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Case of Chopsticks

My fellow Japanese are chopstick elitists. A British friend of mine, then a JET, was attending an ‘international’ school lunch with primary school pupils and their headmistress. During the lunch, the headmistress saw my friend using chopsticks, and after commenting three times in five minutes on her excellent handling, turned to the pupils and said, “Everyone, look how she uses chopsticks. Even foreigners can use chopsticks!”

Such Japanese as the headmistress assume you mostly eat Western food, because they’re muddled about the distinction between traditional food and popular food. Very often, people who have never been abroad assume that foreigners stick exclusively to traditional Western fodder and always use a knife and fork.

I recommend you remind these Japanese that your food culture doesn’t restrict your diet. You can ease off your sarcasm by adding a comment about tradition. In response to their chopstick harassment, it’s all right to ask: “Can you use a knife and fork?” (naifu to foku ga tsukae-masu ka?) If they look peeved, you can ask: “We don’t always eat traditional food—how about the Japanese?” (watashi-tachi wa itsumo dento-ryori bakari tabete wa imasen ga—nihon-jin wa do desu ka?) If you say, “Yes, of course. Otherwise I would have starved to death long ago” (ee, mochiron. so de nakattara tokkuni uejini-shite-imasu yo), you can add: “There’s cheap and delicious Japanese food everywhere.” (yasuku-te oishii nihon-ryori ga sokoraju ni aru-desho.)

However, if you don’t care about their misconception, you can try the expressions below and appal them. If you asked ‘Can you use a knife and fork?’ to some types of clumsy Japanese, they would respond to you like this.

A young, timid father would immediately glance at his 7-year-old daughter, turn to you and say, “Are these for eating? What? Do you eat with these?” (korega shokuji-yo? ha? kore de taberu no?) and then proceed to stab the food with the knife. He would do anything dodgy to make his daughter laugh. Due to his long working hours, he doesn’t see her much at home, so he worries she won’t like him if he doesn’t impress her. The daughter would later say to her friend, “My dad has no manners.” (uchi no o-to-san wa gyogi ga warui—literally ‘bad manners’)

Some high schools book a hotel room and hold a one-off training programme of table manners for their third-year students. The students are served a five-course meal and are told to eat it properly, following their instructor’s lead. If you asked the knife and fork question to a frightened-looking student at the table, he would smile and then moan, “This could be a problem …” (maitta naa…) to himself, before accidentally sending a piece of food he tried to pick up—and the fork—flying across the room.

A job-hunting university senior (often at a not-so-prestigious school) might actually say, “Do you think I can take the (knife and fork) proficiency test?” (kentei shiken ga uke-rare-masu ka ne?) He would be a qualification collector. Thinking that neither his school’s name nor his work experience would impress corporate people, he would demonstrate his good learning potential by obtaining whatever cheap qualification is at hand. In reality, a lot of fourth-years obtain a teacher’s licence because it seems ‘advantageous in job-hunting’ (shushoku ni yuri) to them.

I always have trouble handling Korean chopsticks. They’re too heavy, too long, and their surface is too smooth. But none of the dozens of Korean people I’ve met asked me if I could handle their chopsticks. After all, we’re the same race, so I should be able to handle them. There’s little you can do about the chopstick harassment—it’s a racial prejudice.

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