Written as a classroom example for my students.
What I wanted was katsu-curry, but I didn’t know that. I had looked at the pictures of various dishes, almost all involving a mild brown curry familiar in Japanese home cooking, and had decided to try my luck again. Walking in and finding a seat had been easy enough. Getting a menu and some tea had been easy enough. Reading the menu, on the other hand….
Well, the simple truth is that I couldn’t read Japanese. That was part of the experience, of course: on the one hand, schools in Japan wanted “Foreign English Teachers” to speak in English with their students; on the other hand, going to a country where I was functionally illiterate sounded like an amazing adventure. In Japan, most of the street signs, warning signs, ATM menus, food labels, and bus schedules were in Japanese—and often there was little or no English translation available. I couldn’t easily ask passersby for help, either, as I couldn’t speak enough Japanese to understand their answers! I had to rely on many helpful English-speaking Japanese and foreigners to help me get by.
I could also rely on my general language skills, to some extent: as an English teacher and salesman, I was pretty skilled at breaking things down to explain them simply. I’d also had a bit of experience with travelling, and could usually work out prices and train tables even in languages I couldn’t read. I had felt keenly proud the first time I had fumblingly said “sumimasen” to a Japanese man waiting for the bus, even though I was unable to clearly ask what time the next bus for the train station would come. I was both embarrassed and pleased that I had figured out how to say “hanbagaa setto, onegaishimasu” to get a hamburger combo (with “kora”—Coca-Cola) at “Makudonarudo”(McDonald’s).
None of that helped me, though, with a menu full of Japanese home cooking, a restaurant full of Japanese strangers, and a friendly waitress who spoke not a word of English. I was flustered. There were no pictures on this menu—my first line of defense against illiteracy. There weren’t any handy employees eager to step in and practice English—my second bastion of monolingual hope. There weren’t even any nearby customers who were eager to meet an odd foreigner, this time—no rescue from the awkward position I had so boldly created for myself.
The waitress tried to ask me again, more slowly. I tried to point to something and ask what it was. She tried to describe it, but all I could actually understand was that it was a plate of something with something else. I tried to say, “Just get me anything with curry,” but that was 80% of the menu. (Really, just imagine someone who knows only the word “beef” trying to order in a steakhouse! Right.)
I was being very pleasant and as polite as a gaijin can be, but I must have looked a little sad and confused. I was about to give up and apologetically retreat, defeated, from this cultural encounter, when the waitress took decisive action. She took me by the arm and pulled me outside.
I say “took me by the arm,” but of course she did nothing of the sort. She was Japanese. It would have been many kinds of strange and unpleasant for her to lay hands on anyone, especially a man, especially a foreigner, in public. That would go double for doing so when she was in a position of service, at work. Japanese men and women in service professions even have a special thin, high-pitched voice used for indicating their subservience to their honored customers; they bowed and sang their greetings to me at every step through the major department stores. I would later delight my giggling students by learning just one word of Japanese, “irrashaimase,” so that I could pretend to be one of these oh-so-sweet, oh-so-nice shopkeepers in a skit. Seeing their loud, bluff American teacher bow low and call out in a falsetto lilt, “irrashaimase,” made the skit a success before the first joke had been told. No, there’s no way the lady literally took me by the arm.
Still, that’s how I remember it, because her action was as decisive and irresistible as though she had grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up from my seat and across the restaurant and out the door. I remember it as though she pulled me, because there is something one does not argue with about a Japanese person who has decided to help you. No, that Japanese person will help you, even if that means a policeman will come to your office and schedule an hour with a translator present to explain exactly what the 1948 U.N. Treaty on Traffic does and does not mean for use of a foreign license in Japan. That’s a true story, but a different one. One does not argue with a Japanese person who has decided that you should be picked up and brought to meetings, even though it is inconvenient for them. One does not argue with a Japanese person who has decided that dinner is on them because you are younger. And one does not argue with a Japanese person when one does not speak Japanese!
And that, of course, is the other reason that I remember her action as compelling and forceful: because in that moment it was my salvation. I was embarrassed, and rather than taking a bold risk and making humorous mistakes, I was about to have an experience that could only be considered a loss, a failure. I was being weighed, and found insufficient in my skills, and unwise in my approach to practicing them. Then she had an idea, and in that moment all the force of my fears and anxieties and fumblings and errors gave way to her insight and my sheer relief at her readiness to act. I had no choice but to follow, or be a fool and know it.
She led me outside, then, where as usual the restaurant had models of every dish it served, showing how much and what kind of food was on each. There were dishes with whole giant prawns, head and all, staring at us through the tempura batter; dishes with lotus root and peppers and other tempura, often with noodles; and the many dishes with that bland brown curry that I came to love in Japan. She began pointing to them, using simple question-words like “kochi?” After a moment, I realized that I should simply pick one and point to it. I pointed to a dish which consisted of rice with curry, with a small bit of fried meat on top. She said, “katsu-curry.” I nodded gratefully.
Katsu-curry, or curry-rice with tonkatsu, or fried pork tenderloin, is a favorite comfort food in Japan. Those of you with exposure to German culture would recognize it as schnitzel, which is where the Japanese got the idea. And that day I enjoyed every self-conscious bite of that pork pounded paper-thin and breaded and fried. I made sure everyone could see that I savored that wonderful rice with that curry so mild it might have been brown gravy. I tipped well. And I decided that, no matter how much my employers insisted that it was better to have Foreign English Teachers who weren’t preoccupied with learning Japanese, I should make it a point to learn the language. I would risk the same humiliation my students risked every time they spoke in the classroom; I would confuse taxi drivers by not being able to hear the difference between “Danora” and “Dannoura”; I would amuse the nurses who tried to ask about my post-op pain with my bad Japanese efforts to reply to their picture-book English; I would notice with amusement that my Scottish friend’s accent, which made her English quite difficult for me, did not apparently make her Japanese pronunciation any stranger than mine. I would order with confidence from menus I could barely read, and stick with my choice even when the waiter looked worried.
And I ate a lot of mild brown curry. mit Schnitzel.