The “Chopstick Question”

I’d like seconds…

People ask me about Japan. I’m at a bit of a loss of what to tell them. It’s Japan for starters. “What is the culture shock like?” Well, it’s like doubling up “the different” in a move from New York to West Virginia I suppose. I guess Japan is pretty different, but in the end it’s a place full of buildings and cars, with people inside those buildings and cars, with blood and tissues inside those bodies.

It is a little strange how I can silently blend into any crowd if I want. It’s not like I got many strange looks in a crowd of white people in the states, maybe in Kentucky or West Virginia a little. I don’t get slammed for looking Asian by anyone at least. There’s no one who mimics Chinese-eyes when they pass me on the street. No one has thrown rocks at me here. I’ve not heard the terms gook or chink at all here.

This is like our “N-word”

But there is a gap that exists between myself and the Japanese people. I guess it could be the cultural gap, or the language barrier, or separate prejudices. I’m not sure what it is, but it is at times as invisible as feelings while other times it is as strange as fashion and as glaring as driving west before sundown. It’s varied from person to person, but not so bad that you’d notice too much. Of course they have preconceived notions of what an American is, fed mostly by, surprise surprise, marketing images and celebrity spreads.

The chopstick question seems to have taken the burden as the poster child for subtle social clashes that has probably happened to every single foreigner who has ever lived in Japan. In fact it happened to me before I even came to Japan. It was sometime after I graduated high school, maybe I was 19 at the time.

High school was something that breezed by for me. I played some baseball, went out with a lot of blonde girls, saw too many shitty movies at AMC, studied infrequently, and passed with a 4.54 weighted GPA. I made hardly any friends aside from girls that wanted to get to know me a little better and kids from my churches youth group, half of which who probably saw me as some sort of charity case. After I transferred from Kentucky, I spent one year taking my lunch to the school library where I read running magazines and random books about Aztec history. The second year I did pretty much the same thing. The third year I spent half the year eating with some Korean friends a year younger than me, Michael and Jason, until for some strange reason I became popular and then I ate with mostly blonde girls and artsy people.

or artsy blonde girls!

After I graduated I sort of regretted my limited interaction with Asian people for some strange reason. I can’t put my finger on why, but something in me changed, as subtle and small as tectonic plates moving a few inches, but as violent and upsetting as a fucking earthquake on the surface. I had a friend named Sang who was always interested in hanging out with me, but I’d never made time to because I’m horrible with scheduling stuff. For some strange reason I’ve never had a shortage of Asian guys that want to hang out with me and while no Oriental girl has ever asked me to hang out with them, I did have a small group of them that I would catch following me around in high school. So, I called Sang when I was nineteen and he took me to a Korean restaurant with a few friends.

I wasn’t asked the chopstick question directly. Not like here in Japan. It was really just one of the girls half-surprised, half-complaining who said, “Look, he can use chopsticks better than me.” I guess the difference was they all spoke Korean, had Korean parents, and have been using chopsticks at home at least as frequently, if not more, as they use a knife and fork. I wasn’t really upset by the statement. And I’ve never been upset by any Japanese person asking me in Japan. But I can understand how it can rub things the wrong way.

The kids in kindergarten are all using chopsticks, I’m a grown-ass man (or woman) of course I can use chopsticks. Is probably what they’re thinking. For the most part they’re mistaking just friendly conversation, reading too far into it and getting hurt. I’ve never straight up asked anyone if they can use chopsticks. If you are eating with them it’s something you can usually tell fairly quickly. And for the record I don’t use chopsticks correctly. At least not Japanese correct, thought I don’t know if there are different styles. But I am extremely good with chopsticks with either hand, and yes it makes me feel superior. And while I’ve never asked if someone was proficient with chopsticks I have made fun of people for not being very good, or at least noticeably terrible, but that’s just the sort of person I am. Besides if you can’t make fun of yourself you probably aren’t too friendly with me.

In all fairness a lot of Americans probably can’t use chopsticks. But to be fair to the disgruntled gaikokujin population here it is relative common sense that persons coming to a foreign country would at least familiarize themselves on that countries most basic culinary practices. I’ve heard a lot of questions from Japanese people, I’d guess over half of them over foods, weather I’ve tried them, heard of them, or are even capable of eating them. It’s partly because it is easy to ask those sort of questions. It is partly because they are obsessed with food.

So what is Japan like? What are Japanese people like? Well, they’re people pretty much. They’re pretty polite, they like traditions and long ass ceremonies for anything of significance, their television is loud and repetitive, the girls are cute, the guys are skinny, the trains are convenient, the 7-11’s sell sushi, the cities are busy, the towns are sleepy, the mountains are green and the oceans have fish. In all places I’ve lived; Red Bird, Tampa, Man, Bradenton, Sarasota, Largo, Corbin, Overland Park, Lenexa, Manhattan, San Diego, Fuji-shi, and Sue-machi; I have discovered that I don’t really care where I live and I have trouble answering simple questions that people really just want me to answer simply.

why are YOU interested in Japan?