How About Some Sweet Fritters
It’s because we’re so different that we make a good team
[parts of this story rely on the reader’s knowledge of kanji. I’ve tried to put the radicals and kanji the narrator is discussing in the footnotes, i apologize if it’s not very clear…]
Maruna had studied the Japanese language diligently in her home country, and her sense of kanji was very interesting.
“You know the kanji for umbrella?” she said once. “Before I came to Japan, I used to wonder if people here all stood under a single umbrella, in a big crowd.”
Of course, because the kanji for umbrella is four “person” radicals under an umbrella shape. 
What was more interesting…
“If I wanted to write ‘food court’ in kanji,” Maruna said, as if she’d made some great discovery. “This character?” She wrote down the character for an inn.
“Uh, Maruna, that’s…” I started to say.
“A hundred people under one roof,” she said, brimming with confidence.
Ah, I get it, the “person” radical and the “hundred” radical underneath the “roof” radical. 
I grunted. Now that she mentioned it, a food court is sort inn-ish.
Maruna was Sri Lankan.
Six months earlier, she’d made her way to Japan by herself to study Japanese culture and language. Now she was working in the kitchen at our food court while attending Japanese language school.
Sri Lanka is an island nation to the south of India, near the equator. Apparently, it’s a little bit smaller than Hokkaido.
I learned from Maruna that the name Sri Lanka means “Shining Island.” It’s a country of beautiful plateaus and ultramarine oceans. I’ve never been there myself, but as I listed to the “Talks of Home” she and I sometimes had, I was able to build up a full picture of that bright island in my mind.
Spending every day with someone from another country like Maruna made me think about things in a new way. Things like teamwork.
This job is all teamwork.
I hear that a lot. And certainly, to the extent that this isn’t a job where someone just churns out handicrafts or something one after another, teamwork is an indispensible element of my job. It’s true for anyone who works in a food court.
But when you say teamwork, the image you get is something like, “relating to each other,” or “putting in a great effort together, working towards the same goal.”
Depending on how you think about it, it might even be a bit depressing. After all, the work still gets divided up, even if nothing that actually ends up being done is performed in the spirit of One Heart One Body. Such a situation wouldn’t technically be inconsistent with the word teamwork.
Ms Yoshie Eguchi is a great example.
She’s a bit of a peculiar person. Someone of very few words. She’s more than quiet. To put it plainly, she’s unsociable.
A while back, Maruna taught us all a Sri Lankan greeting.
“Ayu bo wan,” you say, and put both hands together in front of your chest.
Ayu is “longevity,” bo is “to spread,” and wan is “let there be ~.” That’s what she said it means. In other words, what you’re saying is, “May you have long life.”
It’s a really convenient phrase, too. This one phrase can be used for Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, Goodbye, and Goodnight. It’s the utility knife of greetings.
Everyone thought it was interesting, and for a while Ayu bo wan was all the rage at our food court.
But Yoshie Eguchi was the only one who never used it. Apparently, she just wanted to be contrary.
Maruna tried to work with her, and would greet her specifically in beautiful Japanese, “o-hayō gozaimasu.” 
But Yoshie Eguchi would only respond with some voiceless muttering, her mouth only half open. Poor Maruna, she always got such a troubled look on her face.
Not to say that the attitude was reserved for Maruna. Yoshie Eguchi is not a person who opens her heart to anyone.
And if she does open her mouth every once in a while, it’s only to utter something short and to the point.
“That spot is dirty.”
“That part’s wrong.”
“This is terrible.”
She only uses her voice to point out stuff like that, in a snapping tone of voice.
When you mention the word teamwork, someone like her is just about the total opposite of One Heart One Mind.
She must, I believe, have some kind of principles. But as someone who works in the same place as her, her sullen behavior amazes even me.
How I was supposed to make working with a person like her feel good, or at least a little bit less unpleasant, was something I’d never understood. But it was Maruna who gave me a hint.
The climax of the issue occurred with the Sweet Shrimp Fritter Incident of a certain day in April, but before I tell that story, I’d like to touch on the issue of Maruna herself a bit more.
Just once, I went to her residence for a visit on a day off. She lived in a sort of dorm for the Japanese language school, and was rooming with a Chinese exchange student, but that day, Maruna said, her roommate was going back to China for an unexpected visit home, and she invited me to come over.
Our feast on that day was Sri Lankan curry. It’s properly said “cuh-ree,” not “kah-ray,” as we Japanese say it, and unlike the Japanese term, curry is apparently a generic term for any kind of boiled dish. 
In Sri Lanka, she told me, they don’t use the direct fire method of cooking. I imagine it might be a religious matter, but they don’t grill meat or even fish.
There are all kinds of curry though, like meat curry, fish and shrimp curry, potato curry, vegetable curry, curry with a type of legume called a dal, fruit curry…
She said you just boil all the ingrediants together, which would be a main ingrediant plus onions, garlic, ginger, tomato, and the ever-important coconut milk.
But the most essential part of curry is the spices.
When you say the word spice, you get an image of something hot and burning, but that’s not all they are. Spices can also be used to bring out a depth of flavor. Cinnamon, tumeric, corriander, cardamon, lemon grass, cumin, karan pecha, fennel greek… Maruna makes a powered mix with a coffee grinder out of a lot of spices with names that seem to bite the tongue. She puts the mix in a sealed container and stores that in a small cooking shelf in her room.
Apparently, these kinds of boiled dishes are normal, every day fare at the Sri Lankan dining table. They eat rice, too, and a steamed dish of thin noodles made from rice flour – indi appa.
She told me about all these things, as I watched her move briskly about her small kitchen, and I thought intently about what she was saying.
Maruna really likes food, doesn’t she.
In applying to come to Japan to study, she had to figure out something to pay for her living expenses. Where was she going to work?
It seems Maruna decided on a restaurant without hesitation.
“Hey Maruna,” I asked her, still in the kitchen. “When you came here from your country, what did you think of Japanese restaurants?”
My tone made it seem like an interview.
“Mm, I guess,” Maruna said, her hand stopping its work as she considered hey answer, “they were very sanitary. I was suprised.”
The cooking areas were scrupulously cleaned, and all the ingrediants tightly managed. She said that had impressed her.
“And also, the customers all have great manners. That shocked me, too,” she added.
The amusing thing was that she added, quick on the heels of her last sentence, “In Sri Lanka, people are very enthusiastic about their work, and strong of spirit, and fervant about their faith.”
Probably she was in a hurry not to seem like she was speaking ill of her homeland, while still praising the restaurants and customers of Japan. That does seem like Maruna, I thought.
“Your chopsticks are your right hand,” Maruna said, giving me a demonstration. Her fingers pinched the curry tidily.
Watching and imitating her, I felt deeply moved.
Of course, the curry tasted great, but using the fingers of my right hand as chopsticks like that made it taste even better. How can I put it, I felt like I was tasting the natural ingrediants more closely, it had that kind of bite to it. I remember it had a more gentle feeling to it than I had imagined it would.
Maruna shook off her worries and came to Japan, but of course, she said, she did get homesick.
“I call home a lot. Last month is was forty-thousand yen.  That’s why I didn’t make much rice,” she said.
For a while, the two of us ate our curry in a trance.
We cleaned the plates, and Maruna politely said her thanks for the meal, and then told me that actually the person she calls all the time in her homeland was her husband.
“What, really! You left him behind?” I said, surprised.
“Yeah, if I didn’t, he’d spoil me rotten,” Maruna said, with a broad smile. I realized all over again how extraordinary her determination was.
So then, about the Sweet Shrimp Fritter Incident of a certain day in April.
First, some foreshadowing.
“It’s already New Years,” Maruna said quietly to me one day.
“Sri Lankan New Year is in April.”
“Oh really, what day in April?” I asked, but her answer wasn’t what I expected.
New Year’s isn’t on the same day every year. The day the year starts, and even the time the year starts, are both decided by divination.
Even the exact time to start a fire in the hearth for the first meal of the new year is prescribed.
That’s the Sri Lankan New Year.
“Before New Year’s, there’s a ban on all kinds of things.”
“What kind of things?”
“Touching money, visiting people’s homes…”
“Work is off limits, of course.” Maruna laughed.
Yoshie Eguchi was again behaving in her anti-teamwork fashion that day.
We were so busy our eyes were spinning. An entire family comes in. A couple comes in. A group of college buddies comes in. Like wells gushing up one after the other, there’s no pause in the flow of customers.
“You shouldn’t even be working today, and now it turns out like this,” I said to Maruna, walking briskly behind her.
“It’s completely insane,” she answered, looking dizzy herself.
When things get this bad, Yoshie Eguchi’s unsociable, chilly attitude is irritating, no matter what.
I end up feeling like, you’re not the only who’s busy, you know. Whenever I glance over, she’s working quickly, she’s not idle, and she’s never sloppy, but still.
Yoshie Eguchi was on trash duty that day, and left to take care of it. She didn’t come back for a long while.
The trash station is on a different floor, so you put the trash on a push cart and use the elevator. It always takes a long time. But even taking that into account, she really was overly late.
“That girl, she’s gotta be slacking off,” one of the other staff members muttered.
Everyone had been thinking the same thing.
They’re short words, often said, but at a time like this, I think they just about cover it. “You said it.”
But what’s the phrase, spoil yourself, be strict with others? It’s always ugly to see in action.
After a long time, Yoshie Eguchi returned. The peak of business had continued unabated, so everyone’s stares were quite pointed indeed.
“I apologize,” Yoshie Eguchi said quiety, bowing her head perfuntorily and returning to her post, shaking off those pointed looks.
“Remember to think of other people, too,” was all the store manager said.
“Yes, sir.” Yoshie Eguchi nodded.
But no matter how you looked at it, she acted like she was sulking. An unpleasant, apathetic atmosphere filled the kitchens.
That was when it happened.
Maruna raised her voice, like she was making a pronouncement.
“Eguchi is a good person. She doesn’t have it in her heart to lie.
And she doesn’t like to fight with people. That’s the kind of person she is.”
It was a declaration extremely unsuited to the time and place, and also extremely unexpected coming from her, and no one could make an immediate reply. Myself included.
Even Yoshie Eguchi herself, for a shocked instant, stared back into Maruna’s big eyes, but the customers weren’t stopping, so the moment didn’t go anywhere, and we all returned to the rushing vortex.
Nobody said anything further about Yoshie Eguchi’s anti-teamwork behavior, but as it turned out, I was walking with
Maruna to our usual train station on the way home that day when I heard something I’d never expected.
“Eguchi was helping a lost child,” Maruna said.
“What? A lost child?”
Which reminded me, Maruna had left the kitchens, too, for a little bit, on an errand the shop manager had asked her to run.
Apparently, she’d seen Yoshie Eguchi in the food court plaza on her way back.
Our food court is a big space, so you can’t see the whole thing from the kitchens. Yoshie Eguchi had been in a corner we couldn’t see.
“She was holding a little kid’s hand, and they were looking for the kid’s mother. She was smiling, and making a kind face, Eguchi was.”
That was apparently why she’d spent so much time taking out the trash.
If that was the case, I said to Maruna, she should have said so when she got back.
“Eguchi, um, what’s the word, I’m sure she didn’t want people to think she was… exposing?”
“Ah, making excuses?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Well, you didn’t say anything either though, Maruna…”
“I picked up on how she felt.”
She looked at me with a face like, did I say that right? so I gave a big nod. You did it right.
The Sweet Shrimp Fritters Incident was the following day.
The path it took was this:
Maruna enters the shop at 9 AM, as usual, to do the prep work. She turns on the power.
The prep schedule for the day is always written out on the white board, but she double checks it, as usual, and gets to work. Shrimp fritters.
In the shop duty logs, she keeps a record, in Japanese of course, with plenty of kanji. This is what she wrote on that day:
“Prepared the fritters, but when I tried to deep fry them, the color kept changing.”
That was weird, was the oil dirty? And so, with that in mind:
“I switched out the oil and tried deep frying them again, but with the same results.”
The color turned out a stronger burnt shade than usual. Thinking this really was strange, she tried what she called “Product Inspection.” Oh dear, they were sweet.
“Finally, the reason became clear. Pastry flour…”
She’d used desert-type powdered sugar by mistake.
Which was to say, she’d made crispy brown, deep-fried sweet fritters.
She brings it to a conclusion in the work log like this:
“I put them in the staff lunches. They seemed to like them. I was worried I’d put the shop at a disadvantage.”
I ate them, too, actually. They certainly were sweet.
But there was a moment when something unexpected happened.
“Oh, these are delicious,” someone said, before anyone else had spoken.
It turned out to be Yoshie Eguchi.
The chopsticks of every staff member eating their provided lunch froze, and all eyes became glued to Yoshie Eguchi.
She didn’t seem to mind the stares in the least, and quickly reached out her chopsticks to throw another of the sweet fritters into her mouth.
She didn’t merely toss it in, either. “I think I might prefer them like this,” she said calmly.
It was a big moment for Maruna, too.
She put down her chopsticks, put both hands together in front of her chest, and said, “Ayu bo wan.”
Whether she meant it as “Thank you,” or “Have as many as you’d like,” wasn’t clear, but Yoshie Eguchi replied, “Sure, bo wan, bo wan.”
An indulgent atmosphere spread over those present.
It goes without saying, but what we call a team is actually made up of a lot of individuals. As I savored the sweet fritters, I was struck by the thought that when everyone supresses their individuality, or hides themselves, the homogenaity that results isn’t necessarily “one body.”
Everyone has subtle variations on “what’s important,” and “what I believe in.” When we all respect that in each other, we make a great effort towards the same goal.
And that is teamwork, indeed. Ayu bo wan.
[1 – 人 (person), 傘 (umbrella)]
[2 – 人 (person) + 百 (hundred) + 宀 (the roof radical) = 宿 (an inn or hotel)]
[3 – good morning, the formal/polite version]
[4 – in Japan, curry, or カレー is a sort of slop-looking roux-based dish, usually with meat, almost more stew than anything else, usually served half and half with rice on a giant plate. it’s often considered a comfort food.]
[5 – that’s a $400 phone bill. yikes. (^_^) ]