Friday, October 3, 2008

Gaijin

I’ve always been fascinated by Japan. I started taking Japanese as an eighth grader and studied a total of three years in high school. When I was fifteen, I went to Japan for a summer with the Rotary Club. On that trip I visited Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and stayed with four different host families in the Tochigi Prefecture. Then I studied Japanese for two more years in college, and spent another summer living with a Japanese family in a small fishing village outside of Ishikawa.

I’m sort of ashamed to admit, with no chance to practice over the last five or six years, I have forgotten a lot of the language. But, even though the words and the kanji (characters) may be fading from my memory, my love for Japanese food is as strong as ever. I’ve never found a single Japanese restaurant with food as good as my host mom’s in Ishikawa, but pretty much any Japanese meal will bring a smile to my face. Miso soup. Ginger. Maki. Katsu. Perfectly steamed rice. But now there’s a problem: chopsticks.

This afternoon, in an effort to cheer me up, APL took me to get Japanese food for lunch. And though I still really enjoyed the food, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed by my inability to work the chopsticks. My fingers just cramped up too much for me to move them properly. Where I used to be able to manipulate chopsticks perfectly, making movements tiny enough to pick up a single grain of rice, today I was reduced to eating sushi with my fingers. I never felt like such a gaijin in my life.

Gaijin is a Japanese word made up of two kanji: gai which means “outside,” and jin which means “person.” So the word literally means “foreigner” or “non-Japanese.” So, technically, it would be a proper thing to call me. However, a lot of Japanese people consider the word to have taken on a negative or derogatory connotation – something closer to “stupid white person.” The term has become politically incorrect and is generally avoided by television and radio broadcasters in Japan.

Not that it really matters what some strangers in a restaurant think, but no one looking at me today would ever have guessed that I have spent months of my life eating every meal with chopsticks while conversing with my host family in Japanese. They would have seen a stupid white person eating sushi with their fingers. And, worse, that’s what I saw too. And trying not to think about before didn't really help. Even if I never had used chopsticks before in my life, it would still be frustrating that I couldn't physically do it today.

4 comments:

~kelly marie~ said...

I went through the chopsticks thing too myself. It is so weird how we both have had to deal with the same things. I will let you know, that I have, after the right meds, been able to use chopsticks again. Maybe not everyday, but at least for a special dinner or in front of the in-laws :).

A said...

So frustrating! I'm glad you're still feeding the rice monster, though. :)

djladysha said...

i actually have this memory in high school when you first started really getting your japanese chops up.... you taught us all "gi gu ku da ikimus" or something like that... it meant "see you in hell...or something of the sort"... but then i think we found out it really meant "i'm going to hell"... and we had a good laugh.. seeing as how... we'd been saying it for months.

you can take the chopsticks out of the girl... but admit it... you've been secretly japanese forever and we've always known it.

sending you love.

Z said...

Honestly, this was a tough loss for me due to (as djladysha puts it) my secret Japanese roots. Even if it is only temporary, it was still extremely frustrating.

Although, Kelly, I imagine that it must have been hard for you too, especially with the in-laws! But I am heartened to hear that you can manage them on special occasions. That gives me hope.

In any event, who would have thought I would ever bother to think about two stupid little sticks for longer than 30 seconds and that the loss of their use would mean something to me?

Having this pain/injury in my hands has really made me understand just how much we depend on our hands every day: brushing our teeth, opening the milk bottle, buttoning our shirts, turning the door knob, lifting heavy books, using utensils of any kind, typing this post...Our hands are truly amazing. And I think a lot of people really take their own amazing hands for granted.

So when you are going about your every day tasks, I think you should try to think about your hands and thank them for everything they do for you. Trust me, it's more than you'd imagine.