Monday, September 26, 2005

Introductions (and digressions)

The longer I keep this blog, the greater the chance that someone I work with will read it. It's not really gossip when the people I'm talking to don't know the people I'm talking about, but where those two groups converge, I have to be more careful. Additionally, when the latter group's native language is different from my own, unintentional offense may result, and I would be at a disadvantage to defend myself, because my Japanese sucks.

Since I really don't feel like dealing with those sorts of problems, I've decided to create nicknames for many of the people I write about. Of course any of these people, if they were to read something I wrote about them, would recognize themselves easily, and maybe some friends and co-workers would recognize them, too. But since I'm not printing lies, I'm not as concerned that they might know what I write about them as I am that they might think just anybody on the planet can learn about their personal lives.

And in case anyone is wondering if I'm just stealing an idea from Azrael... yeah, I am. That doesn't mean it's not a good one.

Today I will introduce Kool-Aid Man. Kool-Aid Man is one of the gym teachers at Yokota JHS, and his desk is next to mine. He gets this nickname for often answering, "Oh, yes!" to my questions. Not quite what the real Kool-Aid Man would say, but his enthusiasm is about right.
"Kool-Aid Man, does this kanji mean 'summer'?"
"Oh, yes!"

At the enkai in July to mark the end of the first trimester, Kool-Aid Man and my JTE and I were having a conversation, and while listening to my JTE I ate a bit of what was left on my plate with my chopsticks. Kool-Aid Man saw this and said, "Oh, Emily, chopsticks, very good!"
I rolled my eyes. "Mainichi! Kyuushoku! I've eaten lunch next to you every day for one year! OF COURSE I can use chopsticks!!"

I mentioned this to some of the new Unnan City JETs shortly after they arrived last month. Kool-Aid Man got a lot of sympathy: "Well, that's how Japanese people break the ice. They find something they can compliment you on. He was just trying to start a conversation." Ordinarily, they'd have been right. I've lost count of the number of times I've been complimented on my chopstick skills, and usually reply to such praise with a simple "Domo."
But Kool-Aid Man has no excuse, because:
  1. He's a charismatic, outgoing guy who doesn't need to resort to petty compliments to get a conversation going.
  2. He's known me for a year.
  3. We were already in the middle of a conversation.
Even though I try to be polite when other people comment on my chopstick use, it really annoys me, and my annoyance is caused by more than just the mild boredom I suffer when I'm asked the same question for the 50th time. I wasn't able to fully articulate what annoyed me about it until it came up in one of the new JHS English textbooks. I read through all of the new English textbooks approved by the national education bureau before our prefecture decided on which one they wanted to use. The Sunshine textbook series won't be used in my schools (my JTE told me a few days ago that the prefecture will continue with the New Horizon books—uff), but I almost wish it had been chosen, just so I could address this chopstick issue. In the third-year book one of the characters, a Western girl living in Japan, tells her Japanese friend that some of the things Japanese people tell her are bothersome. The first is about talking with older people, who tend to ask her where she's going and what she's up to when they see her out and about. She says that questions like that are considered rude in her home country. The second is about the chopstick comments. It bothers her that people always ask her if she can use chopsticks, and marvel when they see that she can. Japanese Friend doesn't quite know how to respond to this, but later writes Western Girl a letter to explain what she thinks. And what she thinks is basically that Western Girl should just learn to live with these things. Then we see Western Girl looking withdrawn and sad while her parents comment to each other that she seems to be depressed, and that they hope she gets over it soon.

To Western Girl's first complaint, I agree, "Just get used to it" is probably the best response. Whether old people are nosy is another topic of discussion, but if they are, they are nosy about everyone.
But the more I thought about Western Girl's second complaint, the more I thought the publishing company had missed an enormous opportunity to teach students about relating to foreigners. Japanese Friend's complacency ignores what real Japanese people can do to prevent this problem.
I mean, think about it: when was the last time you complimented someone on their ability to use a knife and fork? If you can think of any time at all when you did this, it was probably a compliment offered to someone very young, probably about two or three years old. Two- and three-year olds in Japan can use chopsticks easily. Granted, it is a tricky business to learn how to use them, but it doesn't take a very long time; Mabel even found, when she first arrived in Japan, that the hungrier she was, the better she could control her chopsticks.

Japanese people also never ask each other if they can use chopsticks, and I am highly aware that they ask me only because I'm foreign. Many questions, of course, fall into the category of Things One Only Asks of Foreign People, like, "Are you from America?" and, "Do you speak Japanese?" While these two are fair (if oft heard) questions, it seems clear to me that any foreigner who has lived in Japan for more than a month probably knows how to use chopsticks, and so I think that this would be clear to any Japanese person, as well; what remains of this question, then, is the distinction between the one asking the question and the one answering it.
It reminds me of a young woman from Africa I met a few years ago—I confess to having forgotten what country she was from. She told me that when she first came to the U.S. she stayed with a host family for a time. Her host mother gave her a tour of the house, showed her where the bathroom was, and then asked if she knew how to use the toilet. In fact, I don't think she even asked; she just launched into an explanation of how to use the contraption. The young woman, of course, was deeply offended. In comparison, being asked about chopsticks is pretty mild, but the idea is the same. "You are foreign, so you do not know our ways."

I would have liked to have offered the following flowchart to use before asking foreigners if they can use chopsticks:
  1. Has this person lived in Japan for more than one month?
    • Yes: STOP. This person can use chopsticks.
    • No: Go to the next question.
  2. Are you dining with this person now and are they using chopsticks?
    • Yes: STOP. This person can use chopsticks.
    • No: Go to the next question.
  3. Have you ever dined with this person, and did they use chopsticks then?
    • Yes: STOP. This person can use chopsticks.
    • No: Ask at your own risk.
It's a somewhat sarcastic flowchart and I wouldn't actually give it to my students, but I would definitely tell them to consider the first point. (Points two and three sound more sarcastic than they really are: I've had friends tell me they've been asked if they could use chopsticks while they were using chopsticks.)

In summary: Chopstick comments make me feel infantile, and I never like to feel infantile. Chopstick comments make me feel foreign, and being foreign gets old really fast. The overall effect is like my freshman year of college—living at home, not knowing anybody. Freshman year sucked.
I would keep this rant to myself and avoid offending Japanese friends, but I am not the only person who feels this way. If there was just one bit of advice I could get to stick in my students' heads, it would be, "Foreigners are not strange and mysterious creatures; don't treat us like we are."
Interestingly, though, I can't recall any student ever commenting on my chopstick use; I've just had teachers say to some kids, "Hey, look, Emily-sensei is really good at using chopsticks, huh?" So maybe things are getting better.

But where was I? Ah, Kool-Aid Man. So the chopstick comment is the only strike against him; on the whole he's one of my favorite teachers. He doesn't mind when I bug him every so often to pronounce some kanji a student has written in an English assignment so I can look it up in my dictionary. And he pays (the right kind of) attention to me during enkais—a favor that goes a long way in my book.


Heidi said...

Wow. That was a well-written complaint! And one I hadn't considered.

I was also struck by your use of "Emily-sensei." I'm so used to it in a martial art environment. And specifically, lately we're being encouraged/admonished to not use First name-sensei, but Family name-sensei. So seeing that you're Emily-sensei, what do those with more authority than you go by? Is the first name common for young people maybe?

Emily Watkins said...

It was the same for me, too: when I first came here all I could think of was martial arts instructors when I heard "sensei." Now I pretty much just think of school teachers. I think, strictly speaking, if you say, "My dad is a sensei," that means your dad's a school teacher; but using sensei as a name the way we use "sir" or "ma'am," or as a title the way we use Mr. or Ms. can be applied to a variety of professions. I know it works for doctors, and I heard a friend of mine call a grocer "Sensei" to get his attention, and the grocer responded immediately, so I guess that must've been the right title, too.

The teachers I work with all go by Family name-sensei, whether being addressed by students or other teachers. The exception is with a couple of pairs of teachers at one of my schools that have the same family name (two W-senseis and two K-senseis); in those cases, sometimes other teachers will refer to them as First name-sensei. One of W-senseis is my JTE, and my other JTE acknowledged that it sounds as awkward as calling someone Ms. Emily does, but there's no other way to succinctly disambiguate the names. I still call my JTE W-sensei, and since I rarely address the music teacher, I guess he's just gotten used to it.

In retrospect, I think I might have asked to be called Watkins-sensei, but the nature of my job being what it is, the extra respect it implies is unnecessary. If I ever became a real teacher in Japan, I would probably insist on it. Most Japanese know that most Westerners prefer to be addressed by our given names, and we tend to introduce ourselves this way. They tack on "sensei" or "san" to the end of our given names to give us the same respect they would give a Japanese person. The combination is a bit strange, but I've gotten used to it. (In truth, what I had to get used to was the fact that the combination is strange.) The kids, when they learn English titles, will tend to call me Ms. Emily. One of my JTEs told the kids that it sounds awkward, and they should just call me Emily without the English title. I thanked her for this, one, because it really does sound awkward (I have some very young friends who call me Miss Emily because their parents want them to use a title, but that's about it), and two, because she reminded the kids that Emily is my given name; I think a lot of my students have forgotten/never knew this.