It should have been a yes or no question.
It was exam day for high schools in my prefecture, and so teachers were forbidden to leave the building, lest they pass on crucial details of the test to the legion of spies waiting outside.
The schools offered a bento (lunch box) delivery to the office for 600 yen. The test is a two-day operation: The exam, then the grading. I decided to buy one for exam day and pack a lunch for grading day to save money, but a teacher secretly paid for my bento.
When the bentos arrived, I went to pay.
“You don’t have to pay,” he explained, “because I already paid for it.”
It was raining the next day. When the bentos arrived, I’d forgotten both my umbrella and my packed lunch. I scraped some coins together from my desk and prepared for the rainy walk to the corner convenience store for a salad and ham sandwich. But first, I’d ask about the bento situation.
In an American office where there’s a planned delivery, someone might say, “Hey, are there any extra sandwiches? I’ll pitch in if there are.” Maybe someone ordered one and forgot or something. The answer might be something like, “No, everyone took their sandwich.” End of the story.
Here’s what happens when you ask if there’s an extra lunch in Japan.
I asked my supervisor, “I don’t have a bento today, right?”
She instantly stood up from her desk, where she’d been eating.
“You told me you didn’t want bento today.”
“I know. I’m just making sure.”
“Do you want bento?”
“No, no, I’m just seeing, I looked at the paper and there’s no line through my name, so I’m confused.”
“But you said no bento today.”
First off, let me explain what’s happened, on a couple of levels. First, asking “I don’t have a bento today, right?” translates, in that hint-at-everything manner of Japanese communication, that maybe probably I was expecting bento.
Second, “just making sure” doesn’t qualify that assumption at all. It continues to imply that there was some expectation of having a bento. My reason for this assumption was the off chance that, last week, when I’d ordered it, I’d actually gone ahead and ordered two. I also thought that, when my co-worker paid for the bento I’d ordered, he might have paid for it on a day that I said I’d bring my lunch.
Rather than stopping at “No, that’s right, you didn’t order a bento,” my supervisor gave her famous last words, “wait a minute,” and went to the desk of the next person in the hierarchy, the woman who ordered and distributed the bentos.
This woman went to the school’s central office and returned with a list of bento orders, which seemed to be bound together and preserved in a book. Next to my name was a circle for day 1, and no circle for day 2.
“So,” they said, “You didn’t order the bento.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s fine. Thanks so much!”
Then the plot thickened.
“But there is one extra bento.”
She asked if I’d want the extra bento. I said sure, thinking this would be easy.
“But you said you wanted to take the convenience store lunch,” she said.
“Yes. That’s fine, I’ll do that, but it’s raining, so if I don’t have to walk to the convenience store, I’d take the extra bento.”
“Wait a minute.”
My supervisor and the office secretary looked through the list of who ordered bento and did a mental count of everyone in the room who was eating one. She ran to a teacher sitting at a table and said something in Japanese. This teacher stood up, walked over to me and the secretary, and they all spoke in Japanese.
The new teacher walked over to his desk, came up to me, and offered me his home-made boxed lunch.
“Please, have his lunch,” my supervisor told me.
“Oh,” I said. “No, no, it’s OK, I don’t want someone else’s lunch. I’ll just go get my lunch at the convenience store as I planned.”
“But, you told me you don’t want to go to the conbini.”
“If there’s an extra bento, I’ll take it,” I said, “but I don’t want to take away someone’s lunch or dinner!”
The three teachers talked in Japanese. My supervisor turned to me.
“Wait a minute.”
The three teachers counted the names on the sign-up sheet for bento and then counted the bentos in the delivery box, checking it against the number of bentos listed on the receipt.
“I’m so sorry,” my supervisor said. “There is no extra bento.”
“That’s absolutely fine,” I said. “I’ll just go to the convenience store.”
“Did you order the bento?”
“No, I was just confused, because yesterday Mr. Tanagawa paid for my lunch, so I didn’t know if I ordered it yesterday or today.”
“You had the lunch order paid for by Mr. Tanagawa?”
“But today you don’t want the bento?”
“Yes. It’s OK. It’s perfect. Everything is perfect.”
A Moment to Myself…
I went to the convenience store on the corner and bought a ham sandwich, a salad and some milk tea.
…And Back to Interconnectedness
When I came back, Mr. Tanagawa asked me to eat lunch with him.
“You shouldn’t tell other teachers I paid for your lunch,” he said. “I could get into trouble.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK, but it can cause many kinds of problems for me.”
“Oh, wow, well, you’re very kind! I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Now, I also must apologize to you, because I caused so much confusion for you today.”
“No, no. I didn’t have any confusion at all. I just checked to see if there was an extra bento. You were very kind to pay for it! It was not necessary at all.”
“No no, it’s my pleasure. But I caused a lot of trouble for the other teachers, so I am very sorry that I troubled you.”
In the midst of that exchange, the teacher who’d offered me his homemade lunch looked at my bag of convenience store sandwich, shouted annoyedly in Japanese, shook his head and walked away.
“Why did you refuse his lunch?” Mr. Tanagawa asked.
“I didn’t want to take his homemade lunch from him!”
“But it’s very rude to refuse him. He is an older teacher. He is a very kind teacher, and you said no, it’s a kind of insult, maybe.” He thought for a minute. “You didn’t understand he wanted you to eat the lunch, maybe? Right?”
He leaned in on “right” as if to say, “you’ll go along with this story, right?”
I didn’t catch on at first. He looked annoyed. He emphasized the sentence again.
“You didn’t understand he was offering you his lunch. RIGHT?”
“OK,” I said. “Right.”
“Wait a minute.”
Mr. Tanagawa came back with the teacher who’d offered me lunch and said something in Japanese. The other teacher nodded and said, “OK.”
Mr. Tanagawa explained. “I told him you didn’t understand.”
Japan presents a tangled web of reciprocity in its daily acts of kindness. These result in obligations that I’ve found overwhelming: I prefer not to be obligated to anybody, but in Japan, it can be insulting to refuse an obligation to another person. Refusing an act of kindness – like taking that teacher’s lunch – is a refusal to give back a future kindness. Refusing any kind of favor risks coming across as declaring, “Don’t do me any favors!”
It’s clear in the enkai tradition of pouring drinks for everyone around you, and never refusing when someone offers you a drink. You can think of this drinking party as a metaphor for social contracts in Japan: You accept a drink from your neighbor and agree to pour a drink for your neighbor. Refuse the drink and you refuse the obligation to serve it later. Drawn to its logical end, you end up with a very dull office party.
There are daily gifts and favors that draw you into the social web. I find these threatening, not reassuring. They impose on my independence – creating debts I’ll have to repay in unpredictable ways, at inconvenient times, when the person offering a favor has complete control over what’s being presented to me. It feels like a trap.
But there’s also the shame of being asked to return a favor I can’t possibly repay. Obligations are especially threatening when you don’t know what those return favors might be, especially when what seems like an even exchange of favors between two Japanese natives might be wildly disproportionate when redeemed from an illiterate foreigner.
There have been many acts of kindness in Japan that have gone so far overboard that they began to make me nervous, more than appreciative, which has spawned a bit of soul-searching throughout the years I’ve been here. In Japan, this is called “arigata meiwaku,” an unwanted kindness, usually presented to butter someone up for a favor.
The Awkward Kindness of Japanese Strangers
Once, a friend from America visited and picked up a 100-yen coin that an older woman dropped on the train platform. The woman asked where we were going in broken English.
She lead us to the train, which was kind enough. She then boarded the train, rode it with us for twenty minutes, took us to a shop in the city we were going to, bought us a snack, lead us to a temple, and then took us to the museum, where she arranged to have an English guide give us a tour.
The problem is, this is all remarkably kind; but it also wasn’t anything that I had asked for. I felt guilty talking to my friend in English when the woman didn’t speak English. At a certain point we actually tried to lose her by thanking her and ducking into a shop; when we left the shop she was there, waiting for us.
A similar thing happened in Kyoto. We were looking for the subway line to our hostel, which wouldn’t have been difficult, but the moment we looked at the map a man came over to us, told us where to go and lead us to the train platform. We thanked him.
He got on the train with us, rode it to the station where we needed to transfer and showed us the transfer train. We thanked him. He waited until the train arrived and got on the transfer train. Once we got off the train at our stop, he walked up the stairs with us to the exit of the train station.
We asked if he was going to our neighborhood. He shook his head. No, he said, he was going to Osaka.
He bowed and we bowed back at him; there was nothing we could do to pay him back for going an hour out of his way on a work night to show us how to get to a hostel we honestly could have come to by ourselves.
Larry David Syndrome
It feels terrible to complain about the excessive kindness of friends and strangers. I think the guilt it inspires causes a lot of people to seek a less benevolent explanation – that perhaps foreigners are treated like children, those feelings of looming obligation sublimated into the rejection of our coddling. I can’t speak to the motivations of the Japanese people who have acted kindly to the point of awkwardness, I can only speak for me.
I like my debts paid in full, and I want to know the repayment terms before I agree to anything. This is probably the result of being raised in a relatively independent culture, where the reigning fantasies of film and song are odes to severing ties and breaking free of our duties, not relishing them. We see a web of interconnected obligations as a source of deprivation, something that holds us back, not something that supports us in a safety net of mutual responsibility.
Americans are inherently selfish, some drunk Japanese people tell me. “Not you,” they say. “The culture.” I used to argue that our ideas of selfishness and social good were just more centered to individual freedoms, but this makes no sense here. The American Dream, this notion of “liberty,” isn’t a global dream. It’s a culturally constructed one. It is too obvious to say, but not all people long to be “free” in the American sense because not everyone wants to do things “the American way.”
And that’s fine. But I value my independence, and I am constantly fighting to protect it from staggering acts of kindness and generosity; the American dream!
Please don’t like This Japanese Life on Facebook. I couldn’t stand owing you a favor.
Hilarious, and brilliant…my god, I’m in stitches! You nailed it, yo! This is the life!!
“First off, let me explain what’s happened, on a couple of levels. First, asking “I don’t have a bento today, right?” translates, in that hint-at-everything manner of Japanese communication, that maybe probably I was expecting bento.”
In a nutshell, and let the Federal case ensue!
I imagine the “wait a minute” is “chotto matte”?
Many of my co-workers speak to me in English, so these exchanges were primarily in English. Chotto matte wasn’t used, in fact!
Excellent! This reminded me of my trip to Japan last year. Now that I’ll be returning as a JET, I’ll have to get used to this once more!
Thank you for writing this :-) This explains alot about what goes on in my office as a JET :-)
Laughed a lot reading this! It’s so funny how the Japanese mind really works very differently from the Western. I have gone through many similar situations, trying to explain some misunderstanding. And it was very instructive too!
Every culture is different! The fun of being here is figuring out where they are and how to connect through them. Though it’s also the chief frustration :)
Oh my god. This is EVERY SINGLE DAY OF MY LIFE HERE!! Excellently portrayed, thank you!
The first half about the bento is probably the most accurate description of Japanese life I have ever read. The second part… well maybe because I could speak Japanese, I never experienced that kind of thing. But it’s nice to know that it happens!
Agreed that the 2nd problem is less of a problem if you speak Japanese. And if you aren’t worried about being viewed as “selfish” it’s not a problem at all. The over-zealous guides and random helpers don’t need their kindness returned. If they had an appointment or something better to do they would not stop to help. They are using foreigners for English practice and to satisfy their curiosity. It is inherently an even trade. The writer seems concerned about it, but there is no need to be.
I think the bento incident could have been avoided if you just phrased your first question better with added explanation.
serious question (that i’ve rewritten 4 times because it always seems hostile): are you trying to pick up on the intricacies of japanese culture/life or.. maybe if you do that you’ll have less to write about?
what would he have eaten had you taken his lunch? and how did it end up with him offering his lunch?
I was a JET in Japan for 2 years. I can relate to this soooooo well. Great stuff.
Possibly the best explanation I’ve read of obligation in Japanese culture. I’m American born but my parents are very traditional Japanese. I dread it when one of my friends innocently brings over a box of cupcakes or treats my parents to coffee, because my parents feel immediately obligated to return the favor. I point out to them that my friends aren’t expecting anything in return, that Mom and Dad could send a thank-you note if they really wanted to show their appreciation. (Curiously, the thank-you note isn’t a common gesture in Japanese culture. Maybe it’s not enough!) My parents however would rather buy the kindly friend a box of manju (which usually ends up stale and in the garbage—none of my American-born friends like the stuff) or drag her out to a sushi place for an hour of awkward conversation/silence over bento boxes. I finally started asking my friends not to send any gifts to my parents, not even at Christmas, not even a plate of cookies. What’s supposed to be an act of kindness gets turned into a crisis every time.
It’s hard to read behind the lines when you’re abroad, I guess in Japan everything is so coded that it’s like missing the code that everyone has. Like the others I wonder what the teacher who offered you his lunch would have done if you had accepted, he would have gone out to buy something else???
I guess in Europe we also like our acts of kindness to be limited in time, like a person who shows you the way BUT doesn’t follow you afterwards and takes you places (places you don’t want to go).
On the latter part: I agree, I used to feel like I might be being led into situations I can’t get out of by people who are “pretending” to be kind… but that’s my American paranoia speaking!
That story is reminds me so much of the intricacies which can arise as a result of a seemingly small misunderstanding…and how there can be so much going on underneath the surface that we are unaware of. I was a Jet 12 years ago, and I see not much has changed since then. All the kindness and uber-kindness was lovely but extremely headwrecking at the same time…it’s moments like those that make me glad to be back in Ireland.
Yup, I understand every facet of this exchange.
What an awesome blog. Very nicely written. I can very much understand what you’ve experienced! I’d take the refusals if you were really concerned. Like the people who really really helped you get places, insist they don’t. Assure them that you’ll be fine!
That’s what I tried doing! In reality these situations don’t come up that often, but when they do, they’re full blown “incidents.” It has had a negative side effect, I’ve noticed, of being very hesitant to ever ask a question, but I’m regretting that tactic now. It’s meant missing out on a lot of cool stuff.
Fantastically well written and a great insight into Japanese culture. It would be interesting to read the other side of the table about Japanese experiences with obligation in the West. I’m sure they are just as confused as we are about their culture.
To be fair to the Japanese, your line of questioning and failure to commit to one thing in the ‘bento’ incident probably exacerbated the problem. Even I – a native English speaker – was confused as to your actual intentions by reading your dialogue. I agree with the poster above who suggested rephrasing your initial question to be less vague and more clear. (Note that I’m not trying to be-little your frustration. I’m simply trying to shed some perspective from their side)
As to receiving favors that you don’t want to repay. “Kekko desu, arigatou gozaimasu” (けっこうです。ありがとうございます。) means “Thanks, but no thanks.” and if they continue to insist “Iie, hontou ni kekko desu.” (いいえ、本当にけっこうです。) means “No, really, thanks but no thanks”. Yes, of course, this seems slightly rude to some Japanese, but sometimes you must choose: be slightly rude, or end up taking on a favor you will likely receive social pressure to repay at some later date…possibly years later. By the way, this type of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” mentality happens all the time in America, especially in the upper and middle sectors of large corporations. So, it’s not just Japan.
If I seem curt please don’t take it personally, but I’ve seen comments like yours across the internet today and I’m wondering where you got the impression that I thought I was blameless in the exchange?
I thought I’d made it quite clear at several places that the conversation was, in fact, a result of my initial mistake of expressing the question the way I did, combined with the expectations that my co-workers had. I lost control over the escalating drama that unfolded as a result. At a certain point, I’d uttered the wrong words, and there was no turning back.
You say you were confused by what I actually wanted. I simply wondered if a bento had been ordered for me or not, because someone was generous enough to buy me one the day before. It was not ordered for me on the second day, which was fair enough. The first bento was a generous surprise, but I didn’t want to buy lunch if it had been purchased for me again. I also didn’t want to look entitled, but that’s exactly what happened anyway.
I had assumed asking for the bento would be the end of the story, but then the kindness to strangers set in and soon I was stuck in the situation I wrote about, which I shared here because it was funny and awkward and characteristic of a lot of the problems I’ve encountered in Japan as a result of cultural and linguistic barriers. I am not complaining about this. I’m learning from it.
Finally, I have worked in upper and middle sectors of companies and I can assure you that nothing remotely like this bento incident occurs “all the time” in American corporations.
As is always the case over the internet, tone doesn’t come across well. I didn’t think nor want to imply that you thought you were blameless in this situation. You, in fact, wrote that at one point you realized you had reached the point of no return and would have probably been better off asking no question at all. I was simply trying to say that I was confused when I read the dialogue (from both sides, I might add. Yours and the Japanese. The whole incident was just downright confusing. But, I suppose that was the point of you writing about this in the first place.).
As for companies, maybe I’ve just worked at some shitty American companies. Who knows.
P.S. I wasn’t trying to be condescending either. I’ve been in some freaky, weird situation in Japan myself (speaking in Japanese to a train station attendant who, for the life of him, cannot understand what I’m saying…or even that I was talking to him in his native language. It was probably the weirdest cultural barrier thing I’ve experienced here so far.)
And, lastly. I was only trying to be helpful with the Japanese phrases. I posted the above comment before I read any of your other posts and didn’t realize that you’d been in Japan for quite some time.
In any case, cheers and I hope you have an awesome time here. ;)
Eryk, let me encourage you to ignore Josh’s condescending reprimand. Your post is very honest and clear. It is very helpful inasmuch as it analyzes significant and uncomfortable differences that arise from two different sets of cultural- and worldview-shaping factors. There is a learning curve in walking the line between two cultures, and not everybody finds the curve equally steep or gradual. Your personal experience is legitimate, and your transparency is both helpful and appreciated.
Super useful, insightful, and articulate blog post. Thanks for this.
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This actually pretty hits on its right spot.I was told by many people , especially the exchange students about their relationships with their hosts.We all know how shy and courteous Japanese people are but the things get in between them is yes, the reciprocity of their kind acts towards each others.It’s really hard to have a straight forward and frank discussion with them about sth, without hurting their feelings , not even mention the differences in their cultures, what we think is appropriate may not suitable for them, hence its really tough to strengthen and maintain the relationships
This is precisely why I don’t ask questions unless absolutely necessary in Japan. I refuse any and all favors too. I’ve been put into some very bad situations where I was basically forced to repay their earlier kindness. I’ve found it to be less of a headache to just refuse favors.
It is also why I instructed my wife to refuse and return all wedding gifts from anyone in Japan. When you receive a wedding gift here you are expected to return a minimum of 50% of the cost of that gift in the form of a gift back to the person. So you have to do research to find out how much their gift cost. It is a giant waste of time and, in American culture, means that the gift is not a gift.
Also, Japanese misunderstand everything. If you casually say “Hey that looks tasty” and are just making conversation, they will think that you want them to buy it for you when you are just making small talk. My wife used to do this all the time but she has been slowly learning that it is just small talk (aka banter).
“Also, Japanese misunderstand everything. If you casually say “Hey that looks tasty” and are just making conversation, they will think that you want them to buy it for you when you are just making small talk.” – This happens in cultures all over the world. People understand having caution about complimenting women when overseas, but complimenting material objects can get you into trouble also.
This is why I NEVER ask for anything in Japan. If I don’t know something, I ask someone who is socially considered to be indepted to me like a student, I never ask someone at the same level or over me in the social hierarchy; that includes strangers. My husband didn’t understand why I would refuse to ask for help from store staff or people in general. A few experiences of having a TON of time wasted being dragged to and fro by overly helpful people and now he’s as leery of asking for help as I am.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Japan, but you have to be realistic. If you ask for help, and the person can’t help you, they won’t just say ” Sorry man, I can’t help you.” They will run around desperately to find the means to help you, either by getting information or finding someone who can. This takes a chunk of your time and theirs and generally, is not worth it IMO. It’s sweet, but annoying at the same time.
Basically, my advice to any new person coming to work in a Japanese environment is NEVER EVER as for a favour from anyone unless you REALLY REALLY need it. Don’t think you can rephrase a question so that it doesn’t seem like you are asking a favour. Also, don’t complain about anything fixable. If you even hint at any sort of discomfort or problem, be prepared for people to bend over backwards to fix it even if you really don’t want them to. Complaining about the weather is generally safe as every Japanese person complains that it’s hot or cold about a million times a day.
Also, try really hard not to forget stuff or leave stuff lying around. My husband once had a store clerk chase him for 3 blocks to give him back 2 yen (equivalent to 2 cents).
Hi. I’m an English teacher in Japan and I’ve been reading this particular blog post with some of my one-on-one students and upper level classes. Here are some of the reactions:
– some students who have lived in Europe said they had similar experiences with older ladies in England and Germany being awkwardly kind to them; they got an unwanted tour guide for a while
– some we’re curious about the kind of favor that would be easy for a Japanese to fulfill but actually was difficult for you
– a few wondered if you we the only foreign teacher at your school or if you lived in the countryside, where foreigns are still a rare species
In general, students felt sympathy for you because some simple situations just simply got out of control. But they also wondered why you were so resistant to favors from people you knew. Sometimes a favor was a nuisance to them as we’ll, but generally this is a part of Japanese culture that was more beneficial than troublesome.
“I think the guilt it inspires causes a lot of people to seek a less benevolent explanation – that perhaps foreigners are treated like children, those feelings of looming obligation sublimated into the rejection of our coddling.”
Fantastic. This is spot on. It surprises me sometimes how much anger I see in response to being treated like children here in Japan. I suppose I am a bit KY and that protects me a little from some of the looming obligation that I should be experiencing.
Thanks for continuing to write on Japan. I love the breadth of topics you cover. It gives such a clear picture of what life in Japan is like through Western eyes.
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In the Army they have ‘After Action Reviews’ after operations. So let’s list some things to be improved. 1) Forgetting your lunch and umbrella: You can’t afford to be late, but not being prepared is to be avoided in reflects badly on your character and lowers your status. Notice that Japanese are planners? Make daily lists or wake up earlier. 2) “I don’t have a bento today, right?”: You may as well have put up a searchlight to advertise your lack of planning. People are already going to notice if you are wet because of going to the convenience store sans umbrella (they will notice everything!) so your best option is to say nothing and let everyone pretend not to notice. Perhaps they will write it off as ‘stupid foreigners not understanding the weather’, which would actually be giving you a break. 3) “Yes. That’s fine, I’ll do that, but it’s raining, so if I don’t have to walk to the convenience store, I’d take the extra bento.”: This is worse than being unprepared! To be seen as trying to take the easy way out is not done in Japan, not without people thinking less of you. At least soldiering on to the convenience store after forgetting your umbrella could be seen as determined. 4) “Please, have his lunch”: Accepting this help and then bringing a gift melon the next day would have been a nice touch. You took away his opportunity to show he was a team player in his new assignment. Yes, it would obligate you to be especially respectful and correct in your behavior to him in the future, as everyone would remember he did you a favor. A parting gift when you left the school would be correct. There’s no need to be fearful of this obligation because making an unreasonable request from you later would more than cancel out the goodwill he got from everyone by offering his lunch to “solve the problem”. Yes, you have created a problem. 5) “You shouldn’t tell other teachers I paid for your lunch…”: Discretion! Are you next going to talk about seeing one of the staff going to a Love Hotel? If you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what information can get people into trouble. Being a foreigner already makes your status situation volatile because people can’t get a good read on what it is, and so have to guess, and getting this wrong is not good at all. If you must ‘gossip’, and yes, telling who is buying lunch for whom is gossiping, tell people more about your family back home so they can more correctly gauge your status.
Now, let’s be more careful out there:)
If you are in Japan to experience the culture, why not go full tilt? That means accepting as many obligations/opportunities as you can afford (a cash cushion is a must!) Wouldn’t it be great to be invited to a wedding, for instance? Yes, but realize it will cost you $300 (ask a Japanese person to recommend an amount). And you need to be happy about it, or you will disturb the Wa.
Yep thanks for being the 10 millionth person telling me what i should have done with my time machine
This story scares me. I have worked with the Japanese for more than one year and I have tried my best to fall into such situation because honestly, I cannot get what the Japanese have in their mind.
This is so funny!! I thoroughly enjoyed the story because I could relate to it so much. I worked as an LDS (Mormon) missionary in Japan for 18 months, and at the beginning I was often nervous and uncomfortable because I felt like there was so much going on that I couldn’t understand and I didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, after learning the language better, help from Japanese friends, and more experience it got quite comfortable and I actually love every bit of it now. Coming back to America was quite a culture shock! Thanks for sharing the story–people always asks me how Japanese and American culture are different, and I can never describe it well, but this sums it up perfectly and I really enjoyed it!