“If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted.” ~ Franz Kafka
“English?” Jody asks the two Japanese women wait staff that were just visible inside the restaurant’s curtain-draped entrance. Sorrowful smiles graphically illustrated our answer, along with at least two “gomenasai,” Japanese for “sorry.”
It was my birthday, and we were on holiday in Kyoto, Japan. Jody had asked earlier in the day what I wanted for dinner, and I immediately thought of some good, I mean really authentic Japanese teppanyaki steak. We had spied a few potential places that day and during our explorations of the days prior, but after checking them out more closely, we dismissed them one-by-one.
One was just too small and cramped. Another looked promising, but the patrons already there were all smoking. We even asked the tourist police along Shijo Dori, the main commercial throughway marking the northern boundary of the famed Gion area of Kyoto…only to take a taxi to their recommendation…which turned out to be a rather lame take on an Amerasian diner, which apparently served steak, Salisbury style.
“Teppanyaki?” was the next question we placed, in what limited Japanese vocabulary we possess, although Jody is getting better with the apps on her iPhone. This question was met with frowns and, mostly silence, but through steady eye-contact, the kind that searches for meaning in accents so unfamiliar.
We found ourselves at this particular non-descript place after walking what seemed like forever. Quite honestly, I was becoming downright HANGRY, and Jody’s dwarf alter-ego “Grumpy” was starting to shine through her rather reliably contained exterior as her blood sugar continued to decline. There was a picture of beef, or maybe it was simply a picture of steak, with an establishment name written only in Kanji that we couldn’t read. Other than for the word “dinning.”
Until more babel set in.
“Steak?” was the final question in our trinity of query, placed with great anticipation of a positive response here on the 2nd story of what had become our own personal Tower of Babel. “Hai-Hai!” came their excited response in almost perfectly synchronized union. “Steak Dinning?” Worked for us! Steak dinning? Worked for us! I won’t go into how much babel we expended in trying to figure out what exactly came with our $60 meals…. At some point we caved, and decided to take the adventure this night promised. And with that we were escorted into our own private dining room, eagerly awaiting whatever it was we were going to have for my birthday dinner.
“Babel,” from the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to jumble, confuse or confound.” The Tower of Babel forms the focus of a story told in the Book of Genesis of the Bible (Genesis 11:4-9). According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single common language. The people decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven, thereby becoming on par with God.
In the biblical legend, God came “down” to see the human’s city and the tower they were building. Recognizing the fallacy of their intent, God knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people astray…and to a hit record thousands of years later that ultimately would unite Rock-n-Roll fans across the globe, regardless of native tongues. Wanting to check the people’s powerful unity of purpose resulting from their common language, God confused their speech and scattered the people, resulting in the many different tongues and peoples found today across the globe. It still doesn’t explain how the kangaroos got to Australia, and only to Australia.
Okay, it’s not very religiously sensitive, it’s too long, and ends poorly. But there are some dang funny parts in this interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel!
Jody, not wanting to drag all my presents hundreds of miles to Kyoto, celebrated with me on Okinawa prior to our departure. While dinner that night has long been forgotten, my ice cream jamboree lives on! Our local Japanese Baskin Robbins has a fully English-speaking staff; babel is not much of an issue in such an Americanized corner of the Ryukyus. Except for the ice cream tower that, given just a few more scoops, could reach to heaven! Luckily for us, God doesn’t spite ice cream steeples and Jody and I continue to share a common language…and location.
The birthday dinner turned out to be quite good, filling, and even included a teppanyaki element we so vainly searched for. Although it was a relatively simple dinner; the salad was absolutely delicious, the rice fresh, and the steak we were able to cook on our own person griddles to our individual tastes. This particular beef remains the best I’ve had so far in Japan, and given the price we paid for 200 grams (actually, a hearty serving at almost 8 ounces), it was more than likely Kobe. The steak, heavily marbled in fat, literally melted in our mouths. Top the meal off with a shared bottle of chilled white wine (booze is itself a form of a common, international language), and we had a wonderful time!
Like the biblical tale underscores, communication is such a fundamental element of life. Although I’m ashamed that I don’t know more Japanese after spending so much time here, technology is starting to fill in my own personal gaps in translation. In fact, we were able to have a complete conversation with a taxi driver in Kyoto through an app on his iPad. He would speak Japanese, and the iPad would translate and speak to us in English. The tablet would then record our speech, and translate it into audible Japanese for the driver. I wish I know that particular application, because many if not most of the machine translations between Japanese and English are full of…babel.
Regardless of the limitations of technology and the barriers of divided language (no thanks to God), we all can still overcome and strive to find power in unity of purpose. Although perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to physically reach heaven (again), we can and should still find or make our own heavens here on earth, be it a celebratory meal, or something much loftier. We all should be on guard so that we, as individuals, political parties, religions and even cultures, never build towers of babel so large and imposing that they interfere in a life that should be well-lived, excitedly shared, and passionately loved. Although there exist many tongues, we all can strive to speak with one voice!