Eating My Words

November 24, 2016

It's a Friday night at Compass Rose and you're waiting for a table. Classic. The bar is filled and then some, and you can barely hear the new (pick an artist) album over the chatter of the gentle mob of people crowded into the restaurant. You're not mad. You know what khachapuri is. It's worth the wait. You get your table. You get a wild cocktail and some Georgian wine. You tap your feet to the din of the restaurant that has become your soundtrack.


Hold up. 


(Did you just sing Beyoncé in your head? Mission accomplished.) 


Allow me to re-introduce myself.


Hi, it’s me, Kristen. I work at Compass Rose and I really like sounds. I enjoy making noise, and while I've learned how to speak using words, I prefer singing. When I'm not having totally normal interactions with people, I talk to myself in any language other than English. Sometimes I employ English with an accent for sport. My go-to's are Australian and Keira Knightly English. I like the fact that the combination of possible sounds that people can make is finite, but so far I've heard something new every day. It's a big world. 



I grew up in Tokyo collecting sounds. I'm used to hearing the organized clamor of millions of people and thousands of crows screaming all day long. I kind of miss it. One time I got attacked by crows. That's a story for another time. I promise I have a point. With my parents and friends, I spoke a hybrid of Japanese and English (in a textbook example of code-switching) that took on a rhythm not unlike the banter of crows. My parents’ apartment was right by the hospital, and crows called the bass line to the whining song of Japanese ambulances. A crow lived right outside the convent where I learned Spanish fit for La Real Academia. My teacher was a woman in her mid 80's, one of a group of nuns from Spain who created a school that began with one class of four children of expats in 1949. She is the only person I know who could outsmart a Tokyo crow. 


The cool thing is that she just turned 95, and the school is thriving, cultivating friendships between students and teachers from anywhere between 60-80 countries any given year. Most people have at least two passports. Everyone is always moving around. 


Think about how many sounds come with a school of people from around the world! SO MANY SOUNDS. 


I collected accents, "where is the bathroom," numbers, and expletives from friends I met along the way. I could curse you out in at least ten languages. I of course would never do such a thing, but one must be able hold one's own if someday one finds oneself in a hostile situation in Finland, for example. 


I left Japan to continue my education in the States and I studied human sounds! “Human Sounds” is how I like to describe a degree in linguistics. I use it every day. 


Anyway, now I live in DC, whose population makes up 10% of that of Tokyo. Breathing room is nice. There aren’t as many crows here. Sometimes it can seem small, but what’s most important is that my sound pool hasn't changed in diversity. I feel really lucky to live in a city that reflects a community not unlike the one I grew up in; a mix of locals who have seen the place transform over the past twenty years, transplants from around the country and all around the world, people who leave and come back and leave again, all in a 10x10 square mile district that runs the United States. THAT IS WILD. I’m also grateful to work at a place like Compass Rose, where my perception of the world continues to be challenged every day. I feel like a school girl again! Except I’ve ditched the uniform and I’m allowed to dye my hair. 


A few weeks ago at the restaurant, I met a woman from Mongolia out to dinner with her boyfriend from Kenya. They loved the international vibe and wondered aloud about the origins of the concept and the staff. And just like that, we launched into an awesome discussion about how we grew up in our respective countries and ended up in DC. What did we bring with us? What did we lose? Per my request, they each tried to teach me a few words. Swahili was pretty manageable, but my face can't make Mongolian sounds yet. Don't worry, I'll get there. 


A Japanese man in town from San Francisco came in one night and at some point during his meal asked if I was part Japanese. When I affirmed, he smiled. He shared that his wife was American and that I reminded him of his children. The traditional precedent of ethnically mixed Japanese (set by American soldiers marrying women they met while stationed in occupied Japan after World War II), is for children to have a Japanese mother and American (or sub any nationality) father. If you’ll allow me to delve into the complex dynamics of the “happa”, the fewer of us with American mothers and Japanese fathers have a particular look from our inversely mixed peers and a particular relationship to Japan, one rooted through the lens of our fathers. We both bowed for a second in a shared understanding of a complex and ever evolving family dynamic. Before he went on his way, he asked if I had a Japanese name. I looked around like I didn’t want to get caught using an alter ego. I reintroduced myself in Japanese, thanked him, and he left. Later, I found a note on his receipt that read,


 “ありがとうまりこ。頑張ってね” Thank you, Mariko. You can do it. 


Don’t worry guys, you can still call me Kris.




Anyway, since my entire life revolves around receiving sounds and producing them in turn, you can imagine the unease I felt as DC simultaneously opened up my world to the community of the deaf and hard of hearing. New questions arose. What would I do if I couldn't hear, speak, or sing? 


The answer is simple, of course. I would find any other way to keep learning about communication using the rest of my senses. 


The other night, this was tested. Four guests sat down to dinner, two women and two men. One of the men explained as they sat that he and one of the women were American and that the other couple was from France and didn't speak English. Easy enough. 


As I shared the night’s specials, I couldn't help but become engrossed in the interaction that transpired: 


1. The American man signs the specials to the American woman using ASL. 

2. The American woman signs to the French woman, spelling out letter by letter a translation if she doesn't know the French sign. 

3. The French woman uses French sign language (LSF) with the French man. 

4. The French man responds aloud in French to the American man and signs back to his partner in LSF, beginning the reversal of the translation process.



I felt deep shame at my ignorance living in the world of hearing. Never had it occurred to me that you could learn a new language having never heard it or verbally produced your own. My whole concept of communication shifted in one night, and this is coming from someone who has spent her entire first thirty years of life obsessed with the spoken word and how to manipulate it. I never realized how powerful language could still be in silence. 


Just kidding. I'm not really thirty. 


In all seriousness, I walked away from that night reinvigorated by the complexities of culture. Communication comes from so much more than just spoken language, and it's cool that we have so many different tools at our disposal with which to share our lives with folks from other parts of the world. I now pay way more attention to facial expressions, gestures, subtle movements and the quiet knowledge behind the eyes of people I run into in quotidian living. What do we transmit when we don’t speak at all? Maybe that’s the key to cultural transcendence. 


In more recent CR news, we just added a dish to the menu called camarão na moranga. It's a beautifully composed Brazilian dish brought aboard by our chef Raphaella Rangel. As the sole fluent speaker of Brazilian Portuguese in the restaurant, no one can pronounce it quite as eloquently. Yet. I’m getting there. Any member of the staff can tell you that I’ve become a little obsessed with Brazilian phonology. 


Anyway, what I really wanted to share in this post is the International Phonetic Alphabet. I think everyone should get on board with the IPA chart. You can learn a lot about what parts of your face make what noises. It helps you come to the realization that it's never too late to learn a new language. I promise it's not. Camarão na moranga is pronounced [kamarɐ̃w̃ na morɐ̃ngə]. I’m telling you, it makes perfect sense. Humans are so cool. I won’t get over it. 


In case you were wondering.




Sorry, I got totally sidetracked from the scene I started to set at the start of this post. But hopefully now it will make more sense. 


You pour over the menu and try to figure out how to say half of the dishes amidst the cacophony of Mo's playlists and a handful of different languages. Maybe for a moment you’ll find the rhythm in the tastes, sights, smells, signs, words, laughter, tears, and whatever else brought you in and you’ll experience what I do every day: a bizarre and beautiful song that captures a piece of the world from one little restaurant in a row house. You will journey on to your own beat. I will likely be playing a musical in my head as I take on my next self-imposed task of learning to spell “khachapuri” in Georgian using only the labels of wines that we carry as cryptograms. Challenge accepted. But first, I will figure out how to end a blog post. 

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