Monday, 11 June 2012

Bows and Knives

Naginata club and orphanage visits are the only things I do that take me completely outside of the “school bubble” I generally reside in and let me interact regularly with people who don’t necessarily have university educations or the same specific set of expectations about how “foreigners” behave. Naginata in particular has been a rich site of frustrations and revelations. The J-blogosphere has been all about “micro-aggressions” lately. I’m not going to weigh in on that one because really, there is nothing I can say has not already been said. But the famous example (being asked over and over “can you use chopsticks?” and/or being complimented on one’s chopstick wielding) does bring to mind a surprising conversation I had at a party my Naginata club held last winter. 

We held the party at a Tex-Mex restaurant owned by a friend of mine who had recently joined the club. It was a very exciting experience for some of the older members of my club (which includes an octogenarian), who had never tried any food like it before. As I began eating my burrito, the lady sitting beside me exclaimed that I was really good at using a knife and fork. I was thrown for a minute… I mean, it is crazy that so many Japanese people assume chopsticks are uniquely Japanese and that no-one else can use them, but a KNIFE and FORK?! Then, as the rest of the table chimed in to discuss my prowess with cutlery, I realised that what they meant was actually using a knife and fork simultaneously. In particular they were impressed by the point-down position of my fork. They (and I mean those specific ladies, not all Japanese people) always use a fork to scoop or stab, with the prongs facing up. It was just one unexpected comment, but after that I began to notice how rarely knives are included in the regular cutlery set in the restaurants and cafes I visited. Instead, there is almost always a fork and spoon. The classic snarky response to “you can use chopsticks very well” is “you’re really good with a spoon”. While I would never say this for a number of reasons, not least being that sarcasm doesn’t really translate, my experience with the knife-and-fork conversation made me re-assess my assumptions about what is and is not part of “global” culture.

The second similar experience was when I was packing away some armour I had borrowed. I laid it out and then began to tie the cords away neatly. My teacher went to explain how to tie the cords and then stopped himself, commenting to another student that I was really good at tying bows and didn’t need help. Since I am coming up to my third decade of life, I haven’t been complimented on my bow tying for quite some time. I felt briefly patronised until the other student replied to the teacher “yeah, even children can tie bows overseas, can’t they?” I asked if that wasn’t normal in Japan and they looked shocked at the very idea. I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but almost everyone here wears either slip-on shoes or shoes with zips. The conversation actually turned to the terrible burden business men face of having to wear lace-up shoes and how hard it is for them. In a culture where one changes shoes several times a day, laces make no sense at all; and unless you’re wrapping a gift there aren’t many other occasions when one really needs to tie a bow. 

So there you go, I am now going to add “duel cutlery wielding and bow-tying” to my resume.
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  1. I never thought that these things were uniquely un-Japanese, but it does make some sense... I still get the compliments about my chopstick use here in America. Even my Chinese friends are impressed. I can always say "well, I did live in Japan for a time".
    What I find really interesting is my Asian friends here are truly delighted when they see me using chopsticks well, but the Americans (friends and family) often seem upset, they take me using chopsticks as "showing off"...

  2. Hey you :) That's really surprising, I assumed chopsticks would be common in your area 0.o

  3. Yeah, one would think... but the comments are maybe more prevalent here since the Asian folks are legitimately surprised to see an American use chopsticks, since many cannot. Often when Americans do use them, it is very badly and quite embarrassing...


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