My Chopsticks Questions

August 9, 2013


There is one question in particular I dreaded, as a foreigner living in Japan. Although I had my share of “HELLO! HOW ARE YOU!”s and children’s fascination with my hair, I learned, in time, to brush most of these off in stride, chalking them up to general ignorance of other cultures and a basic lack of etiquette for kids under twelve.

“Can you use chopsticks?”

When I first heard this from coworkers, 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 simple objects?”

Most Japanese people are smart enough to realize that you are perfectly capable of using chopsticks; in some cases, it’s a lack of language skills, i.e. they are intending to ask “Would you prefer to use chopsticks?” Still, I have to admit I found it a little demeaning. As time went on, and my Japanese vocabulary grew, and my knowledge of the country and culture expanded, my foreign appearance remained pretty much the same, and the question kept popping back up. Just when I thought I was safe, and wouldn’t have to repeat the same answer to another clueless individual, that question found me in some back alley.

We all have our chopsticks questions. Questions we hear with such frequency that represent such ignorance or malaise about the nature of ourselves or our jobs, we have to question the intelligence of one who would pose them. To a flight attendant, it might be “Can you seat me somewhere else?” or “Is this your regular route?” To someone in medicine: “Can you get (me) pain meds?” To a religious scholar who happens to be Muslim: “Why would you write a book about Jesus?”

If there’s anything working a two-month marketing tour has taught me, other than the ingredients necessary to product a truly delicious ice cream, it’s how frustrated I get when facing repetitiveness. This feeling has been growing for years, brought into existence when I made the choice to step onto that plane bound for Osaka; as a traveler, I only find satisfaction in the new. Not necessarily the exciting, but places, people, and most importantly, conversations that break the mold. Things beyond what the zombies in their 9-to-5s are saying:

“Have a nice day.”
“Weather’s awful today, eh?”
Timothy Leary

Some are unique to me, of course, but as I keep my habits – rare foods I enjoy, wearing my Vibrams, to name a couple – the same stock phrases get tossed my way. To me, having faced such questions and statements for years, it is infuriating almost to the point of madness, as though people are completely oblivious to the idea what they’re saying isn’t remotely original, funny, or deserving of status as a conversation starter. As silly as it sounds, I’d be more likely to respond to the ridiculous, the offensive. When I was in Asia, these questions were 90% of my interactions on the street. If someone were to say:

“Foreigner! 외국인! 外人!”
“Where are you from?”
“Where you go?”

I’d be more likely to ignore them as I would a broken record, regardless of their intentions. Although I know it’s not in people’s nature to first put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I find it impossible to believe these people think they’re actually saying something to me no one else could possibly have said to me one hundred times before. To put things in perspective, I worked a marketing tour for an organic ice cream company called Three Twins. Without fail, every time I was working I would be asked:

“So, is it your company?”
“Are you new?”
“Are you one of the three twins?”
“How can you have three twins?”
“Wouldn’t it be triplets?”
“Is it dairy?”
“Is it gluten free?”
“Is there sugar?”

Again and again. Every day for two months. And because I was driving the company vehicle in my off time, there was no escape, no end to people who felt they had a right to approach me and demand answers to their questions (during my working hours, sure, but as I’m eating? At a gas station? In my hotel?). It’s just plain rude.

I’ve been guilty of this myself, immediately asking someone from another country some random questions I’ve been pondering within ten seconds of being introduced. No longer, though.

This, above all, is my main hindrance – self created, I know – in making friends, meeting new people, and finding someone special. Every time someone tosses out one of these stock phrases, I get so frustrated and lose interest in anything else they have to say, even knowing the conversation may find its way into something deeper. I’m just so sick of a reality that coats itself in mediocrity one has to go through all these social media (in this case, plural of medium) to discover our humanity. Think about any conversation you’ve had with a stranger: how many of them were the same, word for word? To my female readers, think about those who have tried to pick you up with the same opener… it’s happened more times than you can count, right?

At the moment, that’s how I feel about most interactions in my life. Everyone is just going through the motions, tossing out the same lines, and expecting me to respond as though I’m impressed they’re able to say something everyone has been conditioned to say. Because it’s considered normal and polite. I can only imagine what it’s like for those in customer service who are forced to deal with this day in and day out.

As with my other issue of being an outsider in Asia, this is something I’m just going to have to learn to shrug off if I want to be happy. I can’t expect society to suddenly start behaving as though its members are seeking more than passing words just because I want things to be better for all of us. As always, I think I’ll search abroad for what I can’t find here. More often than not, what I usually find is a change within myself.

“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the ‘normal people’ as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Weather’s awful today, eh?’, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like ‘Tell me something that makes you cry or ‘What do you think deja vu is for?'”

One Response to My Chopsticks Questions

  1. tj on August 18, 2013 at 5:41 am

    I’ve been following your various blogs for a long time. Years. Great reading, very insightful at times. You inspired me to come to Japan. I’m here now as a JET and love it. Probably will stay.

    But I’ve come to a stark conclusion about the guy that I once found so inspiring: you’re kind of an asshole.

    This blog has become a cry for help. Get into some therapy and stop refusing to join the adult, working world. I’m an adult with a completely unmarketable masters degree who is wildly distrustful of the world and pretty damn misanthropic, but I have my shit together and don’t feel the need to ruin a perfectly good blog about travel with depressing nonsense.

    Sorry if I sound insensitive, but if there’s one person I’ve met in my entire life that needs some straight talk with no bullshit, it’s you.

    I’m deleting this bookmark and giving up on your work. You don’t need to respond. Do something more productive instead.

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