Monday 18 March 2002

The ambiguity of perception

I eat once a week at Mamma Maria in Newtown, an Italian restaurant owned by two Egyptian brothers (one tall, the other short, who look after the front of house) and a Portuguese woman (who runs the kitchen). The short brother is on holiday in Egypt. They never know what night I’ll be there but somehow the table closest to the entrance is always free, and they invariably sit me there. I like to sip a Crown Lager while I wait for my meal, observing the restaurant patrons as they arrive.

Tonight, a blonde woman walked in and said to the tall brother: “A table for one, please.”

“Table 8,” he said to a waiter. The woman glanced briefly at a bearded man coming up the stairs, then walked with the waiter towards her table.

“A table for one, please. At the other end of the room,” said the man who’d come in behind her.

It was a joke, of course. They sat down together, ordered a bottle of wine and, when it arrived, poured each other a glass. She drew a few strands of hair back behind her ear then reached across and took his hand. He kissed her.

I went back to reading my book (John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener). Not long after my meal was served, another couple walked in. An older man and a younger woman. She wore a yellow T-shirt, inscribed with white Chinese and black Japanese characters on the red circle of the Rising Sun. As she walked across the restaurant, I managed to decipher the first and last Chinese characters: red and blue. (In addition to two phonetic alphabets, the Japanese use about 2000 Chinese characters to represent concrete words or concepts.)

Renegade Graphic Boutique T-shirt

As I struggled to make out the middle character, I glanced up and saw that the young woman was looking at me over her shoulder with disgust. “Shit,” I said to myself, “she thinks I was perving on her tits.”

After the waiter took their order, I approached the table to apologize.

“Excuse me,” I said to them both. Then to her, “I didn’t intend to be rude. I’m studying Japanese and whenever I see Chinese characters I just seem to go into auto-pilot, trying to figure out what they mean.”

She looked skeptical.

“I recognized the first and last white characters,” I added. “I’m not sure of the middle one.”

“What are they?” she asked.

“Red and blue,” I replied. “I can recognize parts of the middle character—the part on the left means thread and that on the bottom right water—but I don’t know what the actual character means. I’ll have to look it up in the dictionary.”

She relaxed a little. “I’ve been told that the black text uses a different alphabet,” she said.

“It’s katakana,” I told her. “A phonetic alphabet. The Japanese use it for words they borrow from other languages.”

“What does it mean?” she asked me, making it sound like a test.

Strange that initially she’d taken offence at my staring at her chest, and now she was inviting me to look more closely.

Katakana is easy, once you get the hang of it. I spelt out the syllables to myself: “RE-NE-GAY-DO—GU-RA-FI-KU—BU-TI-KU.”

“Renegade Graphic Boutique,” I explained. “It’s the name of a graphic design company.”

She looked pleased. And relieved. I returned to my table.

Red and blue. A graphic design company. You’d think I’d have figured it out straight away. When I came home, I looked up the character in the dictionary. Midori. Green. Red-Green-Blue. Renegade-Graphic-Boutique. Doh!

How does one judge another’s intentions? The young woman in the restaurant was absolutely wrong in assuming that I was interested in her breasts, and yet what else was she to think when she noticed an older man staring at her T-shirt? I knew I had inadvertently offended her so I made an effort to apologize and explain myself. She was initially suspicious, then accepting, and finally curious.

In this case, there were no calamitous consequences. Her mind was set at rest, what might have been an affront turned out to have an innocent explanation. Still, it’s a strange experience to be comprehensively misjudged, to have one’s character, motives, and worth impugned on the basis of a casual glance. I had to explain myself once. Lots of other people in our society have to explain themselves—or remain silent—a dozen or more times a day.

As I left, I asked the tall brother about the couple who’d asked for separate tables. I told him it looked like an affectionate routine. “I don’t think so,” he said. “She seems really angry with him.”

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Jonathan, You should order one of the Context Machines that RageBoy's advertising for the U S Army. Presumably they'd be able to tell a lecher from a language-learner, a romantic couple witha wry sense of humor from a feuding couple....

Posted by AKMA on 18 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

AKMA, I've asked RageBoy if he intends to license the Context Machine for non-military uses.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 18 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour