City skyscape photo that I took from Odaiba

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jouzu desu ne! (You're skilled, aren't you!)

One of the first Japanese phrases I learned how to say was, "I speak a little Japanese, but I am not skilled yet." As this seemed beyond blatantly obvious to me, I remember being quite annoyed that the CD audio lesson was wasting my memorization efforts on this phrase instead of something more useful, like "Where is the bathroom?"

But after I got to Japan, I realized why learning how to say I was unskilled was important. In Japan, there are proper protocols for interacting and certain prescribed conversations for different situations. Often these will involve uplifting others and downgrading yourself. One of the prescribed conversations Japanese people are expected to have with foreigners involves telling them that they are skilled at the language and with using chopsticks.

My initial reaction to being told I was skilled at Japanese was one of excitement. I was happy to know my efforts were paying off and people thought my pronunciation was clear. This quickly turned to annoyance, however, as I felt like I was being patronized. Clearly I wasn't skilled at the language, and it seemed like the worse you were at Japanese, the more often people told you that you were skilled. I felt like every time I had to respond with, "No, I'm not skilled" that I was inflating their ego. It was as if no one expected a dumb foreigner to be able to master their most difficult and complex language, but they would give me a little pat on the back for trying.

People also sometimes tell me I'm skilled with chopsticks. This took me off guard the first couple times I heard it, as we don't generally go around complimenting people about their utensil skills in the U.S. I would just mutter short responses of thanks. Then I began to get annoyed hearing that I was skilled at chopsticks because I just wanted to eat and not feel like my feeding method was being scrutinized. My responses began going along the lines of, "Well, I do live in Japan. I use chopsticks everyday."

Then on one particular evening, my view of the "you're skilled" conversations changed. I was at dinner with some students and another co-worker. A student in his 50's told me I was skilled at chopsticks. I responded with, "Thanks. You too." To which he responded, "Oh no, actually, I do not hold my chopsticks the regular way." And he showed me how most Japanese people hold their chopsticks and how his style was incorrect. In essence, I feel like his response would be the equivalent of a left-handed person deflecting a penmanship compliment by saying he doesn't hold his pen in the same hand as most people. In other words, the way my student held his chopsticks did not have any bearing on his ability to use them well. Thus, I concluded that if a Japanese person in his 50's, who clearly knows how to use chopsticks, still deflects the "you're skilled" compliment, then I most certainly should too.

So, from then on out, I haven't become too annoyed when people have told me I am skilled at Japanese or using chopsticks. For the language, I respond with, "No, I'm not skilled. Japanese is very difficult." And for chopsticks, something along the lines of, "Thank you, but I am still not very good at cutting meat with chopsticks like Japanese people are." Then the conversations move on, and I realize I am actually just integrating myself a little better. I'm responding to the prescribed conversations correctly and therefore making our connection and interactions more pleasant. They can uplift me, and I can show I know that I have a long ways to go, which in essence uplifts their skills in return.