take her to so some wonderful tropical café along the way. So, she ignored my cautionary statements about the potential hardships and accepted her self-invitation, high-heels, and all.
I should pause here and offer a little advice to any planning to work in a college or university in Japan. Make every attempt to never offend someone in an administrative role in a college or university, regardless of status, as they hold the purse strings to everything and will cut you off at the slightest hint of disrespect. Rather than risking the chance that commenting about the impracticality of wearing heels on such a field trip might be misunderstood, I was shamefully obsequious in praising her choice of footwear.
She blushed with pride without realizing my sarcasm. An American woman would probably have ripped into me for daring to take on such a tone and attitude. This represents another dirty secret of weaponized language as it can be used to send out all kinds of implicit and hidden messages. But, this is not restricted to English. The Japanese are masters at this craft and can use politeness with a sophistication that works as deadly as insecticide upon any impudent cockroach who fails at proper civility.
I did not fail in this civility; I told her that I packed preparatory clothing for the outing. She just waved this off as unnecessary. In general, my conference presentation went well enough with my colleague commenting that she was surprised by some of the things that my job as a writing instructor entailed, particularly since her role in the department was largely administrative. She followed me to two other lectures but was visibly losing energy and interest; she quickly retreated into the SNS world on her smartphone. The coffee served at the conference was a bit flat, so she said while reminding me of Rome.
While waiting for Dr. Hap, she immediately shifted into a nostalgic monologue about her one trip to Rome. She had drunk an expresso at the Antico Caffè Greco, the same place where luminaries such as Byron, Keats, and Wagner (and thousands of Japanese tourists) had once stopped in for coffee. Not much of a coffee connoisseur myself, my facial expression probably betrayed my lack of interest at the moment. I uttered, inaudibly, the little Keats that I knew: and into the forest, I go; to lose my mind and find my soul.
A little caffeinated pep emerged in her attitude when Dr. Hap arrived on schedule at 12:15 with his ten-year-old son in the back seat of the car. While shooting me a glance of surprise, he smiled and politely opened the back door, offering her a seat next to his son. But, when I got in the passenger seat, I could tell by his tilted head and the delay in putting the key into the ignition that he was expecting an explanation.
Dr. Hap is a remarkable individual, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s hellish purges. Though most of his family and relatives succumbed to the slaughter, he held to the most optimistic and jubilant demeanor. Many called him Dr. Happy for short (or would this be the long of it?), not just because of his name but because he always smiled. For him, the trials and tribulations of earning a doctorate in degree in Japan were heavenly mana that he wished to share with his homeland, still recovering from the physical and emotional scars of the last century. And, despite the history between Dr. Hap, his family, and my colleague, he was perplexed at seeing her at that moment.
So while my co-worker and Dr. Hap’s son began getting reunited in the back seat of the automobile (the boy loved to use English), I sheepishly concocted a story in anticipation of his incoming question. Are we going back to the hotel, he quizzed me in a sanguine manner. Perhaps hoping that we were simply going to drop her off and then head out on our day’s exploration. Nope, I answered, and then added, I told her about the wonders of the Phom Chisor ruins and she wanted to come with us. As he smiled, he simply responded: Oh, I see.
For the first ten minutes or so, Dr. Hap was largely silent. I could tell he was having to recalibrate the day’s plans. He (nor I) had actually expected this. While elated to see her, it was evident by his pensive driving that he was making readjustments to what was originally planned. We had discussed this Sunday outing on the previous Friday, after a faculty meeting, and during an evening meal altogether. Not once had my traveling partner shown any inclination of interest in our open and lengthy discussion about this exploration.
Happy and I were on the same wavelength, but her presence altered the frequency. This was supposed to be one of those days in which the boys can go out and revel in the earth. That is, to get sweaty, grimy, and filthy. I imagined a whining bumper sticker: Some days, pigs wish to be swine. Her presence changed that channel of my cognitive chauvinism. Moreover, I think she was likely under the impression that Happy had brought his son along for her and was delighted to be back in the role of caretaker. Though upbeat, Dr. Hap drove rather quietly until we hit Highway Number 2 and multiple roadblocks.
Highway 2 is a rather dusty two-lane fairway lined with lush vegetation hanging with all kinds of street vendors. This road leads down to the Chisor Mountains and the Phom Chisor temple. Along with the obligatory roadway construction, potholes and other physical obstacles salted the course and slowed us down. All forms of transportation traversed the clogged artery: leaning lorries overburdened with recent harvests; antique buses brimful of standing-room-only passengers; cars of all types; three-wheeled tuk-tuks weaved in and out of the bustle; motorcycles and mopeds sold items to the cars they passed; bicycles suffered under the weight of a parent and 2-3 kids; and anything else with a wheel attached to a motor.
Happy was delighted that we had made it to the temple in less than 3 hours (just slightly). I had been too caught up in the scenery to think about time. The amount of vehicular creativity in Cambodia would put Ford, Toyota, and Tesla to shame, I thought. While my companion displayed a decent disposition upon arrival; nevertheless, she could not help but blurt out her dictum. The Cambodian highway simply did not match her expectation or her conceptual understanding.
For her, even including a rest stop at a SA (service area) for bad coffee, it would never have taken 3 hours to drive 60 kilometers on a highway in Japan. I knew better and ignored the comment. She sought affirmation in her belief from Happy’s son who recalled the images of wonderful highways and bullet trains when he once visited Japan with his father. I pulled some wax out of my ear as I meandered over to the entrance of the temple. Peripherally, I noticed that Dr. Hap had gone over to talk with some vendors located at the base of the grounds just outside the parking area. But, I was like a cicada just emerging from a deep sleep.
My attention had focused on the temple. Phom Chisor Tam includes ruins of an ancient Hindu temple and a more modern-day Buddhist monastery. The site sits upon a 100-meter hill that rises alone from the surrounding rice paddies. The Hindu temple reflects some of the southernmost reaches of the 10-12th-century Ankhor architecture and includes a plethora of carved religious representations in the laterite stones used in the construction. Ancient royal processions would have proceeded up the eastern slope, climbing 400 steps, to venerate Lords Shiva and Vishnu.
The Ankhor people believed they were protected by the sun. This is illustrated in the dark crust baked into the stones that reflect just how much the Cambodians have beaten back centuries of blistering historical tragedy. While the area and the temple were heavily bombed in the conflict between the Lon Nol regime and the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s, there is still much to see, admire, and contemplate. For those with only a short stay in Phnom Penh, and little chance to visit the famed Ankhor Wat, this site provides a fine visual feast for any cultural cricket.
Meanwhile, my colleague began to regret her impromptu decision to join this excursion as she stared up at the nearly 500 steps that awaited her already aching heeled feet. Today, the approach to the upper ruins is from the south, and while the newer concrete steps are gentle to the toe, the climb can appear to demand a Himalayan effort for the unprepared. Happy, being an excellent Cambodian Sherpa, just so happened to have an extra pair of sandals in the trunk of his car. I could not wait and began to slowly make my ascent up the ladder of cultural competency.
About as wide as a cricket pitch, the path up is lined with retro colonial-style light poles (for evening festivals) and various trees that are insufficient to provide much respite from the harsh sun. The blanketing effect of the humidity also tortures those unaccustomed to such conditions. On that day, the humidity was thick enough to scare away our shadows. For me, a native of Louisana, the climb was no sweat. Actually, I was dripping in perspiration and probably smelt like old, wet socks but my enthusiasm was in a pupating stage.
In contrast, my traveling companion was in the latter stages of a chrysalis. Appearing over the crest, the butterfly looked just as neat and proper as I had seen her earlier in the hotel lobby but the climb had drained her of energy. Thankfully there was a heavy canopy of trees on the top of the hill that provided some relief, but she mentioned how she was broiling despite having already consumed half our water supply on the way up. I sincerely commented on well she looked given the harsh climb. This time I was rewarded with a blood-curdling glance that would have obliterated the venerated Lords of Phom Chisor.
After about 15-20 minutes, she surrendered. She took a quick photo of the temple and was ready to go back down. All ruins being the same, for her, these historical remnants were no more or less impressive than anything she had seen in Rome. While I doubt she expected there to be a Starbucks up on this solitary hill, it was clear that she was now in need of an iced coffee, which may just as well have been a white whale in this part of Cambodia. Happy, acting as first-mate of this sojourn, acknowledged this fact to my companion who now strongly resembled the brooding Captain Ahab.
With a disappointing look, Dr. Hap offered to take her back down and wait for me. That was when he revealed his dinner plans. Upon first arriving, he had gone over to one of the vendors and set up a dinner for us at one of the resting platforms near the parking area. This would include very local foods in an extremely rustic setting. Imagine four bamboo pillars, shaded by plywood, no walls, no tables or chairs, just hammocks. Both my colleague and I were surprised by this kind gesture, but for different reasons.
I was delighted and should have expected it. Of course, his earlier visit to the vendor upon our first arrival now made logical sense to me as it reflected the hospitality often found across Asia. His consideration was both polite and practical. He wanted to treat us to a very local fair, and he also assumed that we would be hungry after such a draining hike. Plus, given that we could expect a long drive back and there were few places to stop, it made sense to eat before going back to Phnom Penh.
My traveling partner was frugal in her acceptance. I think in her mind, going back down meant returning to the car and getting the hell out of dodge. She jokingly scolded him for going through such trouble but knew it would be impolite to refuse. She stood alone on this paradoxical island of politeness. Nonacceptance might insult him, but feigning polite acceptance risked being obvious and could have the same result. I read this in her harpooned stare as she mustered all her skills of cordiality in this situation. This form of cordiality is called amae in Japanese.
The tip of the harpoon was forged in Rome, by the way. But because she said this phrase so much, I had become impervious to its blunted meaning. Take your time, he chimed, it will take another hour or so before they complete the preparations. Happy’s son desperately wanted to stay with me and scamper about the ruins, which just reaffirmed my belief that this safari was, as Johnny Cash once sang, about wallowing in the mud, the blood, and the beer. Dr. Hap relented, and his son stayed with me, while he escorted my colleague back down the hill.
Happy’s son and I had a marvelous 90-minute romp around the ruins. And, for a brief time, I was reliving my childhood experience in Peru where I once scampered around Inca ruins and parts of the Amazon. The moment was interrupted by an inquisitive monk who sprang from the Buddhist monastery at the opportunity to practice his English. Having the boy with me was providence because he helped translate some of the more difficult questions that I had about the site.
Noticing that we were sweaty, the monk offered us some fermented coconut water, which supposedly serves as a source of electrolytes in these regions. Too close to alcohol, the monks generally do not consume the drink. But, as he explained, it was made by the parents in the vicinity for the children who hike up to study at the monastery school. Though warm, the drink was refreshing and helped liven us up for our trip down the hill.
Added to this was the fact that the boy had scraped his knee, and I skinned the knuckles of my left hand (both of which drew blood) so that I felt less guilty when hopping down the hill and seeing the rather sorrowful expression on my colleagues face. She looked as if she had disembarked from a rocky sea voyage: a rather ashen green. My conscience was relieved by the justification that Happy’s son and I had just met the basic requirements of Johnny Cash’s lyrics concerning the mud, the blood, and the beer.
As Dr. Hap contently rocked away in his hammock, my poor colleague appeared quite defeated as she sat on the edge of the platform where we would dine. She mumbled something about not being able to get into one of the hammocks. Happy’s son launched himself into the unoccupied one gleefully showing off his skill. And, I envied him. I, too, wanted to dock myself into one of the hanging contraptions but thought it best to console my co-worker who appeared quite wretched at that moment.
I would later learn that my colleague had witnessed the decapitation of the chicken and the frogs that would be served to us for dinner. As a city girl, she had never witnessed such bucolic culinary preparations and only thought of them as relics of the pastoral past. The frogs were offered as an appetizer and appeared in nearly full form, though minus their heads. Though hesitant, she nibbled on a frog leg after she saw me leap into the mound of ten or so charcoaled grilled amphibians.
Anticipating our possible reluctance to try such a delicacy (and in Louisana, frogs are just that: a delicacy) Happy croaked the standard and most reassuring refrain that they taste like chicken. I simply concurred and congratulated my traveling partner for actually eating two legs. But, two legs was as far as she dared go. After tenderly eating these, she triumphantly patted herself on the back with the phrase well in Rome do as the Romans do. Indeed, her color began to return and the experience of downing pollywogs made her forget about the cute chicken executed with precision and decorating our rice.
As she happily delved into the chicken and rice meal, my colleague believed the trial was over and that she had passed. However, the plate of frogs was simply the ticket into the coliseum. The real gladiatorial contest was due. After consuming about half of her main course, she dropped her chopsticks when a generous plate of deep-fried crickets was summarily presented to us. They were ripe and in season. Aghast, she exclaimed, I can’t eat those!… adding…I am too full, now!
Having had these before, I began grabbing and tossing them down like popcorn. As I crunched on them, I did mention that while they did not taste like chicken, they reminded me of Kappa Ebisen (a deep-fried shrimp snack, popular in Japan). I was trying to reassure her but noticed she was even more horrified as I spoke. No doubt repelled by the sight of seeing cricket legs stuck between my teeth. Happy and his son laughed, for this is the real test, to see if foreigners pull off the legs before eating them.
Looking at me in disgust, my colleague said in a rather sarcastic tone, I know what you want to say … When in Rome…. As I snapped, crackled, and popped on another handful of fried cultural fare, I smirked and responded with a Nope…. And, as I rubbed my tongue around my teeth in a vain attempt to dislodge some of the prickly cricket legs, I added (while wagging a finger)…Ah, but… I have heard that… all roads lead to Rome! … Crickets.
Stumped and retired. I never heard my colleague speak about Rome in this way again.