Understanding Chopsticks

Chopsticks are an interesting invention. A spoon is obvious, and exist almost everywhere because every culture invents soup at some point. Knives are necessary to prepare food, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed long before any other utensil. Forks are not really common here, and while the West decided to stab their food, the East seems to have aimed for something that requires a certain amount of dexterity to use.

Back home, everything has become finger food. Schools don’t even give the children knives and forks anymore, because of the budget, because they don’t want to arm the children, and because fast food rarely requires any effort. The truth of the excuses is irrelevant, because the result is a culture that is based on eating with our hands, like our ancestors did. We have just removed a lot of the disease and effort that they had to deal with.

There is something comforting to me about eating with my hands. I have read that in Africa the Peace Corps volunteers had to follow strict guidelines about washing, especially cleaning under the fingernails, because of worms in the soil and sand. Even with effort, they still got them at some point.

Part of the benefit of modern society is the prevention of disease and the spread of cleanliness, which seems to have helped breed a certain amount of laziness. Why wash a spoon when you can use a tortilla chip instead? We’re not the only ones who eat with our hands, but it hasn’t always been that way in our culture.

Here, a lot of the children eat with spoons. Most of the food is broken down already so no fork or knife is needed. It’s harder for children to use chopsticks, but I have seen training chopsticks for them. I have also seen a lot of adults move the bowl to their face and use the chopsticks as a spoon when the pieces of rice and food don’t stick together well enough to pick up a mouthful. I tend to watch people, especially during meals. The best way to know what is culturally acceptable is to do what the locals do. Society rewards those who conform.

It’s such a small thing, but it’s everywhere. I’ve gotten pretty good at using chopsticks, but I only know that because I don’t get hand cramps using them like I used to. I thought it would be a little weird using a fork again, but I didn’t even notice the change really. But there is something in the way we hold our hands that I don’t think I will ever forget.

A fork requires you to hold your hand and make a circular motion to pick up food and get it to your mouth. In the States, that’s usually the right hand. I’ve heard it’s the other way in England when you’re cutting meat, since the knife would be in your right hand, but I have always cut with the right, then switched to the fork. Using chopsticks is more direct, moving the food straight into the mouth. Without the chopsticks, it looks more like gesture for smoking than eating.

I am so used to this idea of motion that when a man asked me for money for food, I thought he was asking for cigarettes. It’s not the first time I have been asked, but usually it’s when I’m in a smoking area or with someone who is smoking. The only other time is when it’s someone who just wants me to stop so they can ask for more. I have studied violence enough to go on the defensive when someone asks me for something small and unusual. No one asks the time anymore, everyone has a phone. They just want you to stop.

I felt my shoulders drop a little and my body set up for a fight. I don’t know if he saw it or not. It was a busy street in the middle of the day, and body language is not universal. I just told him I didn’t have anything and kept going, with a glance back to be sure he wasn’t following.

My Mandarin is coming along, but it still takes a little time to process words. “Chi fan,” he said. “Chi fan.” I was just walking away when it registered as “eat food.” That just fed the idea that he stopped me for a smoke only to ante up. I was more than twenty feet away before I realized that when he put his hand to his mouth with his fingers straight, he was miming chopsticks, not a cigarette.

There are always people around who need more than they have. There are millions of reasons why, and I have been asked for money in every country and city I have ever been to for more than a few days. This one struck me, if only because I simply failed to understand.

I love the idea of compassion leading to understanding, but I wonder if there is a fundamental flaw in that thinking. If I don’t understand what a person needs, or how to give it to them, how can I really feel compassion? I don’t want them to suffer, but I barely even understand my own suffering, much less someone who lives on the streets of Mexico or Taipei. Suffering has the same roots, but across cultures and languages, who can really say what can help or harm another being when I cannot even ask them what they need?

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3 Responses to Understanding Chopsticks

  1. sea2seasea says:

    I can see it would be hard to comprehend a chopstick motion for ‘eat’, and I’m glad you figured it out. You didn’t say, but you fed him? Or gave him money for food?

    Like

    • James says:

      No, I forgot my money that day. I always seem to forget something, that time it was to check my wallet for cash before I left. First time I’ve been asked for money here, and that was the day I had none.

      Like

  2. Interesting. In the Philippines, it’s mixed- chopsticks are used by the Chinese, who also use plates and cups like Westerners, but forks are available, and everyone seems to move back and forth between them as the situation suggests- Aida will ask for chopsticks when eating Chinese dishes, but a fork the rest of the time. In the barrios, where food is sometimes served on a banana leaf, people eat with their fingers, and nobody sees it as inferior or even unusual. I’ve learned to emulate the locals, too, and so far, it’s worked out well.

    Like

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