For many years my family has periodically eaten at the same ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant in our neighborhood, called Renge(pronounced “Rengay”). Even with my non-native ears I could hear that the proprietors were Chinese, not Japanese, and I always like listening to them when we are there. Rengeis convenient for us because it is almost exactly half-way between my in-laws apartment and my apartment. So many times I come home and find my family is not here. I get a telephone call from my wife saying,“We are at Nana’s house. Let’s meet and eat at Renge.” And I meet them there. It’s only an eight-minute walk from the chair I am sitting in right now.
We shifted our eating allegiance from our previous ramen haunt, called Hakuryu. Actually, I thought the noodles and fried rice at Hakuryu were better than at Renge, and Hakuryu even had a reputation to give it luster. We frequented Hakuryu in the old days because it was immediately adjacent to the video shop that we used to use. Plus, it was in the neighborhood where my in-laws used to live. But that video shop has gone out of business. Its owner now drives a taxi. And my in-laws sold their house and moved into a retirement condominium in a different neighborhood - still physically near to us, but in the opposite direction on the main thoroughfare that runs through the area. With the video shop and the grandparents gone, there was nothing to pull us in that direction anymore - south. Hakuryu is still in business, but with the closure of the video shop and my in-laws move, our attention turned north.
Once more we were recently eating at Renge. I was having my usual fried rice (chahan) and dumplings (gyoza). (When I go to a restaurant I try a few things to learn what I like, and then that is what I stick with ever afterwards, kind of like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. Maybe women hate that, but…) As usual these days, my wife and daughter were chattering non-stop in Japanese about her school life. I tuned out and concentrated on my food, because however much I wanted to know what is happening in my daughter’s life and be a part of it, I simply could follow it. Then on this recent occasion I heard my wife ask,
“Emma chan, renge chodai,” (“Emma, give me the renge”).
I saw Emma pick up the uniquely shaped Chinese spoon from the little basket of spoons and other utensils at her end of the table and handed it to her.
I thought, “That’s odd. Isn’t renge the name of the restaurant?”
So I asked her, “Junko, what did you just ask Emma? Did you ask her to give you the renge?”
“And she gave you a spoon?”
“Yes. This is renge,”holding up the spoon.
“But isn’t Renge the name of the restaurant?”
“Yes. But this spoon’s name in Chinese is renge.”
“You mean the name of the restaurant is something like ‘Spoon’?” (thinking of the proverbial Greasy Spoon dive in America).
“Yes. That’s right.”
A light bulb lit up in my head. Chinese restaurant. Chinese proprietors. Chinese food. Chinese utensils. Chinese name.
“Ah, I get it!”
It only took about a decade.