There is one question every foreigner should dread upon coming to Japan. Not really because it’s annoying, or a cultural difference. Rather it implies that you, as a human being, are stupid and incompetent. And many, many Japanese people, upon learning more about you, will ask this question. It is inevitable, and just as racially controversial as the use of "gaijin".
"Can you use chopsticks?"
Ummmm… yes, I can. Can you use a knife and fork? Foreigners everywhere have their intelligence challenged by this question. At first glance, this might merely be a language difficulty:
"Which do you prefer, chopsticks or silverware?"
"Do you like to use chopsticks?"
And while the intent behind it isn’t usually racially charged or malevolent, it does produce such a response in some foreigners. My first night with my new co-workers I was escorted to a nice restaurant nearby and they ordered for me. After some casual questions about where I was from, what do I like, have I enjoyed Japan so far, they just blurted out:
"Tana sensei – can you use chopsticks?"
I must admit I was taken aback, and didn’t really realize the full-scale implication of what they had just asked. Part of me just wanted to glare back and state – "If a child in Japan can use chopsticks, chances are I can too. Do you think I’m not as smart as an average child? Is there something wrong with my hands that would stop me from picking up two sticks???"
And yet this really is what most Japanese people think – foreigners cannot use chopsticks, are incapable of doing so. If you’re around a Japanese person long enough and it’s your first time eating with them, this question will arise eventually. Now, it’s worth pointing out they don’t realize what they are saying, they don’t believe they are insulting your intelligence: that this is merely a cultural difference, one which you may not be able to understand. Still, I have to admit I find it a little demeaning.
This is hardly the first time I have had my intelligence called into question in Japan. I still consider myself a newcomer, and have yet to experience many things in Japan, both personally and professionally. I don’t believe ignorance is the same as incompetence or idiocy.
Again, it goes back to what I was saying before I even arrived in Japan: the language barrier will strip you of your intelligence. It works on both fronts – a native English speaker conversing in Japanese and a Japanese person learning English. I have an engineering degree. I understand the arts, the great books, music, current affairs, humor…. so what??? I can never be eloquent in a foreign language without years of practice. I can only stumble through my day, using the Japanese I need to survive. Forget college, forget high school, forget your old life. You can’t express it, you can’t convey your true personality. What’s left is a shell – a mumbling, poorly spoken, shell. I can understand how I must look like to other Japanese people. I can even appreciate their feelings, as I talk with native Japanese speakers in English every day. It’s still frustrating.
One quick observation I have made – avoid saying "wakarimasen" or "nihongo ga hanasemasen" ("I don’t understand" and "I don’t speak Japanese"). Although tourists probably wouldn’t have a problem with this, if you’re a gaijin in Japan, it sounds like you’re giving up on the conversation, that you are not even willing to try Japanese. I know, I know, it’s tempting – this is one of the reasons it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to learn Japanese while in Japan – there’s really no reason. English is everywhere! Train stations, special English telephone lines, books, in restaurants, in gyms, native speakers… And if you truly do get in trouble, most Japanese people have at least a rudimentary knowledge of English. Why learn Japanese if it isn’t crucial to survival? I still want to, to stave off this impression of a stupid foreigner I seem to emit. But I understand why some would not.
Kore wa do hatsuon shimas ka?
How do you pronounce this?
Motto yukkuri hanashite kuremasen ka?
Could you please speak more slowly?
Watashi wa Nihongo ga naraimas.
I am learning Japanese.
Watashi wa (Hiroshima) de sumimas.
I live in (Hiroshima).
Watashi wa gaikokujin(noyoni) hanasemas.
I speak (like) a foreigner.
Watashi wa nijuyonsai des. Hai, nijuyonsai dake.
I am 24 years old. Yes, only 24.
Note: Japanese people will always assume you’re at least five years older than you actually are. Here’s how this conversation goes every single time
"So, how old are you?"
"How old do you think I am? Guess."
"Eeeeeeeeeee. Honto? (really?)"
The remnants of a typhoon are passing through Hiroshima as we speak, so don’t plan any visits. I still love it here, but I wish I had more time to practice conversational Japanese in Saijo – I had more practice in Hakata that I have had since I arrived. Still, part of that is me being lazy I’m sure (i.e. writing in my blog instead of going out). But my readers need information too. The new layout is still under construction, and I will have some t-shirts within the next month or so – trust me, if you’re in Japan, or around people who can read Japanese, you will love these. Until then, explore. Dream. Discover. Thank you MT.