Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Chopstick Ultimatum

This will definitely happen to you at least once in a Japanese shop selling food as long as you look remotely non-Asian, but the frequency at which it occurs will vary depending on your level of Japanese, as well as whether you are dressed like a tourist or someone who might possibly be living in Japan for the medium to long term. Usually they will want to avoid any potential risk of the beginnings of a disastrous English conversation, but the ones with a more courage will pop the big question....


What are you looking at?
Do you want chopsticks?

Bearing in mind that the shop assistant is unlikely to speak fantastic English, you will be amazed the amount of ways in which they can ask a seemingly simple question using the least possible amount of words of any known language. Here are the ones I’ve experienced so far during my time in Japan:

Broken English + eating gesture

Here, they will come out with something like “You… chopstick? Yes?” and then they will proceed to make eating motions holding the chopsticks (luckily they exchanged that pair for a packet that wasn’t soiled with their condensed breath)

Now you see it, now you don’t!

In this case, they will put the chopsticks on the counter, smile and wait for a response, and then hide the chopsticks from view to see how you respond. It makes you feel a bit subhuman for a moment but it’s very entertaining up until it starts to become awkward.

Caesar’s judgement

The shop assistant shows you the chopsticks and then tries to get you to signal your decision via a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

TIP: You can mix things up here by angling your thumb exactly at 180°to really add to the confusion!

In out, in out and shake it all about!

My personal favourite: the shop assistant moves the chopsticks in and out of the plastic bag around four to seven times in order to gauge your interest.

Although I said the question is usually “Do you want chopsticks?” at the start of this post, the real question they are asking (or at least want to ask) is:

Can you use chopsticks?”

I appreciate that there may be a lot of people who go to Japan on holiday or on business who are not really familiar with chopsticks and might prefer some Western cutlery, but for those of us who have been using chopsticks for a while it can become quite tiresome.

I suppose it could be considered part of “Japanese service” but if you are like me and would rather not be asked this question, here are a few tips to make it more obvious that you just might know how to use chopsticks!

#1 – Speak as much Japanese as you can

While this might seem irrelevant at first thought, there is some connection drawn by Japanese people between the level of a foreigner’s Japanese and their ability to use chopsticks. It has happened to my friends and me before so I’m not making this up! If you try your best to speak as much Japanese as you can within the range of the shop clerk’s ears, they might think about twice about popping the big question.

#2 – Don’t dress like a mountain backpacker

If you’ve ever been to Japan (and especially if you live in Japan), you may know that “gaijin” carrying massive rucksacks and wearing big hiking boots can often be seen throughout Japan. While I’m not one to make assumptions, we can be pretty sure that these people are either tourists or are not bothered about looking like tourists.

Not to say that backpackers are weird in any way, but dressing like a normal person will do wonders for your chopstick-question-avoidance-skills and will move you further along in your quest to be treated like a normal person.

#3 – Don’t be a Black, White or Hispanic person

Not being placed into one of these categories will mean you are highly unlikely to be asked about your chopstick preferences. I made lots of friends from places like Thailand and Indonesia who were never asked (although they actually prefer Western cutlery apparently). Nonetheless, being Asian means that the Japanese expect them to be able to use chopsticks. So the lesson there is: don’t be non-Asian!

I don’t like being asked about chopsticks because it’s a bit of a pointless question because they are not going to save their company any money by withdrawing chopsticks from the tiny minority of foreigners who decide to refuse when asked. If they are really so worried about us “gaikokujin” not being able to use chopsticks, they could just put a plastic knife, fork and chopsticks (and a spork for good measure) in the bag together to cover all the bases. It’s probably true that the vast majority of people outside of China and Japan can’t use chopsticks very well, but I would hazard a guess that the ones who come here are a tad more versatile.

[UPDATE]


I just ordered a chicken katsu curry at the internet cafe that I always go to, and they just decided not to give me chopsticks without even asking! Hmph!

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