Picking up a Chinese food order the other day, a young Asian woman greeted me warmly. I didn’t in particular recalled seeing her before. A few moments later, the young man who usually tends the counter, showed up with my order. As he was punching the price onto the cashier, he commented with a smile, “are you still enjoying the French crepes?” I was surprise that he would know I drop on occasion by the new French eatery that opened in town. Replying in the affirmative, I figured he must have seen me entering that place and for some reason took note of it. Whether he sensed my wonder or was just feeling like extending small talk, he quickly added, “my sister,” nodding towards the young Asian woman who greeted me earlier, and was by now seated by the wall, busying herself with her mobile phone, “works there sometimes.” Only then did I make the connection. She did, indeed, look somewhat familiar when she welcomed me earlier, but I did not recognize her. Pondering upon this, I realized how much we tend to associate faces with places, be it geographically-driven, time-related, by one of the senses or even emotionally.
It reminded me of another incident of a similar nature, from a couple of years back. I was meeting a friend at a Starbucks I didn’t frequent. The server, whom I did not recognize, welcomed me warmly. Furthermore, she knew some personal details about my family and kids, asking for their well-being by name. For the life of me, I could not place her in my memory. Being that by now I have Americanized, and thus find it untactful to ask where in hell do I know you from, I smiled politely and responded as if I knew who she was. In the days that followed, I still attempted desperately to remember who she was, but, alas, I gave up. Sometime later, it just so happened that I stopped by that same café with my wife. That woman was there again, greeting us both warmly. My wife immediately knew who she was. Luckily this was not a woman who reared any unknown children with me… Just a young person who babysat for us a few times a while back. I realized that seeing her at a Starbucks, behind the counter, in the role of a server, out of the context of the kids and the house, is why I initially drew a blank.
This same phenomena applies not just with faces. Names, words, sights, sounds, scents and objects – all, when presented under circumstances different than our typical association, can become a mystery. To further illustrate the point: occasionally I would meet a Jewish-American person whom, upon learning that I was born in Israel, will practice on me the only Hebrew word he may remember from his Sunday School. Given his accent and mispronunciation, unless I am ready for it coming, the word would sound like gibberish, or maybe Klingon at best. It is no surprise as my mind will first try to decode it through the expected filter of English. When I learn it is an attempt at Hebrew, my brain instantly switches to another indexing system, and may actually understand what word was being endeavored.
Our mind seems to compartmentalize items. Knowledge is stored in different segments; a key is needed to open hidden storage rooms and various indexing matrices. I trust that some of the greatest discoveries humans ever made, were done by unlocking such gates, allowing new connections to be formed. It leaves me wondering what else is stored in my brain, so close yet completely out of reach.
Learned from: a warm greeting at a Chinese restaurant.