I remember it vividly. I was meeting up with a new friend for lunch and she took me to her favorite “American style” cafe. They had a couple oddities on the menu (hamburgers with half-raw eggs, egg salad burgers, plain jelly sandwiches – without any peanut butter) but the smell had me salivating the minute I walked through those automatic doors.
“What do you want to eat?” She asked.
I glanced at the menu and was drawn towards the chili dogs. Some college students turn to pasta and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when they need to eat on the run. I always made chili dogs. Stick some frozen dogs in boiling water, heat a can of Hormel Chili (with beans, of course) over the stove, and voila! Delicious chili dogs in less than 10 minutes, including clean-up time.
Living in Japan, though, I hadn’t had a chili dog in nearly six months.
“Hot dog with chili,” I stated, proudly.
She paused. “…not a hamburger?”
“I feel like having a chili dog today.” I replied, simply. “It’s been ages since I’ve had one.”
We ordered, paid, and waited for our food. As soon as we sat down, she turned to me and asked, “But I thought Americans love hamburgers!”
“We do…? I mean, most people love hamburgers, I guess.”
She thought about that for a second, before asking the million dollar question. And by ‘million dollar question,’ I mean that if every time someone asked me to generalize my entire race, religion, or nationality into a blanket statement, I would have a million dollars (give or take a couple hundred thousand). She asked,”So… Texans like hot dogs more than hamburgers?”
“I think it depends on the person.”
“But you like hot dogs more than hamburgers, right?”
“Not always. I mean, I had a hamburger last week. I’ve just been craving a good chili dog for a while now.”
And, believe it or not, it actually was a rather good chili dog. The chili didn’t have any meat (sadly) and the hot dog was incredibly long and thin, like a regular Japanese hot dog. Basically, it was the most healthy and least sketchy chili dog I’ve ever eaten.
That’s not the point of this story, though. The point of this story was to illustrate something I’ve encountered for my last couple years in Japan: blanket statements.
Blanket statements are tricky.
On one hand, it’s very easy to hide behind them and say “all Japanese people are fashionable” or “all Americans love to eat oily food” or “all Texans like hot dogs more than hamburgers.” Throwing blanket statements over entire groups of people makes it easier to classify them.
On the other hand, people are people. And entire groups of people are made up of individuals, with unique interests, likes, and dislikes. Anthropology is a messy subject, because it’s nearly impossible to make a blanket statement that applies to more than 90% of the population. When you try, you end up loosing the chance to interact with people on a personal, real level. They become just another statistic.
As much as I love chatting with strangers in Japan, the first couple minutes of nearly every “conversation” tends to follow a particular pattern. And yes, I intentionally put “conversation” in parenthesis because sometimes talking with a stranger seems more like a scripted Q & A than an actual, free-flowing dialogue.
They bounce these questions off of me in an attempt to figure out which box I fit in. Am I a “normal” foreigner or am I a “special” foreigner who can use chopsticks, eat raw fish, and speak Japanese?
I’m sure everyone’s experience is different, but the most common questions I get as a young, white female in Tokyo are:
- Where are you from?
- Do you speak Japanese?
- How long have you been studying Japanese? At school? On your own?
- Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
- What are you doing in Japan? / Why are you in Japan?
- How long have you been in Japan?
- Where do you live?
- What is your country/state famous for? (example: I reply guns, Darvish from the Texas Rangers, and old Western movies)
- Why are you interested in Japan?
- What is your favorite Japanese food?11. Can you eat sushi/raw fish?
- Do you like natto (fermented soy beans)?
- Can you eat using chopsticks?
- Does [insert stereotype about your country/state/city] really happen in [insert country/state/city]? (example: “Does everyone in Texas have a gun?”)
- Do [insert nationality/religion/ethnicity/etc] like [insert generalization/vague thing]? (example: “Do Americans like ninjas?”)
- How does your family feel about you living in Japan? Is your mom sad?
And other such questions. It’s fun answering these questions every once and a while – especially when I feel like I’m doing my part to change stereotypes of both Americans and Texans in one swoop. It’s also nice because these rapid-fire Q&A sessions have all but eliminated the anxiety I used to feel about meeting new people.
I’m not even joking, like 95% of the time the first five minutes of most conversations will be me answering these questions. By the time we eventually make it into uncharted territory, we will already know quite a bit of each other’s interests, likes, and dislikes. It’s smooth sailing from then on out.
I have no idea if any of these answers actually stick, though. I have definitely been asked the questions multiple times by the same person (who, I guess, forgot about it).