If you live in Japan for a while, you will hear this phrase quite often. "You use chopsticks very well!".

I tried to get to the bottom of it. When somebody commented on my expert chopstick usage, I asked them if that was one of their first English lessons. I asked them if they thought that only Japanese people used chopsticks. I asked them about that old guy out of Karate Kid who used to be in Happy Days.

I never found out why Japanese people like to say "You use chopsticks very well". I guess it's because they want to say something to practice their English, and maybe they think foreigners wouldn't know how to use chopsticks. Or maybe I really am some sort of chopstick expert.

But whenever I tried to turn the tables and say something like "You use a knife and fork very well!", all I got back was funny looks.

Sumimasen, yabanjin desu.

In Japanese culture, it is important to lower yourself and respect others. As a result, compliments (even meaningless ones) are very important. Western culture shares similar hidden societal rules, although these are more commonly and simply known as "brown-nosing".

One must consider that the poor Japanese person is searching for some compliment that can be delivered in his or her English, which also has some bearing on reality. Even if they know that chopsticks aren't a Japanese invention, there is still some assumption that any gaijin must have had to study quite hard to learn to do anything Japanese. However, all Japanese people use a knife and fork at some point, so the counter-compliment is ineffective.

It is also correct etiquette in Japan to deny any compliment given to yourself. Considering the following dialogues:

Japanese Person: You speak Japanese very well.
Beginner: Thank you very much.

Japanese Person: You speak Japanese very well! (showing actual surprise)
No-longer-beginner: No, I still have much to learn.

Living in Japan, I have been complimented on all sorts of odd things. One very similar to this case is my ability to speak English well. I am a native speaker of English, and even those who do not know me will assume so by the fact that I'm caucasian. Yet I have been complimented countless times on it.

However, despite knowing this rule, I am still unable to bring myself to accept (or rather deny) the compliment that I am able to use chopsticks. Perhaps there is no perfect reply to this compliment. Perhaps it is a zen mantra.


2003-09-19 Update: Since writing this piece,
I've made a practice of asking Japanese people where chopsticks come from.
The answer is almost unanimously "Japan, of course!" among children, and generally just a confused look from adults.

What I find even stranger than the continual reminder that I use chopsticks well, is the sincere surprise that comes with the compliment. It seems as though people are genuinely impressed that I am able to eat with hashi without having to impale my food on the ends or use them to scrape food off a raised plate directly into my mouth. I hear it so often, that I have come to believe that I am some sort of foreigner miracle and that perhaps I do indeed have a style and skill surpassing that of any other foreigner to have ever come to Japan.

This is probably not true, but I have at least come up with the perfect response.

Inspired by The Karate Kid, I tell anyone who compliments me on my chopstick abilities that I am so talented, indeed, that I can even catch flies. This comment, followed by a faked attempt at capturing any flies (real or imaginary) in the vicinity, always causes smiles if not laughter and puts everyone at ease. Although I find the Japanese to be very formal and strict, such small attempts at humour in everyday situations have done wonders for my slow yet steady acceptance into this strange yet wonderful society.

わたしは おはし で はえ を つかまえれます

Watashi wa o-hasi de hae o tsukamaeremasu

On several occasions I have even added this short sentence into the countless self introductions I have made. The students and staff at one of my elementary schools just about lost the plot when I used that one line wonder on my first day in front of the entire school in between my hobbies are and I like sushi.
ええ! お箸はお上手ですねぇ!
Ee! O-hashi wa o-jôzu desu nee!
Wow! You're really skilled at using chopsticks!
If I had ¥100 for every time I've heard that, I could pay someone to feed me instead of having to use chopsticks myself. But as I don't, I'll have to content myself with a commentary, a response and an anecdote.

The Commentary

The basics of using chopsticks are, indeed, very easily learned -- most people grasp the concept within a single meal, although it does take a week or two to learn to apply just the right pressure, both to grip the food securely and to stop straining your hand. When you can eat raw silken tofu with chopsticks, you'll know you've made it to the first level.

However, there are a number of food items that require some serious chopstick-fu to eat. Number one on the list for many is small fish served whole, either grilled in salt and served hot (shioyaki) or, worse yet, the half-dried kind the Japanese love to eat for breakfast; these require the ability to cut with chopsticks (this involves pressing the tips together and poking up and down like a sewing machine), pick out small bones, pry up larger ones, and keep the fish on the plate at the same time. Other perennial favorites include most things floating in oden, esp. whole boiled eggs, and hamburger patties.

Nevertheless, I've never gotten compliments for successfully tackling something difficult to eat; they tend to get rolled out when I end up with fish bits over half the table, eggs on the floor and tofu in my lap. Then again, this makes sense in a roundabout way: only when they see you being visibly inept do they remember that using chopsticks is (or should be) difficult, and thus you must be complimented for making the effort.

The Response

liontamer's suggestion isn't bad, although I'm not sure I could pronounce tsukamaeraremasu too well after a few flasks of sake -- I'd probably end up saying I can sodomize (tsukaeraremasu) flies with chopsticks instead.

But a friend of mine has developed a wordless and devastatingly effective response. When complimented, he in proper Japanese style humbly disagrees and says that he is an abject failure who couldn't chopstick to save his life.

Then he switches his chopsticks to his other hand and continues eating.

The Anecdote

So one infernally hot day in July I found myself in Tunis. I'd spent the day pottering around the ruins of Carthage with two Japanese acquaintances I'd met at the hostel (I still remember having to translate the words "votive stelae" into Japanese), so in the evening we returned to the city and went out for a bite to eat.

The meal was unremarkable to the point that I can't even remember what we ate (undoubtedly something involving harissa), but dessert was a slice of honeydew melon, a ludicrously expensive luxury in Japan with prices reaching ¥10,000 per fruit -- but which costs a few fractions of a dinar in Tunisia. So I slid my knife between the pulp and the skin to separate them and then proceeded to carve the pulp into bite-sized chunks, only to be greeted with amazed looks and cries of...

ええ! ナイフはお上手ですねぇ!
Wow! You're really skilled at using a knife!
I boggled. Was this some kind of bizarre joke? I mean, we'd just eaten the entire meal with knives and forks, and Japanese people in general (and those adventurous enough to travel solo in Arab countries in particular) seem perfectly adept at using these Western implements.

But they aren't, really. Take a close look next time you see a nihonjin grapple with a knife and fork: you'll probably notice that, instead of using the slightly serrated but dull blade in a sawing motion to cut through something, they tend to push the blade straight down, the way you'd use a heavy, sharp chef's knife -- or chopsticks. And these are the only tools most Japanese use to cut. Since most Western-style restaurants in Japan serve their food presliced, the dinner knife is not really needed for cutting and the Japanese never learn the correct technique for using it. Cutting the perfect parabola needed to disembowel a slice of melon requires practice, and (as they proceeded to demonstrate) they still needed quite a bit more.

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