Saturday, June 16, 2007

Most Popular Questions

After years of doing lessons by telephone and in person, I've experienced the same questions from Japanese people hundreds of times. For some questions, I may have been asked well over a thousand times. Here are the questions that I'm most often asked:

1. How old are you?

Every textbook my (former) company makes tells students, in preparation for lessons conducted via telephone, that they should not ask this question because it can be considered rude by some people, particularly women. Nonetheless, the vast majority of male students will ask the question anyway. Female students, who may be sensitive about their own ages, rarely ask this question.

I'm not one of those sensitive women who hates to admit my age but I don't like the fact that when I say I'm 42, the students are then embarrassed for asking now that it's clear I'm on the older side and they feel obliged to make some stupid comment to cover up their discomfort. The most frequent comment is "oh, you are so young." This seems patronizing because it's so absurd. I usually laugh and say, "I don't think so."

2. Can you eat sushi?

This is likely an incorrectly-worded question as students often confuse situations when they should use "do you ~" and "can you ~" but I'm not sure if the question is asking if I'm able to choke down raw fish or if I enjoy choking it down. The notion is that foreigners have a distaste for this Japanese delicacy and they want to test both how adventurous your are and the extent to which you've embraced Japanese culture through its cuisine.

In my case, I have had sushi before but I have an intense dislike for the texture of raw fish (as well as tofu). The taste doesn't bother me so much but it feels a bit like very tender rubber to me and I hate the way it feels on my teeth when I chew it. Eating prosciutto is a similarly unpleasant experience for me. I'm also not the least bit comfortable eating raw flesh of any kind. You'd never find me eating a rare steak or burger even if I were inclined to eat beef (which I'm not as I dislike it intensely).

3. Where are you from?

This question is rather understandable on the one hand but less understandable when you consider every single student I teach both face-to-face and via the telephone has been given a written profile about me which lists my marital status, birthplace, hobbies, and, in the case of face-to-face students, a work history.

I think that I get asked this question mainly as a way of introducing the topic and asking follow-up questions though sometimes it's simply the case that students pay no attention to the profile sheets they are sent. The most common follow-up questions are:

What is your home city famous for?
What festivals does your city have?
How many people live in your city?
What product is most famous in your city?

When answering these questions, I invariably encounter what might be called "incompatible data input" difficulty. When I explain to the students that I'm not from a city but a very small town which isn't famous for anything and produces no particular product, they invariably cannot understand. It's not that they can't understand my answers which I go out of my way to phrase simply but rather that they have a notion in mind of what sort of answers might be given and my answers are outside of that range so they mentally reject my answers.

This is actually a rather typical problem with communication between Japanese people and westerners. Since Japanese communication is indirect, people often operate from pre-conceived notions of what is to come in a conversation or what might be reasonably expected. On more than one occasion, a student has told me that he or she says something and expects that the party they are speaking to will conclude something else. This reading between the lines works fine in Japanese to Japanese communication but can be a problem in Japanese to western person communication.

4. Do you like natto?

Natto is a fermented soybean dish which has a relatively strong smell and is stringy and sticky. Even some Japanese people find it repulsive. It's supposed to be good for your health because it's rich in protein and low in fat. I've tried natto before and didn't find it particularly offensive except that it smelled very much like beer to me and I absolutely detest the smell of beer. I'm pretty sure I could eat it regularly if I put a clothespin on my nose since the taste was fine (though not mouth-wateringly enticing).

I think the Japanese ask this question because they expect a bad reaction. It's similar to asking someone if they've ever eaten a strange esoteric dish like snake in the U.S. or like asking about regional dishes which most people outside that region find disgusting (like blood pudding in the U.K.).

5. Do you like Japanese men?

This question is frequently asked by Japanese men and never asked by women. It's unclear why they ask this but one possibility is that they are hoping for some sort of affirmation that western women find Japanese men appealing. In my case, the honest truth is that I do not find Japanese men (in general) attractive for a variety of reasons so I tend to avoid this question by saying that I'm married and never think about Japanese men (which is actually true except on the occasions when I'm asked this question and am forced to think about this issue).

6. What Japanese food do you like?

You'll notice this is the 3rd food-related question. The Japanese are obsessed with food, as I believe I've mentioned before (as have numerous other Japan bloggers) so it's not so strange that they ask a lot of questions about food. It's likely that I wouldn't be asked this question if I said I loved sushi when I was asked about it.

I actually do like a decent amount of Japanese food but am not adept at preparing it nor am I sufficiently enamored of it to seek it out particularly. In the first decade or so here, my husband and I would frequent yakitori (grilled chicken, beef, or vegetables on wooden skewers) and, to a lesser extent, tonkatsu restaurants and sample a variety of non-seafood and fish dishes. I do like most chicken-based Japanese food as well as miso-based dishes and nearly all vegetables (though konyaku (gel) beats me on the texture front again - talk about rubbery!). I also have a very soft spot for Japanese curry. Since I'm not a noodle fan of any stripe though (not even pasta), I pass on the ramen and soba. I have had chanko-nabe (the sumo wrestler's stew) and thought it was quite good but it's not the sort of thing which can be ordered in local restaurants and I'm not making the trip to Ryogoku to have it.

I'm sure people will feel I'm missing out by not availing myself of the numerous amounts of seafood in Japan but I grew up in western Pennsylvania with minimal exposure to seafood and fish. Even when my parents, on rare occasions, prepared seafood or fish, I didn't care for it. I have sampled things but have not reacted well. My first bite of shrimp was so repulsive to me that I nearly regurgitated it on the spot.

Oddly enough, the things I've grown most enamored of among Japanese food is the bean cakes and sweet potatoes as well as nearly anything made with chestnuts. These are the things I expect to crave and miss the most when we finally leave Japan.

7. Why did you come to Japan/how long have you lived in Japan?

I'm not sure what kind of answers student expect (or hope for) in this regard but early on in my stay, which was when foreigners were still considered grotesquely overpaid for teaching English, I'm pretty sure they thought the answer was "to make money". To be honest, way back at the beginning, that was a factor in deciding to come here as the pay was relatively decent for the time. It's not nearly so lucrative as it once was though because salaries have gone down as hours have gone up. However, my husband and I couldn't really get ahead while living in the U.S. and do alright here so it's certainly not a bad place to make a living.

The main reason I came to Japan was that my husband and I met here for the first time and it seemed like life here was better for us than it was in the U.S. I tend to explain this to my students more simply by saying that my husband lived and worked here before we married and he enjoyed it so we thought it would be interesting if we both lived here for awhile.


Luis said...

I get asked #5 a lot, but it's "Do you like Japanese women?" Or, I should say, I got asked a lot--hasn't happened much in the past many years. Probably less because of my age or the current Japanese culture, and more because of which people I meet. The questions you listed are most often asked by eikaiwa students, or people otherwise in a situation where they must ask something but don't really have anything to talk about.

Still, I do get asked #3 by people I meet for the first time, and most often in Japanese. #7 is then the next most common question. Got asked both of those two just yesterday when a guy came over to pick up the single bed I was giving away. #1 is a common question with people I am a little more familiar with.

But I think for the most part (#1 aside), the questions are not that inappropriate. Having been asked all those questions many times over, if we were forced to come up with small-talk questions, we can know better which ones are more appropriate and to be more creative, and less meeting-the-foreigner-centric.

The fact that these questions get asked is likely because the people asking haven't experienced the other end of things.

And by the way, for me, the age thing is weird: the age thing. When people ask, I always ask them to guess. When I was younger, people always guessed I was older; now that I'm older, people almost always guess that I'm younger. I must have a relatively non-changing face, at least in terms of age appearance...

Shari said...

I can't say whether these are typical "eikaiwa" questions or not since I haven't worked in one for 16 years. These questions are from the thousands of business people I've taught over the years through correspondence lessons (who are not involved in eikaiwa lessons of any kind, not even concurrent with the courses they take with me).

My experiences are mainly with freshman employees in large companies, particular those in the heavy industries, communications, logistics, and technology.

BTW, your brother has precisely the same age-related experiences that you do! It must run in your family. ;-)

Roy said...

Speaking of Chanko Nabe, I seem to recall a Sumo Chank Nabe place just at the top of Nakasugi dori north of Asagaya, near where you live. I've never been inside and don't know if it exists anymore but it was fairly famous, or so they said. They had banzuke displayed which is how I recognized it. I used to live in Saginomiya and often rode by bicycle to Asagaya.

Shari said...

I can't say that the shop is still there since we don't have occasion to go to north Asagaya much. We tend to spend most of our time in the southern area because that's where the big shopping street, ward office, and main ward post office are located. It's also where the most convenient subway stations are for us.

I wouldn't be surprised if it was still there though since there is a sumo beya somewhere in Asagaya (though no famous wrestlers in recent history came from it). We sometimes see wrestlers biking around Asagaya or at the station. Restaurants are often opened in proximity to the stables because that's where the former wrestlers practiced/lived during their competitive years.

We actually had chanko nabe at a stable in Ryogoku during a tour we went on ages ago (which I hope to some day get around to writing about if I can recall enough details). It was very tasty and we were served by the wrestlers. Such tours were uncommon even at that time and I don't think they are allowed at all anymore unfortunately. It was a great experience.

Emsk said...

Yes, I get the age one as well. I'm 41 and like you don't really care. A reason I'd rather not disclose my age though is because there are so many judgements made, plus I'm totally single. This doesn't bother me in the slightest, but in Japan a single woman over 25 is often considered a freak, it seems, and it's just another thing for them to add to the list. Interestingly, when I asked a male student if Japanese men ask Japanese women this question, he replied, with a laugh, that it was not recommended.

I wish I had a pound for every time I've been asked why I'm a vegetarian! It's a question I haven't heard back home since the early '80's. Nonetheless, one of my students put it thoughtfully - does being a vegetarian and doing yoga go together in your life? I could tell he'd actually considered his query and it was a good conversation point.

Do you have a boyfriend is another good one - followed by sheer disbelief when you say no.

As for do you like Japanese guys - only by nervous, giggly ones. Try saying yes and they run a mile though!