Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ohashi Jouzu/Good with Chopsticks

I went to Chiyokawa Elementary School today. Until the new ALT comes Kim-Chi and I are splitting Paulette's old schools; it's only one visit per school, two for a junior high, and then the new ALT will take over whenever s/he arrives. The good thing about Chiyokawa is that it was one of my schools when I first arrived; I "lost" it to Paulette when we were switched around. I knew some of the staff already, and some of the sixth graders I taught recognized me. Good start.

When lunchtime came around I ate in the staff room, which smelled like Pitch Lake (T-dad shout out, holla) a.k.a. old egg. The principal was helping to set food on staff members' desks, and when he was distributing chopsticks he dropped the question most likely to irritate foreigners.

As he placed the chopsticks on my bowl of rice, he asked, "Ohashi daijobu desu ka?" (Chopsticks okay is it?/Can you use chopsticks?)

I nodded and laughed a little. This from a man who knew me when I wouldn't have even understood that question. "N, daijobu desu yo." (Yeah, they're fine.)

"Eh, Japanese ohashi? Okay?" Now he was just being a little silly, trying to use what English he knew and make the other staff laugh.

"Okay," I said, nodding vigorously while debating whether or not to try saying something about having figured chopsticks out two weeks after arriving. I opted not to.

On a bad day this might have made me angry. I've been here for two years, and you think I might not be able to use chopsticks? Do you think I'm completely inept? I will cut you. However, remembering back to when I first came, I didn't know how to use chopsticks. Having inadvertently stabbed my right thumb with an Epipen complicated the situation, but I do remember dropping things a lot. Even after I learned how to hold them I often looked at something I was supposed to eat with chopsticks and thought, You people are nuts. Foods like slippery things and large pieces of fish, for example, or all noodles. Now that thought only applies to cake and corn on the cob (and there's almost always a fork with cake, anyway).

I concluded that I appreciated the principal's thoughtfulness. He chose not to assume that I was ultra-skilled with the two pointy sticks. Japanese courtesy is all about anticipating a guest's needs; it would have been much embarrassing for the both of us if I'd had to ask for a different utensil. That would have resulted in a flurry of get the ALT a fork, get her a fork! instead of a casual request to the kitchen lady. It's a little like asking dinner guests if they prefer a plate or bowl for their salads. Far less awkward to be asked and to chose, than to be the barbarian pushing vinaigrette-soaked lettuce onto her fork with her finger.
This was my breakfast today. The yogurt says "It's irresistible I just can't help it."

That wasn't the end of it. Before lunchtime was over I got the other ire-raiser from the groundskeeper. He and a couple of other teacher were seated at the end of a long row of desks, his being the closest to the cart where we were to put our dirty dishes. Even that thirty seconds of silence while I got up, walked down the aisle, and reached the cart were awkward. I needed to say something, anything, that would be relevant. I was being watched (I was the only thing moving. It was understandable). The three teachers seemed to be struggling just as hard to think of a lighthearted comment that I could understand.

I tried first. "Oishikatta desu," I said, smiling. (That was delicious.) It was an overstatement, but I didn't know how to call the meal "satisfying." Five more steps until I reached the cart. I gave a contented sigh. "Ippai desu yo." (I sure am full.) Was I being too casual? Was that considered too much information in Japanese? This was turning into an ordeal.

The three staff smiled at me. I reached the cart and stacked my bowls and plate.

The groundskeeper recovered. "Ohashi sugoku jouzu desu ne," he said seriously. (You're awfully good with chopsticks.)

Here's the deal: to most foreigners, having one's chopstick skills complimented can often come across as extremely patronizing. After all, no one says, "Hey, Japanese person, good job with that knife and fork. Really super." When I was reading up on this country in the summer of '08 I ran across this very phrase a lot. Ohashi [ga] jouzu desu ne. One article claimed that it was because Japanese people think that no one outside of Asia can use chopsticks. They might compliment you, but it's because in their minds a non-Asian foreigner using chopsticks is like a horse that can count—just a neat trick. Many expats found this to be one of the most irritating parts of meeting people, because no matter how long they'd lived in Japan they'd still be complimented on their chopstick skills.

After a quick search I found this online:
This reminded me of my second biggest annoyance: chopsticks.
PROBLEM: It doesn't matter if you've been eating Chinese takeout with wooden chopsticks since you were four. It doesn't matter if you've been eating with chopsticks for years. If a Japanese person sees you pick anything up with chopsticks and not drop it, you're in for: "Aa! Ohashi ga dekimasu ne!" or, "Aa! Ohashi ga jouzu desu ne!"What this means:

  1. I thought foreigners only ate with forks and spoons!
  2. Nice weather we're having, don't you think?
  3. Wow! You didn't drop what you were eating! Takashi and I were in the corner laying bets.
How to respond (depending on how polite you want to be and degrading to how sick you are of hearing this):
  1. Ie, ie, sonna koto wa nain desu yo! [Or other somesuch denial--the degree of self-deprecating humbleness is up to you.] Laurel's note: it literally means "No, no, that thing is not!" but in this case is more like an "Aw, shucks. That ain't true."
  2. Aa, domo. [Thanks.]
  3. Anata mo jouzu desu ne. [You too.]
  4. Yahari dekinakattara tabenai deshoo! [If I couldn't, I wouldn't eat, right?]
  5. Ara. (Said as you drop whatever you were holding with chopsticks into the speaker's lap.) Laurel's note: "Ara" is kind of an old lady-ish way to say both "oh my" and "oops!"
  6. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!! [Said before you either run from the room or fling your hot tea at the speaker.
In retrospect, I wish I'd laughed a little more.

It's from a little something called "Coping With Being Jouzu ("Skillful")" by one Wendy Dinsmore, who doesn't know I'm quoting her. It's pretty much at the center of the bell curve about how most people I've talked to feel about the subject.
I'l give you four guesses as to what this is.  People who know, no spoilers.

Rather than choose any of the above reactions I opted to tell the truth. I responded in Japanese, "Really? Two years…uh…ago, all bad. [made chopstick hand motions] Now, somehow I do." The staff chuckled, I felt pleased as saying something amusing or at least interesting, and I went to wash my hands. All happy.

Sure, I could have been insulted, or said something sarcastic like, "I'm pretty good with knife and fork, too." That woulda shown him, right? But I haven't been using chopsticks since I was weaned from the bosom. I don't know the ins and outs of Japanese table manners like I do American. If the groundskeeper thinks I'm good with chopsticks and says so without an ounce of insincerity, without even a smile, then I take it that I'm not doing anything off-putting or offensive.

In reality my chopstick skills were as much in question as the weather. Who says, "Hot, isn't it?" and expects a shocked reaction? omg. hot, in september? is *that* why im sweating? i srsly had no idea. It's like telling any NBA player except for Muggsy Bogues, "Wow, you're tall," or telling me I'm short. We know how tall we are in relation to other people. We know it's hot. And I knew I was skilled with the chopsticks. Comments like ohashi [ga] jouzu desu ne can get old, but they are a conversation starter.

These thoughts and getting out of bed are just a couple of things I did today with the help of God's grace. So the next time I get irritated with a jouzu comment, feel free to remind me of this post.

1 comment:

  1. I may not remind you of this post, but I'll remind you of my fist in your face. SIKE!