Now Reports

Building Bridges With Chopsticks

What makes it so hard for cultures to communicate? This past winter, in the days following the Danish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, which engendered fury and violence in some Islamic countries, I thought that question deserved at least as much attention as the violence itself. So, out here in rural Kyushu, I took the opportunity to tackle the problem of cross-cultural communication head-on with six of my students – all advanced speakers of English. Our point of departure was decidedly less heated; we tried to come to terms with an issue that is, for some foreigners, the bane of their lives in Japan: the ever-dreaded, often-encountered “Can you use chopsticks?”

Ah, the chopsticks question.

When I brought the subject up, I was surprised to see how smoothly discussion began. Five of the six students were already aware of the question’s thorny nature. And everyone joked and laughed with the one student who was only just discovering how despised the question can be. “Really, it’s a matter of language,” a woman explained. “People say ‘can you’ when they should use ‘do you’ or perhaps ‘do you enjoy using.'” Another man told an anecdote of not knowing how to use a knife and fork while visiting America.

For me, the importance of the language barrier makes sense to a certain point. But I felt we weren’t getting to the issue’s meat and potatoes. Casey, an American living in Kyushu, put it this way. “It’s annoying,” he said. “Using chopsticks is a skill. It has nothing to do with being Japanese.” What confuses Casey most are people’s over-reactions to his declaration that yes, indeed, he can use chopsticks. “You never know,” he said, referring to the five-second eeeehhhh noises and looks of startled surprise he receives, “if it’s a genuine shock or if the response is something else entirely.” Back in class, I pressed my students on the topic of over-reaction. They were unanimous, insisting that for many Japanese it truly is surprising to learn that Westerners can use chopsticks. “But again,” another woman said, “it’s got to do with language. If people could express how they were feeling, they wouldn’t resort to over-reaction.”

I went on to describe dinner parties where foreigners speculated at great length on the mysterious roots of the chopsticks question. Theories ranged from politeness to prejudice. Casey, for example, belongs to the politeness camp. He reasons that over-reaction is a way of making guests feel special and, therefore, welcome. Prejudice theorists, meanwhile, see demonstrative reaction as a way of making foreigners feel, well, even more foreign – a subtle denial of an outsider’s ability to wear even the smallest accessory of the Japanese identity. By this point even the smiles had stopped. The sound of the heater blowing air into the room grew considerably louder. I continued anyway, explaining how difficult it is to answer the chopsticks question honestly. “If your basic Japanese four-year old can use them, chances are I can too.” That, I said, is what silently runs through my head each time I encounter but politely answer the question.

My students・stared at the covers of their notebooks. No one spoke. And in terms of sound, the heater rivalled Niagara Falls. Finally, one woman, practically shaking, said: “I don’t wish to offend you, but until recently most foreigners I knew couldn’t use chopsticks.” I assured her I wasn’t offended. Nonetheless, that was it for our discussion. All I could do was change the topic. And, I think everyone left that day feeling frustrated by our failure to talk about what is essentially a trivial issue. There were many ideas I wanted to explore. What about the politeness theory? The prejudice theory? And why should my students worry whether I was going to take offence over some Westerners’ inability to use chopsticks? I was shocked, then, when in the following weeks’ classes, people repeatedly returned to the issue of their own accord. One man believed the question arose from a Japanese sense of inferiority vis-a-vis the West. His wife, he said, thinks he’s crazy. Another woman started asking about Canadian stereotypes of Japanese. For my part, our conversations helped me to learn not just about Japan but also about Canada.・ I’m from Vancouver, a city with a large Asian population where it’s common for people of any ethnicity to use chopsticks.・ Wanting to show my students just how important Asian cultures are in Canada, I went to the government’s website to search for census data. The results surprised me. Only roughly five percent of the population claims Chinese, Japanese or Korean ancestry.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still times when tumbleweeds blow through our discussions. But the room no longer feels fraught. We understand that we can retreat and come back to an issue if need be. I suppose the biggest surprise in all of this was discovering just how difficult meaningful cross-cultural conversations can be – even with a topic as banal as the chopsticks question.


by Grant Sheppard
Canadian, English Teacher

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn89 May 2006)


Fukuoka City
Published: May 1, 2006 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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