Friday, April 13, 2012

On the use (and abuse) of chopsticks

The bane of my existence during my first two weeks in China was the CHOPSTICKS. Anyone who thinks that because they managed to follow the directions on the red wrapper and eat some food with the wooden chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant, they are qualified to go to China and dine with the Chinese, is dead wrong. First because those cheap wooden chopsticks are much easier to use than the metal or porcelain ones that homes and good restaurants in China use, the equivalent of kiddie spoons in America: less risky but a pain in the ass if you were to use them all the time (who wants to get splinters from their eating utensils?).

But more importantly, there's a world of difference between using chopsticks to eat from your own plate and using them to eat from communal dishes. Everything in China, or at least in Beijing (with the exception of food at fast-food places), is served on communal plates. When I drop food here – as I still frequently do – it's generally not into my own bowl (communal plates, personal bowls for rice or noodles, is how my host family does it) but onto the table, where, often after splattering me with sauce, it lies as a testament to my inexpertise. Trying to pick it back up just makes things worse: it's almost impossible to pick up something that's lying flat on the table in one try, so I can only succeed in doing so after several seconds of pushing it around on the table, during which everyone else is watching me with dismay.

It's not that I haven't improved with using chopsticks. After two months here, I've pretty much gotten used to using them, and the muscles in my right hand have stopped aching after every meal. Indeed, after my host dad gave me several lessons to correct my improper grip (rather than using the index finger alone to move the top one, as I was taught by the chopstick wrapper, you should use both index and middle fingers for maximum traction), I've gotten a lot of compliments on my technique. Indeed, just as most Chinese people's English handwriting is better than that of American native speakers, so my own chopstick technique is better than that of many Chinese people. Interestingly, there are quite a few Chinese people, in my experience mostly women, who hold their chopsticks in what they themselves acknowledge is an entirely wrong way, with the chopsticks crossed in the palm of the hand rather than parallel. The two people I asked about this both said that their parents just put the chopsticks in their hands when they were little and left them to figure out how to use them, and that they've been doing it wrong ever since.

But despite the orthodoxy of my technique, the use of chopsticks remains an effort to me, something which I have to constantly concentrate on or else fail spectacularly at. (Eating in public sometimes feels like running the gauntlet.) With a fork and a knife in my hand I feel comfortable and stable; I trust their solidity and stability. I still don't feel that way about chopsticks, and perhaps never will.

That said, I must admit that Chinese food is fantastic, generally both pretty healthy and very tasty. In particular, Chinese dumplings and meat pies (of the vegetarian variety) are one of the most consistently delicious foods I've ever had. So if the cuisine came about in conjunction with the utensils, there's something to be thankful for.

The real thing


  1. Daniel has good hand coordination. Me? -- I would be chop-stick thin by now. Every meal would be the torture of Tantalus.

    Do you know why eastern and western utensils developed and remained so different? What do native chop-stick users think of using silverware?

  2. I sympathize with you, having to use chopsticks. If I were living in China, I'd probably be thin as a rail!