“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.
We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.
“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.
“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.
Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…
…the English menu in another.
My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.
Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.
That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.
“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”
We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).
“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.
Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.
He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.