Tag Archives: gaijin

“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.


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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