While dining in a Chinese restaurant one evening, I happened to overhear accidentally (or not) a conversation. It seemed the gentleman wanted the waiter, a rotund, middle-aged Asian fellow, to make him a platter of tofu with extra hot, spicy sauce. I pictured the waiter whisking out a magic wand (or maybe just a chopstick) and POOF, there was a large dripping, steaming mound of bean curd. At least I think tofu is bean curd, I mean, I never really thought of it as anything other than moist, tasteless styrofoam, decaying on refrigerator shelves everywhere.
When I inquired of my mother, out of curiosity, where we could buy some tofu (for I wanted to see what sort of packaging the stuff came in), she joyfully responded, "Yes, of course!" Sadly, when I asked her whether I would have to eat it, she reminded me, as mothers always do, "But you love tofu."
Where does tofu come from? I picture a group of sadistic axe murderers sitting around a table. Last week, they pillaged a nursing home, the week before, a daycare center. But this week, they have outdone themselves. Yes, this week, they have invented tofu. After a quick call to the patent office, their product materializes on supermarket shelves everywhere, to the horror of millions, of course. But millions, including my own dear mother, buy and consume tofu. They make themselves miserable eating things they would really rather not, only because it's "good for them."
I personally would rather step out at 60, having lived (and eaten) a full life than go at 90, not having ever consumed a decent meal. Now don't get me wrong, I do my best to stay healthy, but when two ladies get involved in a bloody battle in aisle six over the last package of 30-calorie-each, fiber-rich oat bran muffins, well, now that's carrying it a bit far.
I think the obsession people have with diet traces its roots to another, more serious problem. We feel constant pressure from society to look like everyone else. We must be slender to the point of emaciate; tall as the average, but not much taller, of beautiful build and perfect physique. Heaven help the ones who are different, for they are outcast, shunned. Blinded by the outside, people cannot (or refuse to) look inside at the important part of the person. A famous man once said (there must have been one famous man employed solely for the purpose of saying things)..."You cannot be anyone until you can be yourself." And that, children, is the lesson for today.
If all the world (including myself) could learn to step out of their superficial suit (worn right over the birthday suit), the world's population would double instantly.
Maybe it happens when we are in the womb. Going down the great assembly line of life, we pick it up. Here's your brain, here's your liver, whoops, don't forget that personality card. If you lose it, don't worry, just make a copy of someone else's, they're all the same.
In tenth grade, I remember (for it certainly wasn't long ago) an English teacher (whom I respect greatly, of course) told us about individuation, the process of becoming yourself, your own individual. He even made us get up, once a week, in front of the whole class and make a speech. The question then was, do I say what I want to say or what I'm supposed to say. Do I read the speech society wrote for me, or do I tear it up and write my own? Sure, he who dared make his own speech stood out, but all importantly, he gained the respect of the class, because he dared be different, because he dared be himself. Then the speeches would end. The students would file out of their straight, parallel rows, and on to their next class, living a life chopped into 50-minute regiments, governed by the piercing whine of The Bell (which, incidentally, sounds at a pitch midway between C sharp and D on the treble scale).
I suppose (although I've never really thought about it) that if everyone tried to be different, the problem of everyone being the same would, naturally, disappear. But then people would worry if they were different in the "right" way. They would be bound to choose the same way to be different. Then, everyone would be different, but they'd all still be the same. This means that, although while different from before, everyone would still be the same, but different. Get it? What if Random House printed a manual on how to be different. It would have 10 (or for an extra $15.99 for 20) different ways to be different. Then we would have 10 (or 20) different groups of the same people. One group would be the same, while being purposefully different from the others. Then, when someone from another group came and inquired which one was John, the reply would be curt: "Who can tell?"
But, alas, there is no such book. Like tofu, it seems a preposterous idea, but also like tofu, it is the preposterous ideas that often become reality. Tofu, however, merits itself in that it is itself. The fancy title aside (what does tofu mean? Is it Japanese for something, or an acronym, or what?), tofu is tofu. You get what you see, bean curd. Nothing else. Unlike Coq au Vin or a Pu Pu Platter, tofu is unpretentiously itself. While a far cry from the eighth wonder of the world, tofu is almost a role model. It's a versatile (found in everything from ice cream to pot roast), and it is true to itself. Surely, the world would be a better place if we could all be a little bit more like tofu. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.