Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan

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Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I was born in England. I live in Japan. You can call me Caro-chan.

I’ve lived here for a while, and I speak the language (mostly, most of the time, most spectacularly when inebriated). I like the food. I like the people. I like the culture. I can hear the depth of a bow over the phone. I compose haiku to the eggs in oden while knocking back shiso-infused rice wine and playing the koto with my free hand.

But at the same time, I know my limits. I don’t want to become one of those Japaneser-than-thou foreigners who cuts off everyone from their former lives because they’re not wabi-sabi enough. Me, I am a dichotomy, an anomaly, a disunion. I eat salad with chopsticks, but pasta with a fork. I dance thebon-odori on a tightrope between worlds, in Doc Martens.

What I am, then, is a bit odd. I perplex and perturb. I give the wrong answers to questions. What’s worse, I give the wrong answers to the right questions, that holy canon of enquiries that must be asked to all foreign visitors until they give up and go back home. Most expats will have their own internal shit-list of most-repeated, most-unwelcome, most conversation-breakdown-inducing questions. Here, dear reader, is mine, in ascending order of how much they make me want to stuff wasabi up my own nose.

6. Can you eat Japanese food?

Imagawayaki

Can I eat those? You mean, all of those?

Ahhh, the old stand-by. The only foreigner I know who can’t eat Japanese food was this one guy who had his jaw wired to stop him biting the students. The rest of us are, surprisingly, physically capable of consuming, and indeed metabolising, Japanese food. We do this as a matter of survival, pride, and because it’s rightly world-renowned as being bloody delicious.

That out of the way, we can move on to number 5…

5. What is your favourite Japanese food?

There are two things that bother me about this question. One is that I’ve been asked it quite literally 469 gabajilliozillion times. The other is that there seems to be no satisfactory answer, defined here as an answer that makes the asker go away and stop asking stupid questions.

Unsatisfactory answers include:

  • “Everything really.” This leads to the follow-up question, “Oh, there must be something you especially like”. Then, once you have selected a dish at random, the questioner will run through all of the other dishes they can think of, while you repeat “Yes”, “That too” a lot.
  • “It depends on the time of year.” This is seen as suspicious. Only Japanese people know which season – face-meltingly hot summer, or icicles-are-forming-on-my-nose winter – lends itself better to the consumption of dishes such as hotpot, or indeed shaved ice.
  • Anything non-generic. For example, I adore marinated yellowtail simmered with lotus root (buri renkon). I make it every couple of weeks to my own secret recipe that contains a hint of Chinese spices. Admitting this to the unprepared may induce seizures. I have seen it with my own eyes, and it is not pretty.

4. Do you want to marry a Japanese man? / All English men are gentlemen, aren’t they?

Three gentlemen in Chesterfield coats

Dwayne from Staines, promenading with gentleman friends

I’m going to parcel the two of these up here, seeing as they’re really two sides of the same coin. Maybe it’s because an Englishman will guard his eccentricity with his life, believing that only vile dictatorships would challenge a man’s right to put on a gimp mask and a tutu to go down the pub of a Sunday afternoon. Or maybe it’s because our multi-cultural society makes us more aware of the dangers of stereotyping. Either way, us Brits don’t really like to generalise. Well, I don’t. But I certainly wouldn’t want to, you know. Um.

Which is what both of these questions are doing, really. Japanese guys are presumed to be less progressive, less chivalrous, less attractive to foreign women, less… gentlemanly. All of them. Never mind that I have Japanese friends who are all of the above and awesome. I also know some who are gits. Such is life’s rich tapestry.

English men, on the other hand, are known for wearing tailored suits and treating their servants with geniality and decorum, before retiring to the drawing room for scones. As a result, many Japanese women see them as quite the catch, and I personally have heard many to declare “I shall marry none but an Englishman!” This they then do, and are shocked and appalled to discover, three years into the marriage, once they have learned a bit of English, that Dwayne from Staines is nowhere near the splendid fellow they imagined him to be, and in fact is a bit of a lazy bastard.

Unfortunately, answering this question in the negative simply gets you a reputation as a bitter-and-twisted Western harpy out to shatter the hopes and dreams of Japanese woman-kind. Even offering to provide a list of names and telephone numbers of known scoundrels does nothing to dispel this image.

Read number 3, 2 and 1.

From here on August 1st 2012

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