Something interesting happened a few days ago.
I was out eating sushi — you know, because the day ended with a Y — with my friends Jamie and Kevin. We like to frequent a kaitenzushi place between Kevin’s and my apartment called Sushi Ondo. Kaitenzushi is an amazing invention where sushi travels around a conveyor belt, and you pretty much grab whatever looks good to you.
But I’m pretty picky, and the conveyor-ing selections of fish eggs and crab brains don’t always tempt my palate. Well, there’s other “normal” sushi items conveyor-ing as well, but you never really know how long it’s been spinning right ’round, or whether or not Young Shota-kun has sneezed/poked/kanchoed your delicious-looking fatty tuna.
So there’s a handy touch-screen ordering system just perfect for the gaijin on the go, who feels awkward making various social faux pas by ordering food from a waitress. My friends and I were chatting there, having a great time. Kevin was politely nodding at the waitress who kept trying to talk to him, despite the fact that he has proved time and again that he does not, in fact, speak Japanese, even though he is of Asian descent.
We were almost finished with our meal, but we were going to go for one more round, when the screen went blank. Because I like to pretend I’m an exotic space captain from the future who pilots her ship somehow by ordering fish, I was at the helm of the touch-screen when this happened. Naturally I thought I broke it. It was still plugged in, but the light on the monitor was off.
Hesitantly, we rang the waitress call bell, which is another genius invention that should be implemented in restaurants across the country. Maybe not at tables that hold jackass teenagers, because I could imagine that becoming a problem. But in Japan, it’s a delight.
We gestured towards the machine, and the waitress seemed to understand, grabbed the handheld part of the monitor, and retreated to the back of the restaurant. And we just kind of chilled. For a really long time.
It soon became clear that…we weren’t going to be ordering any more sushi. Now, no one can be sure what REALLY happened. Even paranoid as I am, I can look back with a level head and know I didn’t actually break the machine by using it for its purpose. And, sure, maybe the machine just really was broken and required a while to fix it. What I found a little weird was that no one tried to communicate to us to sit at another open table, no one said to wait a few minutes, no one said to just grab whatever was on the belt.
You may think that they finally realized we didn’t speak Japanese and declined to explain the situation because they knew we wouldn’t understand it anyway. You may be a fool. They did exactly what I have done when, say, someone calls me in Japanese and continues speaking Japanese, even when I tell them in broken Japanese that I do not speak Japanese — namely run and hide in another room and don’t come out ever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I didn’t care. I didn’t bat an eyelash. Sure, I wanted my cake (yes, conveyor-belt-sushi places have cake), but we all kind of shrugged, looked at each other, and just knew that that was the end of our meal.
It didn’t occur to me until the next day that I never would have acted that way in the States. I’m far from a bitchy customer, especially having worked as a waitress myself. But if I didn’t get my food, I would still be a little confused, weirded out…hungry. I would find it really odd that a waitress chose to avoid making eye contact with me just because of a glitch that was neither of our faults, and one that I could actually totally understand. Things happen, whatever. All you have to do is come back to the table, make an X with your arms and point to the empty monitor cradle, and I’d get the picture. I wasn’t going to flip over the table in anger. Was she scared of us?
I don’t know, I did look pretty scary in my hot-pink cardigan.
But it got me thinking. Did I not find it weird at the time because I knew there was nothing I could (linguistically) do about it? Or do I just feel more comfortable in my own country, where I know it’s okay to ask the management what happened to my dream cake, and I won’t shame the waitstaff or make a big deal about it; I just want to know the Cake Status.
I remember when I went alone to Switzerland in 2003. I saw a movie in a theater there, and there were some really loud, obnoxious Italian moviegoers taking up the other side of the theater. I was about to shush them, as I would in America, or at least give them the stinkeye, but it suddenly occurred to me that *I* was the outsider there. I was the weird one in *their* territory, and maybe it was *me* who needed the stinkeye for not having a raucous and rowdy good time like them. I let it go and kind of stuck out the annoying experience to the end, although the movie was “The Incredible Hulk,” so there wasn’t much I was really missing. With my moviegoing sixth sense, I was able to infer that the bad guys shouldn’t make him angry, and that they wouldn’t like him when he was angry.
So in a way, I was proud that we all kind of shrugged and paid and went on our way and didn’t really dwell on how weird it was that the waitstaff were whimpering under tables, hoping we left without incident. I think it means that we’re learing to do what Japanese people would do, not questioning the hurdles on our path to cake, but accepting them and getting over it.
It means we’re adapting to the society around us. Also, I bowed to a vending machine earlier today for giving me a grape soda. Maybe I’ve adapted a little too far into the culture, and I need to back up a little.
Something interesting happened a few days ago.