The Importance of Chopsticks

If you’ve had any interest in Japanese culture via exported anime Americanized into your favorite childhood memories or by other means, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Gaijin Smash’ in some context. So, for reference, let’s talk about this phenomenon. 

If you’ve had any interest in Japanese culture via exported anime Americanized into your favorite childhood memories or by other means, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Gaijin Smash’ in some context. So, for reference, let’s talk about this phenomenon.

A 外人 or gaijin, is a foreigner to the Japanese. The kanji is a literal combination of ‘soto’ (外) in romanji or outside and ‘hito’ (人) or person when translated into English.  There is a P.C. term for this word that is learned in most formal classes, which is gaikokujin – 外国人- or foreigner. In spoken Japanese, this simply adds the counter for person. The literal kanji reading however, changes to outside country person.

Why is this important? Honestly, on the surface it’s not – it is simply semantics. When we dig deeper however, it is a pretext for one’s journey of delving into Japanese culture in an attempt to assimilate.  Unless you are a Japanese living in Japan – you will never be Japanese. I have even heard whispers of Japanese leaving Japan to go abroad and upon returning home experiencing considerable cultural shock. Mannerisms shift, polished nuances like the back of your hand are suddenly gone – a feeling of being alien in your own world. For the visiting American going to Japan, knowledge necessary to abide by Japanese social norms is not expected. This leads to a ‘Gaijin Smash’ of the rules; you are not expected to act as a Japanese person would. Sometimes that can be endearing and even refreshing in favor of cultural exchanges.

Working at a Japanese cultural center, I was surrounded by American co-workers with so much more tangible ‘experience’ with the country. Japanese majors who had studied abroad, JET Programme alumni who had lived in small rural villages where the thick, old world vibe of eras past was strong; co-workers completely fluent in the language and customs. In comparison, I was quite the odd-ball. I vividly remember one of my first weeks on the job being asked:

“So, what is your connection to Japan? We all have one working here”

I staggered. How could I say it came out of re-discovering anime that I thought were American cartoons while watching Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late at night in middle school? Graduating from ‘dubs’ to ‘subs’ when getting my first computer at sixteen? Countless hours spent on the floor of my local Barnes & Noble with friends reading Japanese language books and English translated manga? Watching as much admittedly illegal – Crunchyroll wasn’t even legit during that time and fan sub teams ruled the landscape of the early internet – anime, J-drama and Japanese films for cultural context? Trying to learn hiragana and katakana by pausing the ‘流れ星’ – Home Made Kazuko’s – “Shooting Star” Naruto Shippuden season 1 ending to write the sing along characters on flash cards to study continuously? Watching raws of episodes in terrible 240p quality and refreshing the link hours later hoping it was subbed and not taken down for copyright infringement? Listening to J-rock bands over and over trying to make even one word stand out in my mind so I could automatically translate it and to pretend to sing along? Making translation notes in antiquated cultural and custom books? Gravitating toward anything Japanese at NYCC and even laminating a travel map I received at a tourism booth to hang up in my computer room to glance at for times when I felt particularly hopeless in my studies? How could I encapsulate a ten plus year passion ignited within half madness into a few spoken sentences that wouldn’t make me sound like a complete loser?

“Oh haha, I’ve always just been really into the culture ya’know?”

Clearly she did not know.

I received a mildly bewildered and disapproving look from the former JET who had been with the company around three years.

I kept telling myself that I would not tell anyone how I arrived to the destination I was at – the journey truly embarrassed me. Sometimes people who enjoy Japanese subculture are looked down upon, and the ‘weeaboos’ and ‘American otaku’ of the world do not help this. With this in mind, I was determined to show everyone just how much I knew about Japanese culture; what I had learned from what I believed to be looked down upon media. Something that for years was my own treasure trove of solace that helped form the world I’ve build for myself today; my reality.

If you were wondering, I did give her a proper answer months later during a job interview for her position. I didn’t get it, but it felt good to set that disapproving look straight in my mind’s eye.

I believe my work ethic changed many people’s minds about the initial impression I seemed to give off. I am a woman of color with natural hair who had no access to any facets of Japanese culture outside of the digital and literary world. Why would I know in the local Japanese groceries to hand money (or any object really in a multitude of situations) with two hands “the Japanese way” instead of throwing the money down with one hand as is unfortunately the American way? Regarding this practice at work, that had always received mixed responses.

From other gaijin, the response garnered a knowing smile and sparked deep conversation of how they had lived in Japan or studied there and warm feelings of that life experience. Others would bow back and say a quick ありがとうございます before continuing the interaction in an American manner. In an American manner being to remain in American contexts. This is a counter to a Japanese interaction that could include a polite bow the length of a simple head nod or simply acknowledging the sign of respect and continuing the interaction how they would with a Japanese person. It’s a very strange phenomenon to try and explain on paper when I cannot clearly articulate the exact implicit differences in these interactions.

Others (usually Japanese) would exclaim “the Japanese way!” with a beaming pride. Pride for me? Of course not. Pride that I had knowledge of this social nuance and it reminded them of home? Most likely.

Others however, would suddenly act as if I had shown them the road to El Dorado on Google Maps. “How did you know to do that? Were you taught that as part of your training? It’s great that they taught you that!” were some of the dismissive things I heard. Again, why would a person of color know anything about Japanese culture despite working at a Japanese cultural center? For the most part I did not have to deal with many of those types of people for extended periods of time, and for that I was grateful.

The correct amount of times to bow and名刺交換meishi koukan etiquette were things I also thankfully had knowledge of.  From film and anime I learned the ideal angle to bend when bowing and when stuck in an ‘infinite bowing politeness loop’ to bow up as to not inconvenience the other person. If I kept bowing deeper that meant the other person would have to return that bow out of social obligation and for fear of losing face. The biggest thing I think I’ve learned working around Japanese is just how easy it is to accidentally slight someone and cause them to lose face from a simple misunderstanding. I won’t go into the details, but one of my first days at the company a misunderstanding caused one employee to write up an incident report to another Japanese company, apologize, and caused the employee to literally not talk to me for months.

Although I knew I could have Gaijin Smashed my way through that situation, after seeing the fallout I decided to try my hardest to assimilate to the thick Japanese work culture. I mentioned the American portion of my co-workers had tangible experience with Japan, but the other half was mainly Japanese people from Japan with a few Chinese people sprinkled in for good measure.  If there was a delivery from a sake company or a Japanese guest for one of the cultural center’s many departments I made sure to address the guest by their last name if that was the name given and if handed a business card I tried my best at emulating meishi koukan I’d seen in media. Meishi koukan can be translated as Japanese business card etiquette. It boils down to accepting the business card with both hands, studying it front and back for a good amount of time, and then placing it in front of you or in view of the other person. Only when that person leaves would you put it away, as to not offend. In the same vein, whenever the administrative assistant received paper deliveries she never put the papers away in the closet until the delivery man left as to not offend. Putting those newspapers away would signal that they were worthless and not deserving of being out on display. In an American context, that sounds silly. In a Japanese context, it is a courtesy to save face and be considerate of the delivery man.

When at my work station, I tried my very best to assimilate culturally. In the kitchen break room however, this slightly slipped whenever chopsticks were involved.  Forget to bring plastic utensils and can’t grab freebies from a store on the way to work without reproach? There were the traditional Western metal utensils to wash, but being the germophobe I am I always went for the plentiful wooden chopsticks. Were they cheaply made? Absolutely. Did they get the job done? Absolutely. Did I know how to use them? Absolutely not.

Honestly, chopsticks had always been the absolute bane of my existence. I remember my parents bringing Chinese food from a few towns over home and I would always dig into our utensil drawer and fish out a pair of antiquated wooden pillars with writing unbeknownst to me. I used what I referred to in my head as the scissor method – both sticks together side by side in a queer position using a peddling method with my fingers which hardly yielded any rice. After a few attempts the hunger would always get to me and I would grab a spoon in defeat and lovingly lay the chopsticks in the sink for washing later. I made the mistake of bringing this mentality to work.

Often there would be food leftover from events, or co-workers would bring back omiyage in the form of finger snacks. A couple of months in, there was Americanized Chinese food left over from an earlier event. It was myself, one of the maintenance staff and my Chinese department head in the kitchen grabbing food. I thought I could Gaijin Smash my way through the meal without reproach.

I was wrong.

I got what many would refer to as the subtle ‘glance of disapproval’ from the department head. I ignored it, surely it didn’t matter if I couldn’t use chopsticks correctly, right?

Wrong.

Feeling self-conscious with glances that suggested I should have known better, I noticed the maintenance staff member holding the chopsticks correctly. I put my head down and when they both left used the bastardized scissor method best I could and finished what was on my plate. Did I go home and try to learn the correct method of holding chopsticks?

A fool, I continued to tread down a dark and dangerous path.

The chopsticks came back to haunt me months later during a language class I attended.

The sensei had always treated me like a co-worker, as she did a Chinese girl who volunteered in the language center after her internship ended. Interns were generally truly part of the company environment and were treated as actualized employees. I know many companies boast that their interns receive the full employment experience but they are lying – interns there were valuable members of the company.

I was always greeted warmly by this sensei. Many cultural points we covered in class it was assumed I had some knowledge of, and I was even told お疲れ様 which can translate to “thank you for all of your hard work today!” in English. From an American lens, this means absolutely nothing. When looking at the Japanese cultural context and thinking of the rigid social hierarchy and system of honorifics, it was an amazingly welcome gesture. I’d only ever heard this spoken from one Japanese co-worker to another, and honestly I was very touched the first time it was said to me.

I felt so included.

Overall, I did not feel like a complete gaijin working for the company when I tried my best to weave and bob through the social nuances and unspoken methods of saving face. All those years of anime had paid off, as cheesy as that sounds to write or even to read for you out there. ☺

At the end of semester party, we were each asked beforehand to bring snacks to eat during that day’s lesson. I choose to bring senbei, or Japanese rice crackers. I first tried senbei years prior when I brought my mom with me to a conversation cafe at a prominent Japanese organization that offered language classes. It was an acquired taste and I had picked up an affinity toward the cheap and plentiful varieties offered at the local Japanese grocer in proximity to my job. Of course, I was the only American who brought something super un-American to the palate. My Chinese friend who worked at the center brought lychee fruit gummy candies. It was the second ‘exotic’ food at this gathering that included vegan American sushi. The vegan sushi had two different types, the hypnotic purple colored one proving to soon be my undoing.

Glancing around with subdued hawkish tenor, I observed that many of my American classmates also had not mastered the use of chopsticks.

I foolishly thought I was in the clear.

During a break in lecture we all assembled around the table to grab from our combined store-brought bounty. I watched one classmate fumble for almost two minutes (I slyly glanced up at the clock) when trying to obtain one of the vegan sushi rolls. It was my turn, and using the scissor method, I smugly tried to grab one piece.

It failed.

It was a lot thinner than it looked, and I didn’t want to break the piece in the process of trying to bring it to my plate. I struggled and this had caught the attention of my Japanese teacher. As I valiantly persevered, I heard the words spoken that would bring me to shame:

“シャノンーさん、だいじょうぶですか“

Translated from Japanese to English, this means “Shannon, are you alright?” to which I replied yes I am.

“はい、だいじょうぶです。すみません。”

From a Japanese cultural context to English, I interpreted this exchange as “Shannon, I see you are struggling trying to grab the sushi with your chopsticks. Is there something preventing you from completing this task?”

I was embarrassed.

My inability to use chopsticks caused me to lose face, and inconvenienced my sensei to the point that she asked if I was alright. I thought I could employ the Gaijin Smash amongst Americans that had no knowledge that I worked at the cultural center, but soon realized that I could not have it both ways.

I could not just turn off my brain to cultural nuances I had knowledge of when there were people in the room who knew I knew better. For the remainder of the class my Chinese friend barely spoke to me and the sensei did not call on me as much.

For those of you wondering what was so bad about being asked if I was alright when I was clearly struggling, I will try to explain it.

One, no one else in class was held to this standard or essentially called out for their inability to use chopsticks. They are Americans taking a Japanese course. I was an American employed at a Japanese cultural center who had demonstrated knowledge of cultural customs consistently.

Two, だいじょうぶ is often a word I associated with feelings or social situations.

Ex: “先生、宿題を忘れって。すみませんでした。”

“だいじょうぶです。”

These rough sentences translate to something along the lines of:

“Sensei, I forgot to bring in my homework. I am sorry.”

“It is alright.”

In this format, it is fine. It is referring to an action. Now in the situation I described earlier, a verb like 出来る which denotes the ability to complete a task or knowledge of a skill could have been used.

Or hell, maybe I overthought the entire situation and it really was just a genuine question of concern over not being able to pick up a slice of purple vegan sushi with cheap wooden chopsticks.

 

That night, I went home and literally Googled how to use chopsticks. I came across a video on RocketNews24 in 360p that demonstrated the agreed upon correct way to use chopsticks in Japan. I practiced with those old wooden Chinese chopsticks in my utensil drawer at home until my hand was sore.

Next event involving food at work, I showed off my skills gingerly. I sat up straight and tried to emulate a swan, graceful in my movements and daintily clumping sticky rice into balls to plop into my mouth.

Once I was alone, I placed my chopsticks down to give my hand a rest. For some reason, my American hands were determined to resist the proper way. For the remainder of my time at the company, I never received another disapproving glance when using chopsticks. My usage no longer set off internal radars that boiled over to subdued glances of inner fury.

Japanese language and culture relies heavily on context and nonverbal cues. I’ve also heard that this is true for other East Asian cultures but I do not have first-hand experiences to speak upon that prevalent belief.

So, what was the point of this self-deprecating retelling of a cultural mishap in relation to the Gaijin Smash I wrote of earlier?

I mean it to be a cautionary tale.

Wry tone aside, if you do ever travel to Japan, or any country foreign to your own – it is best to try to learn a bit of the local customs. It will go a long way, even if you don’t think it will.

In my case of working at a cultural center, the Gaijin Smash stopped being an option long ago.

I’ve noticed that when you truly immerse yourself in a culture, you will try your best to not offend and assimilate. This is common knowledge, yes, but it was not common knowledge to me in regards to how I was already perceived by my co-workers. I was perceived to essentially know better than to feign ignorance in something so basic in most Pan-Asian cultures.

I was perceived as someone who tried their best at having social fluency in Japanese culture and lost face by having no knowledge of how to fundamentally break bread.

If I went to Japan tomorrow and ordered a bowl of ramen, would I be looked down upon if I misused my chopsticks and did not slurp loudly to show my appreciation for the food in front of me?

Probably not, I am just another tourist gaijin.

Gaijin smash rules would be in effect.

If there was ramen brought to the workplace, would I find my co-workers slurping loudly? Probably not, no. At least not in my presence. That is not American culture, but properly holding chopsticks would be a must. It is that simple dichotomy that taught me the difference between when and where not to try to employ Gaijin Smash while at the cultural center.

It taught me the importance of self-examination and questioned my own sense of cultural integrity – a lesson I will not soon forget.

 

 

 

Author: In Asian Spaces

I write in my personal time and I haven't published much at all. I don't know if that qualifies me as a writer or not, but I'd like to change that. I have a deep passion for travel, cinema and (mainly) East Asian things, but I plan on writing various things to keep it spicy. Let's prosper together ~ よろしくおねがいします。

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