The other day I had an awkward gaijin moment. Feeling peckish, my wife and I took ourselves down to a local Indian restaurant for a spot of curry. The restaurant is a small one, with seven or eight tables crammed in so close to each other that frottage with strangers is an unavoidable hazard. The food is good, though, and outside peak hours there are usually a couple of empty tables freeing you of the restriction to dine as though your upper arms are glued to your rib-cage.
Well, we went on a Monday at around two in the afternoon and I was pleased to discover that the place was empty. We sat down, ordered our food and began an easy conversation about our plans for the upcoming holiday weekend, about things we have ongoing in our school and the usual stuff about friends and family. And then some wind chimes at the door rang indicating more customers had arrived and I looked up to see another gaijin man with a Japanese woman.
He was a big fellow with a goatee and you could see he was no stranger to a pie cart. And yet, despite his size and all the spare tables, the waiter managed to seat him right next to us. Had he been any closer we’d have been sharing my chair. What could we do? I didn’t know how to politely request that they move, and for us to take our plates and head to another table would look more offensive still. So I did what I thought was right in the circumstances. I attempted a light-hearted ice-breaker, based on the ridiculous situation that we found ourselves in; that of two over-sized gaijin who have never met sitting snuggled in the corner of an otherwise empty restaurant. I’m not one of those people who feels he must acknowledge every other foreigner in Japan, but sometimes it does seem the right thing to do.
I suppose, I should have just said, ‘Hello,’ but I didn’t. I said, ‘Cozy, this, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry?’ he said.
‘Cozy’,’ I repeated. ‘Squashed up together like this?’
‘Right,’ he said without a hint of a smile or the remotest pretense of friendliness, and then he turned away and began discussing the menu options with his partner.
And once more, I found there was nothing much I could do. I couldn’t turn to my wife and say, ‘Well he’s a bit of a grumpy tit, isn’t he?’ because he was…well… he was right there next to me. And to start whispering and giggling would be a tad blatant. So that was it. Our gaijin interaction over and both of us now destined to eat lunch while thinking, ‘Trust me to get the seat next to the bell-end.’
I tried to resume my conversation with my wife, but couldn’t. With every word I wanted to turn round and say, ‘Can you stop listening in, please?’ He probably didn’t mean it, but it was impossible not to. I was involuntarily listening to his conversation, too. It sounded as stilted as ours. I hadn’t wanted to be his friend; I had just thought that as we might soon be sharing splatters of curry sauce, a little acknowledgement would be nice. Instead we sat there, agreeable chat reduced to minimal soundbites and small digestive noises. A pleasant meal spoiled for two couples and all because we both had to sit next to the gaijin.