“Yes, I can,” and other answers to Japanese

I’ve been living in Japan for more than 6 years now.  I’m a foreigner living in an area of Japan that has a lot of foreigners.  I’m not unique.  I see other foreigners regularly, usually every day (and I don’t mean at work).  In the beginning, I was asked a lot of questions that I didn’t mind.  They were curious about me, so I answered.  But after 6 years, I still get the same questions.  Here’s a sample of the most common questions:

Can you use chopsticks?

Yes.  Yes, I can.  I’ve been able to use them since I was a kid, long, long before I came to Japan.  Don’t act surprised.  Many people in Canada can use chopsticks.  Asian food is popular, and Asian restaurants provide chopsticks.  That’s where I learned how to use them.  Most of the time, convenience store clerks ask me if I want chopsticks, which is a very normal question for every customer who buys a meal.  However, some people will clearly ask me if I can use chopsticks.  And sometimes, when people see me use chopsticks, they are amazed.  Why?  I have fingers and hands just like other humans, including Japanese people.  They’re easy to use.  Stop being surprised.

Can you eat raw fish?

First of all, the question is wrong.  It should be “Do you like raw fish?”  Asking my ability to eat something should get this answer:  “Yes, I can put the raw fish in my mouth and I’ll chew it, then swallow it.  See?  I can eat it!”  But I’m polite, and say that I can.  I go further and say that sushi and sashimi are quite popular in Canada, so many, many people eat it.  One time about a year ago, I bought some sashimi in a supermarket, and the cashier looked at me in surprise and asked me in Japanese if I like sashimi (at least it’s better than if I can eat it), and I told her I love it.  She seemed happy with that answer.

You must be very good at Japanese!

I get this a lot when I tell people I’ve lived in Japan for 6 years.  There’s an understandable expectation that I can speak Japanese well.  I always answer that I’m not good.  I can get by with basic everyday things, but my ability to speak is quite bad.  I’m far better at listening.  I can understand the general topic of conversations, and get some details, but if I’m asked to join the conversation, I freeze.  I have little experience with general conversations outside of shopping.  I guess this comment that I receive isn’t so annoying, but I get it several times a week.  It should be motivation for me to study, shouldn’t it?

Wow!  You can read hiragana?

On the other hand, people are surprised that I can read the basic phonetic written characters of Japanese.  I learned them in 1 week in university several years ago.  It’s easy!  Hiragana is not difficult.  But many Japanese people seem to think that it must be difficult for foreigners, because it isn’t the Roman alphabet.  It’s just a few extra letters for me to learn.  After 6 years in Japan, I most definitely should be able to read hiragana, especially if I’ve passed the JLPT 3rd grade test.  That test required 300 kanji, too.  My students study English.  I don’t go to the lessons and say “Wow!  You can read the alphabet!!!” So, why is it so surprising that I can read hiragana after several years of somewhat inconsistent Japanese language study?

Why did you come to Japan?

This is just curiosity, I’m sure.  My simple answer is that there are too many reasons.  I find it hard to answer this question every time when the answer is quite complicated.

Gaijin!

I often want to say 2 things:  “It’s gaikokujin, and you’re rude” or the even better “Nihonjin!”  I think I’ll try the second one next time.

And finally, while there are no words exchanged, there is some nonverbal communication with this one.  Occasionally, I’ll get stared at on the train.  It’s not so often, but when it happens, it’s almost always an elderly man.  My response is to stare back at him.

One thing that many Japanese people don’t realise is that many foreigners in Japan have been here a long time.  Globalization is a fact in Japan, but many people are very slow to accept that fact.  Japanese culture and pop culture is spreading around the world, as well.  Japanese food is popular, especially sushi.  It’s not a surprise to me, but it is a surprise to many students that I teach.

Comments?  Have any questions for me?  Fire away.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to ““Yes, I can,” and other answers to Japanese

  1. I’ve been here 8 years and I am not happy with my conversation skills either. I’m planning on taking some classes this summer.

  2. Hey man, nice post. Reminds me of a book I’m reading right now that I intend to review in the future. It’s written by a Japanese teacher and is about how Japanese should speak Japanese to foreigners in Japan and not be so condescending.

    • Great! A Japanese teacher who actually understands it’s not good to speak so condescendingly! I agree, it sounds condescending, and I’m sure some don’t mean it. Others seem to continue talking that way. Thankfully, most of my students don’t speak to me that way.

      • I’m not so certain that the motivation for speaking English to us is condescension. I think most of the time it’s based on opportunism. People have few chances to use English and want to take advantage of any chance. Also, frankly, I think people have a lot of experience with foreigners who they attempt to speak Japanese to and who do not understand them. I think they speak English as a way of not making us uncomfortable. Since smoothing relations between people is a priority in Japanese culture (amongst Japanese), this makes perfect sense as a motive.

        I can’t say for certain why people speak English to us, but this is my speculation.

        • Maybe you misunderstood what I was saying. I wasn’t meaning that they always try to speak English to foreigners. Some Japanese people express their amazement at our ability to use chopsticks or eat raw fish. That seems condescending to us, while we think nothing of those activities. I don’t mind if people speak English to me. They just need to learn that the things they can do is not unique to Japan.

  3. “Since smoothing relations between people is a priority in Japanese culture (amongst Japanese),”

    Um, stereotype much?
    My neighbors and all the ones around Japan that I have seen will walk right by a piece of garbage and only pick it up if it’s directly on or infront of their own property.

    Japanese people don’t seem to give a fuck what others think anymore than in Hawaii. In fact it seems quite the opposite. The “Monster Parents” phenomenon is a symptom of parents having little or no respect for “Sensei” unlike…or very dissimilar to their parents generation.

    I don’t have to put up with that in a private School but looking around me and listening to my students (parents and P.T.A who are like arch fucking enemies in Japan) I really can’t see what your talking about?

  4. I seem to get stared at by little kids, who like to say “huh, Gaijin”. But if I respond, even with a friendly hello, they usually cry and I become the evil “huh, Gaijin”. Gimme a break people. Don’t talk to me if you don’t want me to talk back.

    • Cry? I seem to be really popular with classmates of my teenage students. What’s with teenage girls who want to try their limited English with their classmate’s English teacher?

  5. S Fraser

    I can remember being called a ‘sugei gi’ – think I got that right. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that it was a horrible thing to call me, I could never be that rude to anyone. Recently when I went back with my husband, he got a little put off by being stared at all the time, mind you he is 6′ 2.

    Generally I had a great experience, that may have had alot to do with my living in a tiny place and knowing everyone there.

    • I don’t think I’ve heard of “sugei gi” before.

      I find that in a big city, there are so many foreigners that most people don’t pay any attention. And it can’t be my height, because a lot of people are taller than me. Where did you go in Japan?

      • S Fraser

        I lived at Yamanakako for a while, it was near there in Fujiyoshima that we encountered the delight of being insulted. I hadn’t heard it before either but it was a friend who translated for me.
        When I returned recently we visited Kyoto, Tokyo and Yamanakako. My heart will always be out at Mount Fuji but I do love Kyoto, the old and new blended so wonderfully. I want so much to return and take the kids with me to see what a wonderful place it is, note to self – start saving up.

        BTW I am loving seeing what you have been up to and your images are fantastic.

        • Thank you very much for your comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying reading my blog.

          Yamanakako? Wow! That must have been interesting living there, far from any major city. But I can imagine it must be beautiful.

          I’ve been insulted a couple of times. Once with my girlfriend on the Yurikamome line, a couple of about 30 years old spoke in very stupid English in front of us, basically mocking me. Another time was when I was attacked by a drunk guy in Tokyo, and I had to deal with racist BS. Not pleasant at all. But this is quite rare.

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