Saturday, October 19, 2013

Can "Chopsticks" be Played on the Spoons?

A girl got me to master chopsticks. And it wasn't my wife.

Just before my senior year in high school, Sheryl was my girl at the Methodist summer camp I had gone to in South Jersey. Being half Native-American, the contrast of her tanned skin to my sunburned Mick-Kraut pale face was offset by our mutual love for and different skills at anything athletic. We were "the couple" at camp. Two months later, at the South Jersey United Methodist Youth Conference in Ocean City, we hooked up again. However, for some stupid reason, it was decided by our circle of friends to eat Chinese one evening. Unfortunately, at the restaurant, Sheryl ran into the guy with whom she had been "the couple" at a camp earlier that summer. In the end, my inability to master the chopsticks (Hell, the only ethnic food in my neighborhood was pizza or kielbasa.) and my use of a fork to finish the meal made me lose face and lose out to the other guy. You can imagine my mother's surprise when the first thing I said upon my return from the conference was that I wanted to buy a pair of chopsticks. It may not have been a religious awakening, but it certainly was a widening of cultural boundaries. The funny thing was that Sheryl and I had a few dates the following year, one of which to a Chinese restaurant, where I saw guys making fools of themselves tossing food onto the floor before deciding to use a single chopstick to stab a dumpling.

Well, I'm here to tell you that for every white guy who flips a piece of kung-pao chicken across the room, there's an Asian holding a fork like a Hollywood mass murderer looking for his next victim. I have seen it all over East Asia. My wife was a travel agent when we married, so we have usually stayed at very nice hotels whenever we have travelled abroad. It didn't hurt that the Taiwan dollar was so much stronger than most of the other region's currencies, enabling us to stay, for example, at the Hilton in the "Golden Ghetto" on Bali or the Jumeirah in Shanghai. And since we usually traveled on traditional Chinese holidays, at least half of the clientele at these luxury hotels was Taiwanese or Chinese.

The Western-style breakfasts served at these hotels is one of my favorite aspects of vacationing. While my wife enjoyed Chinese dishes like glass noodle soup or congee, I savored the western offerings, such as omelets and pancakes almost like what Mom used to make, bangers and beans similar to those served on cold Welsh mornings before hiking the Brecon Beacons, or rye bread with cold cuts and cheese, reminding me of my Uni days in Vienna, usually all eaten in one sitting. It was during these meals that I could observe Asians dealing with Western cutlery.

One of the problems Asians seem to have is judging the size of their mouths. Since Chinese meat dishes are usually prepared by cutting them up in small pieces, there is a certain elegance in watching one pick up a piece of pork with chopsticks and place it in her mouth. The same can be said when eating vegetable, since only a small amount of spinach or cabbage can be gathered and raised to the mouth. Such refinement, such delicacy is totally lost when a businessman uses a fork to push a mound of greens onto his spoon and tries to squeeze it into his mouth, sometimes leaving strands hanging off his lips in such a way to remind me of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When eating hot pot, inch-long chunks of corn on the cob are often thrown in as well, requiring the eater to assume a wider grip on the chopsticks in order to pull them out of the soup. Though I'm sure I looked rather clumsy at first, I can now easily accomplish the task. However, there is something disturbing when an Asian at an five-star hotel restaurant impales a piece of corn on the sliced side and then holds it up like a lollipop, which, instead of licking, he bites into beaver-like to scrape the kernels into his mouth, his head tilted back so that he doesn't lose a morsel. Meanwhile, his eating partner holds his portion sideways, twirling it with a steak knife while his left forefinger guides it.

I have often been perplexed at why such eating behavior occurs when chopsticks are usually available, since the restaurant is serving Asian food. Perhaps it is the incongruence of trying to use chopsticks with a plate, instead of having a bowl of rice into which the food can be placed. However, you know something is wrong when a customer has a typical basket of steamed b ozi, and waves each bun on the end of a fork like a rubber mallet, biting around the edges of it before getting into the meat-filled center.

Slurping noodles, though abhorrent to the Western ear, is necessary and quite fun when using chopsticks. But to see an Asian scooping up a clump of pasta larger than his mouth, biting into half of it and sucking in the rest, much like a snake does with a mouse, is outright disgusting.

So, for all those newbies arriving in Asia who always ate Chinese take-out with silverware, remember that you have an Asian doppelganger in need of Western etiquette lessons.
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