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The Secret Rules of Flattery

When I think about it, it’s a little bit strange to consider myself a gaikokujin in a country that makes up fifty percent of who I am. I’ve been using chopsticks and eating natto since I was a kid. My mother was already drilling me on my hiragana and katakana by the time I could pick up a pencil, and, embarrassing as it is, I even had a Matsumoto Jun uchiwa pinned up on my wall when I was fourteen. But I’ve got a horrendously difficult name to pronounce for the poor folks here, and I’ve inherited a larger portion of my father’s Caucasian characteristics than my mother’s Japanese looks. So I have had to become used to the occasional, “Wow, you can use chopsticks!” that inevitably deems it necessary for me to narrate a long-winded description of my family history.

But despite my partially-Japanese upbringing by my mother, there are still some things that I’ll never get used to. Most of them are pretty innocent — for instance, the adorable little multicolored envelopes for money that my students hand me at the end of their lessons, or the lavishly made-up salesgirls at the fashion malls with color contacts, fake eyelashes, ultra-high platforms, and everything that leaves me wondering if I should spend a little more time getting ready in the morning. However, when I look back on all the times I’ve come back here to visit family, and even the times I’ve spent with my mother at Japanese get-togethers back in California, there’s one thing that I’ll never be able to completely understand: the peculiar phenomenon of the Japanese compliment.

My earliest memories of this outward expression of humility — which I’m sure many a Japanese kid has experienced, too — is my mother’s automatic hand on the back of my neck when I would bow in thanks to one of her Japanese friends. I can remember staring at my toes, my thoughts less about gratitude and more along the lines of, how long is this going to go for? When is she going to let go? But I could handle the excessive bowing. What I couldn’t handle very well, however, was my mother’s immediate input when I received a compliment from one of her friends. Whether it was “Rachel-san is so cute!” or “Rachel-san is very smart!” my mother would always interject with, “No, no, no,” waving her hands in front of her face and shaking her head. Regardless of how many times this would happen, my mother would still have to reassure a crushed 12-year-old me every time that this wasn’t genuine — it was just Japanese culture.

Even as a 19-year-old college student teaching English in Fukuoka for the past month or so, this still holds the same: I can handle the natto, most of the polite behavioral customs, and the odd-looking Japanese toilets with ease, but I still stumble when it comes to accepting the Japanese compliment. But it seems like there’s always a definite four-step process when it comes to this customary flattery.

First, the compliment is given. It’s usually nothing too deep, such as “Rachel-san, your Japanese is so good!” or “Oh, Rachel-san, half-Japanese girls are so cute!” Next, I’m supposed to immediately reject the compliment — bonus points if I involve self-deprecation, and even more if I can also use that self-deprecation to compliment them back. For example — “No, my Japanese is terrible!” or “No, no, I’m not at all…you are so much cuter!” We then engage in a light-hearted, completely inauthentic argument over my flimsy Japanese skills or my half-Japanese features. After stretching out the argument as far as it can go, I lose intentionally, moving on to the last step: accepting the compliment with a sheepish grin and a short bow.

There aren’t too many instances where my two cultures clash — but this is one of the few moments where they do. My American half encourages me to accept that compliment with pride, while my Japanese half urges me to prioritize humility and reject it zealously. I always try to merge with the culture around me, but it only takes a few self-deprecating rejections of the “Rachel-san is so cute!” compliment on top of my inability to squeeze my way into a pair of miniature Japanese “free size” shorts for me to wonder if “Rachel-san” maybe isn’t that great, after all. It’s not a good feeling, and I’m sure that, gaikokujin or not, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Don’t get me wrong — humility is a wonderful thing. But if it means feeling better about yourself — and who doesn’t want that? — maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take that compliment once in awhile.

by Rachel Cantrell
California, Student/English Teacher

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn164, Aug. 2012)

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Fukuoka City
Published: Jul 25, 2012 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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