The Importance of Context 文脈の重要性

Last week when I was walking home from a very fruitful beer run to Hiromatsu, I decided to stop in at a local ramen shop that my predecessor had recommended to me before he left. When I stepped inside, the owner, who was sitting on a stool facing the door, continued to gaze past me at a television set tucked into a corner below the ceiling. There was nobody else in the restaurant, and that’s never a good sign.

My quiet “konnichiwa” startled him into shouting “Irasshaimase!” and then he scuttled behind the counter to await my order alongside his wife. I studied the menu uncomfortably, then asked for the ramen with garlic.

Then the old man’s demeanor changed. He turned off the TV and struck up a conversation with me: Where are you from? How long have you been in Japan? Your Japanese is really good! What do you do here? Where do you work? English is very difficult, etc. We talked about teaching and learning English, about cooking and eating ramen, about Kyushu food, about why Italians like garlic so much, and about his business, which was more than thirty years old. He told me that his granddaughter is going to be starting at one of my middle schools and that I should watch for her in the spring. I told him I would, and that I would recommend his shop to all my foreigner buddies.

All the while, I slurped soft noodles and light, salty soup, infused with minced garlic and sparsely topped with pickled ginger and half a boiled egg. Was it good? Well, sure… I mean, I think so. Looking back, I honestly can’t say whether it was really good or not. It definitely wasn’t bad, but the noodles were a little overdone and the stock was quite thin. And the chashu was consummately lame. But none of that mattered to me at the time; even if it wasn’t great food, it was a great food experience, and so even though the ramen didn’t blow me away, I meant it when I said I’d be back – and next time, with friends.

It just makes me think, how much food have I had that I thought was really, really good not because of the food itself but because of my agreeable company? And how much food have I had that I thought was kind of blasé or downright bad because I had it in a boring or unpleasant context?

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