How not to be boared in Berlin

I had to cut my usual jogging route short today. Here’s the reason:

I was shouting “Wildschwein!” not to inform the boar what the correct German word for its species is, but to warn another jogger who was approaching from behind.

When the boar started charging me, my inborn instincts took over. Instincts encoded into my genes and epigenetic stuff around my genes. Instincts honed by millions of years of evolution of our species as hunter-gatherers. I tuned into the collective field of all the humans who ever faced wild animals and let the field guide me to do the right thing. What thing was that, you ask? Let me tell you: I tapped on the red button on my iPhone screen to stop recording and save battery while I run away. If there is ever an apocalypse and we have to rely on our instincts to survive we are screwed.

Oh my ancestors, who you braved a life in cruel nature and survived long enough to procreate and continue the chain of generations so that eventually I can roam the Earth, today I might have made you go facepalm, but worry not, the day will come when I will do you proud, and all your suffering will have been worth it. But, today is not that day. And, tomorrow will probably not be that day either. Patience.

You might wonder what happened after I turned off recording. Well, the boar approached me, stopped at a respectful distance, stood up on its hind legs and asked politely: “Excuse me good sir, could you be so kind and help me out? I seem to have lost my directions; I believe I need to go West but this wire fence over yonder is blocking my way and causing me no small amount of distress. I would like to rejoin my friends, the Band of Big Bad Boars. Where would I have to turn to?” That’s when I saw a tattoo on its biceps: “B4“.

Well this didn’t really happen. It might have happened had I kept standing there, but I ran behind a tree. The boar followed. I always wondered whether I would turn out to have a mutant superpower that only reveals itself when I am in grave danger. Well, being chased by a crazed boar qualifies as grave danger in my book. If there is a superpower that revealed itself, it is this: “When being charged by a crazed boar at time t0, I can run behind a tree and keep circling it such that for any time t with t > t0, the statement »At time t, the tree is between me and the boar« is true.”

The boar, awed by my superpower, gave up chasing me after a few circlings of the tree and ran away. I ran away as well, home. Now I am sitting in the Staatsbibliothek at my iPad and wish to ponder and write about my feelings at that time. More precisely, about the points in time t with t0 < t < tBoarGivesUp.

I am worried. I am worried now because I was not actually worried when running around the tree. This was a real-life dangerous situation and it somehow felt like I wasn’t really there. I felt more like a viewer than an actor. I didn’t really realize I was in danger, in fact it didn’t feel that much different from watching something like that on YouTube. Sure, the boar was young and its tusks were not visible, but it could still hurt me plenty. I am not sure what to make of this feeling. I have been reading a lot about meditation and mindfulness lately, and sat down a few times to try out meditation, but those few times of trying to meditate or the reading about the topic could hardly explain the detachment. Or maybe because I have been spending a lot of time in virtual reality (developing experiments), my visual perception has been decoupled a bit from actually feeling presence in reality. It might well be that, for me, using VR a lot in its early stages is long-term detrimental to the experience of both virtual worlds and the real world. Maybe the solution for me is to wait until VR adds somethings significant, beyond an increase in visual and auditory fidelity, like real haptics. Or, perhaps this feeling of detachment when bad things happen and happen really fast is normal, and I just have lived too sheltered a life to experience enough of them to realize that.

Experiments with Animation for Eyes and Head

Update: I published a Unity asset implementing the animation algorithms described in this blog post on the Unity Asset Store.

I summarized my main learnings from reading papers on eye animation in a short message on reddit. In it I said I was experimenting with parameters for head movement. Here I follow up on this. First, the original reddit message describing what I learned about eye animation:

Compute the angle in degrees the eye has to move, separately for horizontal and vertical, then from that the papers give you the duration and max speed for eye movement:

// From "Realistic Avatar and Head Animation Using a Neurobiological Model of Visual Attention", Itti, Dhavale, Pighin
leftMaxSpeedHoriz = 473 * (1 - Mathf.Exp(-leftHorizDistance/7.8f));

// From "Eyes Alive", Lee, Badler
leftHorizDuration = 0.025f + 0.00235f * leftHorizDistance;

Compute these numbers at the start of a new movement, then each frame plug them into Unity’s SmoothDampAngle to get the eye animation. Don’t let the eye’s max speed fall below the head’s speed when the head is moving though, otherwise the eye lags behind.

From other papers I got another important point: eyelids. When you look up relative to your face direction, upper and lower eyelids go up a bit, when you look down they go down, so they move with the eye. Rule of thumb: the iris keeps touching the lower eyelid. When the eye is about to make a horizontal movement of >= 25 degrees or so, blink, longer than the normal short blink.

The social triangle you probably know about already: we look into the left or right eye 75% of the time, at the mouth (normal social context) or further down (neck etc, intimate context) the rest. For intimidating power-stare make it left eye – right eye – forehead.

These are the most important points I got from such papers. There are similar formulas for head movement, but I am not happy with my head animation yet, still working on it.

To find better formulas for head animation, I recorded samples of my own head movement with the DK2’s rotation tracking and used linear regression to find parameters for two kinds of head movement: slow and fast. Slow head movement is used when the actor is idle and her attention jumps from one static element in her surroundings to the next. Fast movement is used when something new appears in her perceptual field and she turns her head towards it.

float kSpeed = isQuickMove ? 54.86f : 8.08f;
float mSpeed = isQuickMove ? 1.94f : 1.824f;
headMaxSpeedHoriz = kSpeed + mSpeed * horizDistance;

float kDuration = isQuickMove ? 0.321f : 0.6231f;
float mDuration = isQuickMove ? 0.0116f : 0.009858f;
headHorizDuration = kDuration + mDuration * horizDistance;

I updated my Oculus demo Coffee without Words with these formulas.

There are other aspects of avatar animation that I learned about from papers, which I haven’t implemented yet:

Pupil dilation: our pupils dilate when we see someone we do like, and contract when we don’t.

Eyebrow flash: when we first make eye contact with someone, we usually briefly raise the eyebrows as a friendly greeting.

Learning Pronunciation

I believe the best way to improve your pronunciation in a new language is to listen to yourself not while you speak, but after you spoke. When we speak, we hear our voice as a mixture of air waves from our mouth reflected by the environment and pressure waves transmitted through the skull to the ears. This mixture sounds different from how others hear us. That’s why we are surprised and often shocked when we hear our recorded voice. To improve pronunciation, you need to compare your pronunciation as others hear it to that of a native speaker. The only way to do that is to decouple your speaking from listening to yourself.

You need a headset with noise isolating earphones for this. You listen to a native speaker saying a word in the target language, then you record yourself saying that word, and then play it back and compare the original to your recording. You do this again and again for the word, until you feel you are close enough. Then you practice another word. The best is to practice all words in a sentence, and finally to practice the entire sentence, to not only copy the speaker’s pronunciation for each individual word, but also his sentence melody and speech rhythm.

When I was at uni, I did this for English an hour every day for a few weeks. That helped me quite a lot in improving my pronunciation in a reasonable short period of time. I recorded audio clips from an American radio station, transcribed them, and practiced each one with an audio program on the PC in the way described above until I was as close as possible to the original speaker.

I am doing the same for Chinese now, which I started learning in February. I use the recordings from the Audio CDs that came with the Chinese learning book which we use in our VHS course. This time I wrote an iPhone app to use this method more efficiently. The first version is quite promising and makes it much more comfortable to work on the words and sentences. The method has two premises: listen to your recorded voice as opposed to yourself while you speak, and compare your recorded pronunciation to that of a native speaker as close side by side as possible. After having experimented with the app for quite a bit, the premises seem valid.

Here is a screenshot of the first version of the app:

Pronunciation Trainer

This version records all the time and plays what it records back with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds, controlled by the delay slider. I had the theory that if you hear a word spoken by a native speaker, say the word yourself at the same time, and hear what you said played back to you with a fixed delay, then there is a specific delay at which you get optimal feedback. However, so far it seems that at least for practicing individual words, it is best to just play the word back not after a fixed time has passed, but right after you finished saying it, so there is no overlap between recording and playback. My next version will make it easier to practice this way.

I will keep posting about what works best for me when learning Chinese. This adventure is as much about learning a language as it is about learning how to learn a language.

Learning Chinese

Almost two months ago I started learning Chinese. I had been thinking about investing more time into learning a language for a while. The options were to either improve my Polish or learn Japanese together with James. But then I watched this talk on TED. Martin Jaques makes a very convincing case for how grossly people in the West, especially Europeans, underestimate how importance and power is shifting away from them towards China. The Chinese know much more about us than we know about them. The talk left me with the feeling that soon a large part of the internet will be in Chinese. Computer translation will not be really usable yet for quite some time, so the only way to keep full access to important and interesting information will be to learn Chinese. I decided to learn Chinese the day after watching the talk. This talk has been the most influential for me so far of all TED talks.

I enrolled in the Chinese course of the Volkshochschule (adult education program) in Spandau. We meet each Wednesday in a group of about ten people. It is a bit like school, so progress is slow, but it is fun. What I found much more effective are Michel Thomas audiobooks. You don’t listen to the books passively, but interact quite intensely all the time. After a brief explanation of some vocabulary and patterns for how to express something in Chinese, you are given an English sentence to translate. You are supposed to pause the audiobook and speak the translation out loud (or not so loud, if you are doing it on the train as I did). Then you unpause and listen to the correct translation. This gives you remarkable results in an incredible short period of time in generating Chinese sentences. It does not, however, improve listening comprehension. After going through all the available Michel Thomas audiobooks, I can translate “I want to go to school tomorrow because my Chinese teacher is interesting”, but I have a very hard time understanding anything in Chinese, even if it is said slowly and I know all the words.

I used to think Mandarin Chinese is the most difficult language in the world. Some parts of it are difficult, others are not. It is probably not the most difficult language to learn. The first pleasant surprise was that the grammar is really, really simple. After two months I haven’t seen all of the Chinese grammar yet, but for now it seems to me that it is far simpler than that of any other language I know, including English. It seems to be on one end of the complexity spectrum, with Polish comfortably sitting on the other, anchored by its seven or so grammatical cases.

But there are difficult parts, of course. The reputation of being the most difficult language to learn must stem from somewhere, after all. Chinese is a tonal language. This means that a word’s meaning depends on what intonation you pronounce it with. “ai” with a falling intonation means “to love”. “ai” with a falling and then rising intonation means “small”. A different intonation changes the meaning completely, so it is important to get it right. You not only have to learn what “letters” (in the Romanized form) a word consists of, but also which of five possible intonations it uses. Chinese needs intonations because it has a much more limited number of possible syllables than Western languages. Even with intonations, which increase the number of syllables fivefold, there are still many words that have the same pronunciation, but different meaning and written character. “ta” can mean “he”, “she”, or “it”, and you would write a different character for each.

The other difficult part of Chinese is the writing system. There are thousands of different characters, and in most cases a character tells you nothing about how it is pronounced. The meaning however can sometimes be guessed from the components; complex characters consist of simpler ones, and the meaning of the complex character has something to do with the meaning of the simpler ones in relation to each other. For example, the character for “good” consists of the character for “woman” and the character for “child”. The combination of characters for concrete concepts is used to symbolize abstract concepts. That is actually an interesting way of looking at the world, and I must admit it is fun to analyze new characters and find out what they are made of.

The Chinese tried to move towards Romanization of their writing system a few decades ago. It hasn’t succeeded fully, and I actually wonder whether in future the Chinese character system or something like it might even replace the Western Romanized writing systems. The current input method for written language, the keyboard, seems to favor Romanized writing, but I can imagine that once computing devices will offer more advanced input methods like gesture recognition, a sign-based language might be far quicker to write in than a letter-based one. So writing today is probably still faster for Western languages, but I think Chinese is more efficient to read:  you can absorb more information in the same time reading Chinese than reading a Western language. I wonder whether this has something to do with vocalization: in speed-reading courses you are told that by simply reading the words without mentally vocalizing them (saying them in your head), you can read faster. At one point I even contemplated whether I should learn the Chinese writing system first without the verbal part, so I would definitely not vocalize anything when reading.

I decided to learn both the writing and the speaking at the same time, the way they normally teach it. I want to write iPhone apps that help me on my way to the mastery of the Chinese language. The first app I wrote is a pronunciation trainer. One of the next blog entries will be about that.

 

Amsterdam

In Amsterdam gibt es nicht wie bei uns Straßen, Fußgängerwege und ab und zu einen dünnen Fahrradweg, sondern es gibt mal Straßen, mal Kanäle, immer einen breiten Fahrradweg und ab und zu mal einen Fußgängerweg. Will man die Straße überqueren (nachdem man sich vergewissert hat, dass es wirklich eine Straße und nicht ein Kanal ist, was man im Dunkeln leicht mal verwechseln kann), so reicht es nicht, brav links und rechts nach Autos zu gucken. Die viel größere Gefahr geht von Fahrradfahrern aus; diese haben Vorrang, und sie fahren gnadenlos alles über den Haufen, was die Straße überqueren will. Schließlich sind sie ja im Recht und hinter einem harten Vorderrad. Die rücksichtsvolleren klingeln kurz, und fahren einen dann über den Haufen. Die Zebrastreifen gehen übrigens über die Straßen hinaus bis auf die Fahrradwege. Sie haben dort dieselbe Wirkung wie auf den Straßen. Nämlich keine.

Dass die Holländer so viel Fahrradfahren bedeutet nicht, dass sie ihre Fahrräder besonders schätzen und sich gut um sie kümmern. Auf dem Weg zum Bahnhof sah ich ein Parkhaus für Fahrräder. Ich habe noch nie so viele Räder auf einmal gesehen. Allerdings habe ich auch selten so viel Schrott auf einmal gesehen. Keines von ihnen sah besonders fahr-, geschweige denn verkehrstüchtig aus. Eine simple Lampe vorne hatten nur die wenigsten. Jedes einzelne von ihnen würde in Deutschland sofort aus dem Straßenverkehr gezogen werden. Man sollte meinen, dass wer so viel Fahrrad fährt, dies auch auf einem sicheren und bequemen Untersatz zu tun pflegt. Ich habe erst später erfahren, warum sich die Holländer lieber auf rostige Drahtgestelle setzen.

Vorher musste ich allerdings erst mal ein unangenehmes Erlebnis verarbeiten. Ich sah eine mir entgegenkommende junge Frau an. Daraufhin guckte sie weg und schüttelte sich—das war nicht gerade der Höhepunkt meines Tages. Ich versuchte mir einzureden, dass sie zufällig an etwas anderes gedacht hat, etwa an das typische holländische Essen. Aber irgendwie konnte ich mich selbst nicht so richtig davon überzeugen. Außerdem ist es sowieso taktlos, in einem Moment, in dem man interessiert von einem Vertreter des andern Geschlechts angesehen wird, an Essen zu denken, insbesondere holländisches. Also beschloss ich, mich an der Amsterdamer Frauenwelt zu rächen, indem ich, sobald mich eine Frau schmachtend anschaut, an die Kantinenmahlzeit zurückdenken würde, die ich vor einigen Jahren im unweit gelegenen Hengelo vorgesetzt bekam. Falls es während meines Aufenthaltes in Amsterdam wider Erwarten nicht zu solch einer Gelegenheit kommen sollte, würde ich mich mit der Feststellung trösten, dass holländische Frauen zwar groß sind, aber was Männer angeht einen ausgesprochen schlechten Geschmack haben. Außerdem sehen sie eh nicht gut aus.

Tatsächlich war die erste wirklich hübsche Frau, der ich an diesem Tag begegnet bin, eine ausländische Touristin. Wir nahmen beide an einer dreistündigen Wanderführung durch Amsterdam teil. Die Führung war kostenlos; natürlich wurde erwartet, dem Leiter am Schluss ein Trinkgeld zukommen zu lassen. Es bedeutete aber, dass dieser sich besonders viel Mühe gab. Die Führung war definitiv das beste an Amsterdam. Der Leiter Cameron erzählte mit viel Engagement allerlei Interessantes. Als erstes erfuhren wir, dass die Amsterdamer früher keine Nachnamen hatten. Erst als Napoleon das Land eroberte, musste sich jeder von einem Tag auf den anderen einen Nachnamen ausdenken und ihn registrieren. Viele dachten, die Besatzung sei nur kurzfristig und danach werde alles beim alten sein. Also wetteiferten sie miteinander, wer den lächerlichsten Nachnamen registrierte. ‘König’ und ‘Kaiser’ waren da noch harmlos. Einige nannten sich „Hatkeinehosenan“ oder „Schamhaar“. Die registrierten Nachnamen wurden nie revidiert. Ein guter Weg, das Eis in einer Konversation mit einem Holländer zu brechen ist, ihn nach seinem Nachnamen zu fragen.

Cameron verriet uns auch den Grund, warum alle Häuser in der Altstadt so schmal sind; die Steuer hing früher von der Hausbreite ab. Die Amsterdamer bauten deswegen alles auf möglichst kleinem Raum. Die Treppen sind so steil, dass man sie auf allen Vieren hochgehen muss, wenn man einen Rucksack trägt. Ein- und Ausziehen mit großen Möbeln ist so natürlich kaum möglich. Deswegen haben fast alle Häuser einen zur Straßenseite hervorstehenden Balken an der Dachspitze, an dem eine Metallöse befestigt ist. Durch diese kann man ein Seil führen und damit die Möbel zu den großen Fenstern auf den verschiedenen Stockwerken ziehen. Da die Möbel bei Wind stark hin-und her schwangen und gegen die Wände zu schlagen drohten, wurden viele Häuser nach vorne geneigt gebaut, was sehr an den schiefen Turm von Pisa erinnert. Als er das erzählte, wunderte ich mich, wieso sie nicht einfach den Balken länger gemacht haben. Dann sagte er „Jahre später kam ein schlauer Mensch auf die Idee, dass man die Häuser nicht schief bauen muss, wenn man statt dessen einfach nur den Balken länger macht.“ Ich war unheimlich stolz auf mich. Bestimmt hätte ich es damals weit gebracht. Vielleicht hätte ich mir sogar ein Haus leisten können, welches so breit ist, dass man das Bett parallel zur Straße aufstellen könnte.

Natürlich erzählte er uns auch etwas über die weltberühmten Kaffeehäuser. Dort wird noch heute mehr oder weniger legal Marihuanna geraucht. Damit werben darf man allerdings nicht. Die Lokalitäten nennen sich deswegen auch Coffee Shops. Will man tatsächlich einen Kaffee trinken, muss man in ein CoffeeHouse gehen.

In vielen Ecken der Altstadt sieht man seltsame Blechkonstruktionen. Dabei handelt es sich um Anti-urinale. Die betrunkenen und bekifften Amsterdamer und Touristen hielten es nämlich oft nicht bis zur nächsten Toilette aus. Die Stadt hat deswegen die Universität beauftragt, sich was auszudenken, um schattige Plätzchen vor unwillkommener Bewässerung zu schützen. Die Bleche waren speziell geformt, um aus einer bestimmten Höhe ankommende Flüssigkeitsstrahlen zurückzureflektieren. Cameron verriet uns, dass einige Anwohner die Bleche früher sogar unter Strom gesetzt haben und dann durchs Fenster die Show genossen, wenn ihnen wieder ein Betrunkener in die Falle ging. Heute war das Elektrifizieren harmloser Männeken-Piss verboten. Die Bleche selbst schrecken kaum jemanden ab, denn vor fast jedem gab es eine Pfütze. Anscheinend wetteifern viele darum, wer am wenigsten nass wird.

Von Cameron erfuhr ich, warum die Amsterdamer so schlechte Fahrräder fuhren: Fahrradklau ist das zweithäufigste Delikt in Amsterdam, gleich nach Taschendiebstahl. Neuzugezogene, die sich anfangs ein schönes teures Fahrrad kaufen, werden schnell eines Besseren belehrt, wenn das gute Stück schon nach wenigen Tagen weg ist. Ein neues Fahrrad ist schnell organisiert: man stellt sich vor die Universitätsbibliothek, ein Fahrradschloss deutlich sichtbar in der Hand. Früher oder später wird man von einem Drogenabhängigen angesprochen. Der bietet an, für ein paar Euro ein Fahrrad zu stehlen. Man kann ihm sogar seine Wunschfarbe nennen. Schon nach kurzer Zeit ist er mit einem Rad in der gewünschten Farbe zurück. Mit fünf Euro ist dieser Service sogar noch billiger als das Reparieren eines Platten, weswegen viele Amsterdamer platte Räder einfach stehen lassen und zur Universitätsbibliothek gehen. Die verlassenen Drahtgestelle werden dann von Aufräumtrupps entsorgt: sie werfen sie im hohen Bogen in die Kanäle, im Wettstreit, wer den größten Platscher erzeugt. Jedes Jahr fischen spezielle Reinigungsschiffe Tausende Fahrräder aus den Amsterdamer Kanälen.

Wir haben von Cameron auch ein paar Worte Holländisch gelernt. Hallo heißt „Hoi“. Fühlt man sich pudelwohl, sagt man „hhesellihh“. Das hh wird dabei mit einem Kehllaut ausgesprochen, als wäre man ein halbstarker Jugendlicher und würde Spuke hochziehen, um sie dann auf den Bürgersteig zu katapultieren. Lernt man jemanden kennen, von dem man besonders angetan ist, so sagt man „lekeling“ oder so ähnlich. Ich schaute die hübsche ausländische Touristin an und überlegte, wie ich sie mit meinen neu erworbenen Holländischkenntnissen beeindrucken konnte. Vielleicht mit “Ahoi, du Leckerding. Wie ich deinem Bewegungsmuster relativ zu den anderen Gruppenteilnehmern entnehme, bist auch du ein freies Radikal. Wollen wir uns Amsterdam zusammen ansehen? Das wäre bestimmt sehr gesellig.” Ich tat es aber doch nicht. Vielleicht war sie ja schüchtern und wollte nicht angesprochen werden.

Zum Schluss verteilte der Leiter Rabattgutscheine für eine Fahrradtour. Die Wanderführung war richtig gut, eventuell würde sich also auch die Fahrradtour lohnen. Morgen hatte ich noch einen freien Tag, da könnte ich die Tour machen. Andererseits könnte das stressig werden. Leckerding nahm einen der Rabattscheine. Vielleicht hat sie morgen ebenfalls einen freien Tag. Ich nahm auch einen Schein. Morgen würde ich ausländische Fußgänger, die achtlos auf den Fahrradweg treten, über den Haufen fahren. Bei solchen, die mir sympathisch sind, klingele ich vorher.

Japanese Dating

Saturday I was in St. Oberholz, the café which likes to call itself the meeting point of Berlin’s digital bohemia. I had brought pen and paper to brainstorm on some concept I had been thinking about during the week, but in order to not stick out too much I had my laptop with me as well. You don’t go to St. Oberholz without a laptop. I placed the laptop on the table behind my paper block and opened the lid, so the Apple logo could be seen clearly even from the other side of the coffee shop. With the inverted bitten apple in front of me, I now really was a member of the digital bohemia. Although the cafeteria was quite full, the only person at the long table I was sitting at was a Japanese girl typing something into her cell phone. A European looking guy with a cup of tea came up to the table and said something to her in what I first thought sounded like Spanish. She nodded, but didn’t look up. He placed his tea on the table and sat down on the chair opposite of her. Strange, I thought, there were free chairs further away from her, so he must be starting a flirt. But what an odd way to start a flirt by asking a Japanese girl in Spanish whether that chair is still free! Odder still was her reaction: I can’t imagine she knew Spanish, so she must have concluded from the situation and the prosody of his question what he was asking. Or maybe the stereotype is true and Japanese girls really nod all the time when talking to others. But the stereotype also says they smile constantly and giggle often. This girl had a completely deadpan face, so serious that it was hard to even imagine her smiling. This is going to be a difficult flirt, I thought; she hadn‘t even looked up when he was talking to her. He had an awkward gait, an awkward expression and was wearing the upper part of a jogging suit and badly fitting jeans, like a nerdy fifteen year old. He might almost have been a software developer, like me. He was so awkward that she must have sensed his clothing choice, expression, and gait from his voice and decided that this guy was not worth looking up from the cell phone for.

After sitting down, he started talking in a very strange Spanish. In fact, the Spanish was so strange it was not Spanish at all. After I heard „*mublemumble* teeeeee *mumblemuble* teeeeee“ in almost every sentence, I realized he was actually speaking Japanese! I was totally surprised, as I would never have expected a guy who was the walking manifestation of uncoolness to speak a cool language like Japanese. The girl might have been surprised as well, because she was now looking at him instead of her cell phone. But her face was still deadpan and she didn’t say anything. The guy continued in his monologue, seemingly not expecting her to answer. It became increasingly unlikely that this was a flirt between two people who have never seen each other before. They must have come to the café together; he only came to the table later because he bought a tea at the counter. He mumble-muble- teeeeeed constantly, while she was nodding her expressionless face in silence at every teeeeee. My new theory was that he was learning Japanese and she helped him by providing a conversation partner. Given the feedback she was giving him, however, he might have had as useful a learning experience talking to a cartoon character in a Manga comic. I could not judge whether his Japanese was bad or good or even on a native level, but his repeating exaggerated sentence melody was annoying me and making it hard for me to concentrate on my work. After a very long while of talking, when I was starting to wonder how much there could be you could say in an uninterrupted monologue, he actually fell silent. He looked down at the table in front of him. She looked down at the table in front of her as well. Finally, he started speaking again, but thankfully stopped after a few sentences and both stared at the incredibly interesting thing between them on the table that was invisible to me. Then it dawned on me: these two are actually dating!

This was by far the saddest date I had ever witnessed. Normally you would expect a minimum of back and forth and at least the tiniest bit of showing interest from mere politeness, even if it is clear from the beginning that the date is not at all what you expected it to be. But this minute long staring at the table in silence was so actively distracting to me I could not form a coherent thought about what I came here to work on. It was obvious she was not interested. Finally, she seemed to have enough. She packed her cell phone and the book lying in front of her into her bag. Thank god, I would be relieved of all this. But no, she kept sitting there, eyes on the wood again. Some more teeeeees from him. Some more silence from her. I sighed internally. Then she became active again: she put on her mantle. I kept looking at my paper but shifted my attention to the visual field in the periphery of my eyes to witness her departure and the end of my torture. But she sat silent again. Come on, you either end the date or you don’t! What nonsense is this sitting with a thick winter mantle in a hot coffee shop? After packing your stuff and putting on your mantle without a word while he is talking, is this some kind of politeness not to actually leave? Get up and make an end to this already! But she kept sitting. And he started talking again, just as before. He chose not to notice the subtle signs she was giving him that the date might not be the most exciting thing that happened to her in her life so far.

I had to restrain myself from getting up and telling them „Look, folks, if this is actually a date you are having: just… give it up. It’s pointless. You, dude, are so nerdy even the Japanese Otaku would have to invent a new word for your kind. And you, even the table has said more and shown more human emotion than you did during the last two hours. Maybe you two deserve each other in a certain way. But listen, I am sitting quite a bit away from the epicenter of all this and yet the awkwardness floods all the way to me and makes it difficult for me to breathe. Just sayonnara each other and try again in a few years with different partners, okay?“ But then something happened. After another of the long mutual silences, the guy stood up and took his bag. He said something in a resigned voice. He was leaving! She must be as relieved as I was. I was expecting her to give a short and polite farewell, but she straightened and said a full sentence in a determined voice. And then another. And another. She was trying to make him stay! What the… ? He seemed angry and replied something, but she kept arguing and now they were actually talking to each other. The mood calmed down eventually and he took his seat again. Sigh. What did she say? “Stay, I need you to bore me to death some more so I don’t notice how hot it is sitting here in my mantle”? I thought they would continue this fiasco alternating between his monologues and the mutual staring of holes into the table. But then he made a joke. He hadn’t said anything remotely funny for the last few hours, at least as far as I could tell from neither of them having laughed or even smiled at bit. But now she was giggling! And she gave him an answer. And then he replied, saying something funny again. More giggles. They were actually having a conversation! I still couldn’t focus my thoughts on the paper, but at least I was not suffocated anymore by awkwardness from the other end of the table. I was curious whether they could keep up the flow of conversation or if it was just a temporary oasis from which they would have to eventually leave and go back into the desert again. But the ice was broken. Something fundamental had changed. They were having a date worthy of that name and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Eventually her cell phone rang. She answered it in Japanese and got up after finishing the call. It seemed she had to leave. They shook hands and almost, but not quite, embraced each other as they were smiling and saying their goodbyes. She left. He kept sitting at the table for a few minutes, then got up as well. He seemed to be in a relaxed and cheery mood when he took his bag and left the cafeteria. Did I just experience true Japanese dating? Maybe this is the Japanese way of a woman’s playing hard to get: you don’t say anything for hours. If he persists and you are still interested, then you can finally show your true self. I will remember that when I ever date a Japanese girl. But I don’t know any Japanese. Perhaps this is actually an advantage: if I don’t start with teeeeees, she might not switch into Japanese dating mode and we could actually have a fun conversation from the start.

Die asiatische Suppe

Der vorige Dienstag war wahrscheinlich der letzte richtige Sommertag in diesem Jahr. Ich bin deswegen an den See anstatt in die Bibliothek gegangen. Auf dem Rückweg wollte ich irgendwo zum Mittagessen einkehren. Vor einem asiatischen Schnellrestaurant stand ein Schild mit dem Tagesangebot. Es hörte sich lecker an und kostete nur vier Euro. Also habe ich mich reingesetzt und das Gericht bestellt. Es dauerte eine Weile, bis das asiatische Personal–allesamt kurzhaarige Thailänder oder Vietnamesen mit schnellrestauranttypischen Schürzen und Mützen–die Mahlzeit zubereitet hatte. Ich versuchte in der Zwischenzeit, den Lärm von der Baustelle draußen zu ignorieren und studierte die anderen Gerichte, deren Fotos auf Leuchttafeln an der Wand hingen. Auf der anderen Straßenseite war ebenfalls ein asiatisches Restaurant. Es hatte jedoch keine Fotos der Speisen. Da ich mir unter Namen wie Wong-Tong Suppe oder so nicht viel vorstellen kann, bin ich lieber in das auf dieser Straßenseite gegangen, dessen Fotos schon von weitem sichtbar waren. Endlich kam die Mahlzeit. Sie sah wirklich lecker aus; eine schneeweiße Reiskugel am Ufer einer Fleischsoße, welche auf der anderen Seite von einem Berg Salat flankiert wurde. Dazu gab es eine Schüssel Suppe und Stäbchen. Kein Besteck. Suppe und Stäbchen. Als weltoffener Mensch war ich stolz darauf, nicht erstaunt zu sein. Schließlich war ich vor kurzem bei James und dessen japanischer Frau zu Abend essen. Dort habe ich gelernt, dass man die Suppe direkt aus der kleinen Schüssel trinkt und sich ihre festen Bestandteile mit den Stäbchen in den Mund schaufelt. In der Ecke des Schnellrestaurants stand ein Wagen mit Besteck. Ich könnte mir einen Suppenlöffel holen. Doch das kam überhaupt nicht in Frage; ich war in einem asiatischen Restaurant, also würde ich wie ein echter Asiate speisen. Die Suppe war eine gelblich-klare Brühe mit einzelnen herumschwimmenden Gemüseteilen. Ich hob die Suppenschüssel zum Mund und nahm ein paar Schluck. Oh, die ist ja kalt. Und bitter. Und überhaupt–pfui Teufel, die ist ja richtig übel! Ich setzte die Schüssel kurz ab, um meine asiatischen Ambitionen nach einem strategischem Rückzug neu zu formieren. Ich würde mir nichts anmerken lassen. Schließlich habe ich vor einigen Jahren in Japan auch alles hinunterbekommen. Und das, obwohl ich rohen Fisch und alles, was damit zubereitet wurde, grauenvoll finde, und die Japaner anscheinend nur rohen Fisch kennen. Ich bin ein Samurai! Also nahm ich meine Stäbchenkatanas wieder in die eine Hand, die Schüssel in die andere, atmete kurz durch und nahm noch einen Schluck. O Gott! Es schmeckte noch übler als das erste Mal, wenn ich das auch nicht für möglich gehalten hätte. Ich schaute auf den signifikanten Rest in der Schüssel wie die Verteidiger von Minas Tirith auf die Horden anrückender Orks. Ich beschloss, mir vor der nächsten Schlacht einen Moment der Besinnung zu gönnen. Was stand nochmal genau auf dem Schild draußen? Sowas wie “Hühnerbrust auf Reis”, und darunter “und dazu…” wahrscheinlich irgendeine Suppe. Hm stand da Suppe? Das war doch… oh. Als mir schließlich wieder einfiel was da stand, setzte ich meine Pokermine auf, nahm die Schüssel und gab den Rest des Dressings über den trockenen Salat.