Musings about Japan and life as a human, a cosplayer, a minority, a music lover, an English teacher.

"Oh, your Japanese is so good!" and Chopsticks.

When a Japanese person says about your Japanese language skills, “上手ですね!” (‘jouzu desu ne!’ or, “You’re good!”), what does that really mean?

Well, sometimes it’s not always literal. Sometimes it can mean something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re trying very hard, but you’re still not there.” It’s like telling a four-year old that her drawing is so pretty when…well, you get the idea.

Sometimes, I have no idea what it means for someone to say I’m “上手.” Last week, this nurse at the health center asked if Japanese was okay for me, and before I could answer, one of my classmates said (in Japanese), “Oh, she’s good at Japanese!” My classmate meant it (I think), but then the nurse would sometimes tell me that I was “上手” when I hadn’t even said anything other than, ‘hai’. Other times, when trying to explain something or ask a question, I often don’t get to finish because they’ve figured out what I was talking about. (However, I’ve learned from Japanese classes in the past that a lot is implied and not spoken anyway.)

Also, when I ask a question in Japanese to a Japanese person that happens to also know English, they almost ALWAYS answer me in English.” Why? Are they trying to practice their English? Do they think that I won’t understand their response if it’s in Japanese? It’s a mystery to me. (Needless to say, when a Japanese person asks me a question, they usually ask me in English.) Because of this, I often feel like I really don’t know Japanese.

About chopsticks: I wish I could tell some people, “For goodness’ sake, YES I KNOW HOW TO USE CHOPSTICKS. And OMG, it’s NOT because my mother is Korean!” As most of you already know, the ability to use chopsticks is learned, not genetic. Being able to use them at a somewhat earlier age than most Americans might have to do with the fact that my mother had chopsticks available in the kitchen…but it’s not because she’s Korean. If those types of things were genetic, I’d be able to speak Korean as well! I’m sure most of us non-Asians who use chopsticks can relate to this. I wonder what would happen if I asked a Japanese person if they can use a fork…lol.

So, to learners of Japanese: Do Japanese people often tell you, “Your Japanese is so good!”
And to chopsticks-users: Have people from a chopstick-using country ever asked you if you use chopsticks, or express utter amazement if they see you using them?
And Japanese natives: 外国人は日本語が上手じゃなくても、あなたはその人に「上手ですね」って言うことがある?


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