The bittersweet taste of kindness

Goya by Flickr user mloge
Image courtesy of Flickr user mloge.

Today at one of my long-standing English-conversation teaching jobs, where I teach a group of five retirees over lunch in an upscale Chinese restaurant and have done so for over nine years, twice a month, I ordered this month’s “chef’s special”, which was a stir fry featuring 苦瓜 (nigauri, or “bitter melon”), perhaps more commonly known as ゴーヤー (goya), which is what the vegetable is called in Okinawa. Goya is one of those “acquired taste”-classified Japanese foods along the likes of fermented soybeans (納豆, natto) or sour plums (梅干し, umeboshi), and I’m sure there are a whole host of non-Japanese living here who hate the stuff, as well as plenty of Japanese folk who feel the same. For my part, although initially taken aback by its strong bitterness ten years ago, I quickly grew to like it, especially when served as it normally is in a stir fry along with eggs and tofu, which do a nice job of cutting some of the bitterness. In fact, in recent years I’ve grown to love it, so much so that on this same day one of the students gave me three pieces of goya that she grew in her community garden plot, as she has for several years now.

But the pleasures of goya will have to wait, for what inspired this post was what happened when I told the waitress my order. She replied, with a most concerned face,


(goya ha daijoubu desu ka, “Are you sure you can eat goya?”)

Now, I suppose it’s a measure of how long I’ve been here in Japan (10-plus years as of this writing) that this question fairly rolled off my back, though not enough so to keep me from answering her with a mock-seriousness to match her worry-contorted face, 「大丈夫だと思いますけど」(daijoubu da to omoimasu kedo, “I think it’s okay.”). And this particular waitress has asked this question before, regarding what I forget now but perhaps tofu, or baby shrimp, or some other food ripe for “foreigners must hate this” second-guessing. All to say that I was not entirely surprised by the question, but still tweaked enough to think this would make something worthwhile to write about.

The students for their part were of the impression that the waitress was 優しい (yasashii, ”kind; helpful”). In their view, no doubt, they thought the waitress was trying to stop me from ordering something I might not like, or find too bitter, and I can go along with that thinking somewhat. But it is my experience that a lot of what goes for kindness here in Japan would probably be viewed more as condescension back home in America. I tried to think of a similar situation in America where this might happen, but honestly I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything. Granted, the level of customer service being what it is, it’s not exactly a fair comparison. But in reality, in those places where customer service is top-notch, questioning whether a customer was ordering something they’d be able to eat just wouldn’t fly. I suppose a case could be made for the situation of the foreign tourist, struggling to read the menu, and the staff trying to steer them towards something less exotic and potentially unpalatable. But the waitress in my situation has been seeing me eat in this restaurant twice a month for over five years — not exactly a fledgling FOB needing to be coddled.

I’m not sure I really have anything “conclusive” to say about this whole thing. I mean, I find it curious that it didn’t rile me up more, but on the other hand I sort of take that as a positive. But I do think this level of do-gooder condescension does indicate, on some very small (but not inconsequential) level, that Japanese attitudes towards non-Japanese have a lot of room for improvement. But that said, won’t I miss the coddling when it’s gone — if I live to see that day?