“Na-ze oreo kirai nahn dah” ~ Japanese for: “Why do you hate me?”
I learned the phrase as a sophomore in college as my roommate was desperately seeking a way to earn some attention from a cute Japanese student. Her shyness was only magnified by the fact that English was her second language (something that may be banned in Nashville coincidentally). And so, thinking that sarcasm might be a good entry point, my roommate learned the above phrase to an uneventful end (for those taking notes, humor: good, sarcasm: bad when trying to attract those of the opposite sex in a foreign language).
Years later, while waiting tables at the sushi bar, I had gained a reputation for working hard (I sweat profusely which helps uphold that image) and for being friendly, always ready to joke with the customers (this was a welcome surprise to some, since the others on wait staff weren’t born here as I was). Friday nights in downtown Nashville were usually packed (our sushi chef was arguably the best in the city) and this particular night was no different — I was going to sweat even more than usual.
Of the many customers that I served that evening, a twenty-something-Asian American customer stopped me and asked, “Are you Korean?” His friends were talking among themselves and were not paying attention at all.
“Yes,” I responded, a little puzzled since that is not the common question for customers when ordering off the menu. “Are you Korean too?”
“No, I’m Japanese,” he said. And before I could think of what to say, he added, “Do you have many Japanese friends?”
“Oh not really. I don’t know that many.” My mind raced for something witty. “Hey I know a Japanese phrase!”
He interrupted. “I don’t know many Koreans either. But I know that Japan has done a lot of terrible things to Korea historically.”
“Oh yeah, well…”
“This may not mean much, but I’m sorry.” His eyes fell. I felt a prick in my heart, but I did not know what to do with this unsolicited apology. But I hastily tried to move on from that awkward moment…
“Hey, no problem. It’s all in the past. We weren’t even alive back then. Did you want to hear my Japanese phrase?”
“Na-ze oreo kirai nahn dah!” I said proudly.
His eyes fell again and he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t hate you.”
And I felt as small as a man can feel in the face of his profound remorse. I hurried off to do my job and waited on him and his party as best as I could.
At the time, I wondered why he felt so adamant about relaying his apology to me. I didn’t even know the guy. But now I get it. I will never forget that he was trying to apologize to me, almost as if he could for all Japanese people to reach out to me, as if I could for all Korean people, to hear him — not that I could forgive him right there and then, I was there after all to deliver the chicken teriyaki he ordered, but so that he could, at least to one person, begin the process of reconciliation.
One man’s apology — I carry it with me almost ten years later and I am so encouraged. Thank you, thank you, thank you.