Grandfather’s Knife

My grandfather doesn’t look like much on the outside. He wears traditional Japanese clothing, most often a jinbei (casual traditional street clothes), wooden geta (sandals with prongs on the bottom), and a hachimaki (headband of sorts) on his bald head. He looks no different from every Japanese senior citizen in the town he lives in. He walks with a slight bend at the waist, hands tucked in his sleeves like Confucius, head up proudly, accompanied by the pleasant rolling clacking of bamboo prongs on the pavement. On closer inspection, however, he looks anything but the average elder in town. Does an average person have scars all over their body from intense martial training? Do they have lean, wiry muscles that still stand out prominently at age 90? Expertise in both weapons and culinary utensils? Usually, the answer is no. My grandfather is no ordinary senior.

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He grew up in the lull between the World Wars, and took part in the second part, although he never saw action, as he was deemed too short, and was never able to accept that about himself. He trained himself in martial arts and traditional feng shui of china, as a way to strengthen his body and soul, which he continues to do to this day. I will never cease to be amazed to see him up at the crack of dawn at 88 years of age doing pushups and crunches before heading off to his small restaurant where he cooks breakfast for the locals. This man was my inspiration to take up cooking. Once he knew I was interested in his trade, he taught me many things in the careful, calculated way he always talked. He taught me to never fear failure. Failure was how great dishes were conceived. However, he would hold up his left pinky finger that was now a stub due to chopping it off while fileting fish and say, never let that same failure happen again. Always reflect on failures and improve the flaws that caused it, otherwise it is just an endless cycle of the same failures.

That same evil eye bracelet he made his blunder with, a 13-inch razer-sharp gyuto (chef’s knife) now sits in my room with its bamboo sheath, wrapped inside my nearly eight-year old apron. He had sent it to me as a celebratory gift for graduating from high school, and kept his note short and crisp, with one sentence: “Go forth and greet your failures head-on, pipsqueak”. Those words have resonated with me since, and has really changed my mindset from one that is typically adopted in immigrant families; that failure is the ultimate disrespect to family, to one that takes errors in stride and grows from it. Funnily enough, the gift almost did not make it through customs, as my grandfather had put it inside a heavy-duty envelope rather than a box (as per regulation), and such an impactful and important gift would have never graced my possession if not for my grandmother using old age as an excuse at the post office.

I’ve cooked with that knife for about two years since almost every day, as I prepare most of my family’s meals. It is very sharp, perfectly balanced, and above all is extremely light, all attributes of a great knife. However, although the physical gift is enough by itself, the message that it metaphorically engraved into my memory and heart is perhaps the greatest gift. It has changed my outlook on life, and has made me a more versatile person in general. Rather than being put under stress about messing up the first time, I am able to put 100% into that initial attempt without fear and learn from that, because what else could be expected of anyone the first time? Such a mental shift has allowed me to attempt new things such as learning new coding languages on my own and investing: two things I never would have tried out of fear of failure or lack of self-confidence that I could.

I am excited for the next time I am able to go back to Japan, so I can show my grandfather the growth I have experienced over the course of COVID-19, and to finally make him say outright that my food is delicious. I don’t think he knows how much his gift and words meant to me, and how much of a significant impact he left on my life, but rather than saying so in a sappy, long-winding letter (which I know he is sure to hate reading) I’d like to show it through my physical growth. He has been my cheerleader for the longest time, and I believe that it is about time I begin reciprocating his time, effort and belief with results.

To think inspiration can come from a thin piece of metal and bamboo for cooking and a piece of oily wax paper.

Thank you Grandpa, see you soon.

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