I wrote my list of false questions as an outlet for various frustrations that I’ve been mulling over in my post-Bennington life (which, for those of you just joining this blog, I’ve found to be particularly unsympathetic). Before I came to Japan I entertained the idea of convincing the Japanese that all Americans were a pack of Salinger-reading, mix CD-burning, Hawaiian shirt-wearing creative types who shunned traditional symbols of wealth and status; though I quickly found that Japanese people already have predetermined notions about Americans that I will discuss later. Most of their questions, by contrast, are personal ones:
Q: Where are you from?
This is undoubtedly the most common question I am asked, as the Japanese government’s English curriculum appears to progress as follows:
1.)My name is _________.
2.)How are you?/I’m fine, thank you.
3.)Where are you from?
With lower-level students, “America” will usually suffice, though for a long time I was unsure of how to handle a more specific answer since New Hampshire is not exactly given to international recognition. I used to say “Boston,” which everyone in Japan knows (katakana: Bo-su-tan), though this soon made me feel like a traitor to my home state. “Near Boston” didn’t work very well because even most intermediate level students don’t understand the geographical concept of “near.” Finally, I just started telling the truth, which works quite well since Japanese people are used to hearing the names of states they don’t recognize.
Q: What is New Hampshire like?
“There are many mountains, many forests, and many lakes—like Yamanashi.”
Q: What is your hometown like?
“It’s very small. Too small for me.”
Q: Do you cook?
A: Students, in addition to most of my co-workers, ask me this unnatural-sounding question whenever I talk about food. Since Japan is a land of plentiful restaurants, cheap convenience store bentos (which I got tired of really fast), and several hundred varieties of ramen, it is perfectly easy for the blundering gaijin to consume his or her recommended calorie intake by doing nothing more complicated than walking into the konbini or boiling a kettle of water. There is an insatiable demand for convenience foods here; and most twenty-somethings of both sexes have no interest in cooking. Many are even afraid of it, and answer my question with nervous laughs and trembling hands. There is almost a social norm against cooking; possibly because that duty is traditionally given to the wife of a household, or possibly because it is their way of showing their peers that they too can afford the convenience of prepared meals.
Q: What’s your blood type?
Before I came to Japan I had never been asked this question by anyone not wearing a Red Cross uniform. People here talk about the relationship between blood type and personality in the same way that Americans casually evoke the Zodiac. I forget what personality type O Positive signifies (I had to sneak a peek at my blood-donor card as I wrote that last sentence), but I seem to recall it being something vaguely complimentary.
Q: What was your job in America?
Since there are no fewer than nine correct answers to this question (see 1/22/09), I almost always say teacher (which, I freely admit, is a shameless lie by omission), since most students do not know what a tutor is, and any other answer would undoubtedly cause me to lose face in a culture where having a steady, full-time salaried position marks the line between success and failure. Answering this question professionally is such a common predicament for foreign teachers that AEON included sample answers in its Native Teacher Training Manual, which of course I am forbidden from quoting here.
Q: Do you use chopsticks in the US?
Chopsticks are not as ubiquitous in Japan as in other Asian countries, and I have even met some Japanese people who are not adept at using them. I taught myself chopsticks by reading the back of the package at the Hawaiian Isle Chinese restaurant at age eleven; and that I took the time to learn the traditional eating methods of another culture surprises and delights many students.
Q: How do you use marijuana?
This question arose on the street one night after someone mentioned a prominent Japanese actor who had been caught naked in a park in the throes of a cocaine high. The asker had the fascinated look of a child approaching a forbidden subject; and I wondered if he had ever known anyone who had gotten stoned. I’m obviously no expert, but I explained how to smoke a joint using a series of simple gestures, to the acknowledging nods of the crowd. After all, part of my job is introducing students to American culture.