Monday, December 18, 2006

Yes, I can use chopsticks

One thing I hear a bunch of people who first come to Japan saying is that in the beginning, meeting people in Japan can often be a rather arduous ordeal of monotony. Really if you think about it though, I think the same can be said of other groups as well, albeit it usually to a lesser extent. Really the biggest difference is the type of questions you get asked over. And over. And over. And... yeah. Basically what this means is that if you don't actively do everything in your power to come up with something interesting to say then things are going to devolve into the same old boring interview session that happens when you first meet people. I loathe this with a passion and will resort to making totally random observations or asking absurdly unrelated questions about whatever my mind happens to drift to at that moment.

As an example of what I'm talking about on the non-Japanese monotony tip, when I first came to Japan this time around I was in a convention center with a couple thousand people in similar situations to me - just got a job somewhere in Japan through the same organization doing one of two main jobs: ALT or CIR. So usually, meeting people meant answering many times over where you were from, where your placement was, where you had been in Japan before, what job you were doing back home, etc. In contrast, I asked people to pick between pirates and ninjas, and asked them if they could think of one situation that wouldn't be funnier with a monkey involved. And that's right off the bat too - I'm talking sometimes even before I asked what their name was - just to avoid the inevitable onslaught of loathsome queries.

So with Japanese people it's the same inquisition, just with a different set of questions/ observations. "Where are you from?" "How long have you been in Japan? Oh, only xxx? Then how'd you get so good at Japanese? You must be a genius!" "Can you eat sushi?" "You're really good with chopsticks!" Sigh. I guess to them this is original conversation... but I've answered all these questions so many times that I don't even have to think to spout out the answers at the speed of light. I could understand the lack of variety if we were speaking in English and the language was becoming a barrier, but I'm talking in Japanese the whole time with these people. It usually gets even more tedious when they speak English. The thing is though that like I said, you really can't leave the conversation up to people or this is exactly where it's headed oft times. You have to take the conversation into your own hands, or else you wind up riding the wave wherever it may take you. With most people you'll usually have a few of these questions until you fall onto something you both have in common and can go off on tangents with, but with such stagnant topics as my Japanese and my l33t chopstick skillz they don't really give me much to work with.

I guess the other big difference is that the Japanese questions are sort of pandering - they seemed amazed that you can do the most mundane of tasks. I can eat fish - wow, amazing! I mean seriously, how would you survive living in Japan for more than a week or 2 without using chopsticks? There are some restaurants here that don't even have forks and knives - what would you do? Sometimes I give people totally off-the-wall responses, like telling them I was raised by a caravan of nomad Chinese acrobats and thus was also trained in the mystic ways of the stick. Some people get the joke, some don't. Either way I've amused myself and thus my mission is complete.

The other day at the bonenkai (year end party) the new head of the restaurant here at work came up to me and started giving me book recommendations since he saw me reading a book in Japanese at the restaurant the day before. It was great - after that we talked about snowboarding and other stuff we had in common... it was just a normal conversation, and it was wonderful. It just takes time to meet cool people like that - you have to sludge through all the people too amazed at your existence to sit down and have a normal conversation to get to them though. I really am resigned to the fact that these kinds of questions usually are inevitable around here - it's just all about how you deal with them, and more importantly how you avoid them. There are some people that are pretty fun once you get them past all that, but when non-Asians make up around 0.5% of the population you have to expect that the vast majority of people have never really sat down and gotten to know one well enough to know how rediculous some of the things that tv feeds them about us really are. And that, my friends, is why they pay me - to break up their silly little notions and make them think a little (about pirates, ninjas, monkeys, and nomadic Chinese circus performers).

1 comment:

Mike said...

*sigh* I know EXACTLY what you mean. It was pretty bad in Japan from what I remember, especially the "OMGFMC, you can speak Japanese!!!" comments.
It's actually decidedly worse in Korea on that tip though. At least you will sometimes meet Japanese people who don't faun over the fact you can speak their language and you dont have to spend the first 40 minutes going through the "routine" questions. I have yet to have an experience like that here and I've been here for 2 1/2 years. Plus, if they find out I speak Japanese too, shit hits the fan. I've actually had Korean people become devoid of thought for up to 30 minutes because of that one. Like it is completely impossible for a person from America to speak both Japanese and Korean...completely unfathomable.
I love your approach though, especially the monkey question. What normally happens when they try to go through the routine questions I just make up the most outlandish answers I possibly can. For instance:

"Where did you learn Korean?"

"I didn't I'm speaking in Sanskrit, you must have been fluent and never knew it."

I've never been able to be the asshole straight from the get go but my friend here never had a problem with it. I'll end this with one of his classics.


"Oh..My..GOD!! He said fucking Hello! Your English is FLUENT. I can't believe I've met the biggest genius in the entire fucking country. Your English is the shit man we need to hang out and rape my sister together...etc."