Recently, an old friend found me on facebook to tell me he had thought about me when he was teaching his son how to use chopsticks. I had long forgotten that I had been the one who taught him. I’ve since been able to pull this happening out of my long-term memory, and with it, other chopstick related anecdotes.
Being half-Korean, I had been around chopsticks all my life, but I didn’t learn to actually use them effectively until my first trip to Korea in 1985. There, I think my older brother was getting a bit self-conscious about having to ask for a fork everywhere, so he asked our father to finally teach us how to use them. Can’t say my first attempt was great… what do you expect for a 6-year-old making a first serious attempt with thick slippery noodles. Eventually though, I and the bros got the hang of it, and from then on, a whole new world of eating implements was opened.
Fast forward a few years, and there I was teaching my bud during a summer school lunch break the proper way to eat with chopsticks, using plastic straws and knockoff Oreos with mint filling. But it turns out, I wasn’t actually using them correctly.
I of course didn’t know that I was using them wrong. That revelation occurred a few years later at McDonald’s. In 1987 the Golden Arches decided to use a now cringeworthy marketing campaign for chicken mcnuggets. (See the video)
The nuggets of course came with chopsticks and the wrapper had instructions on how to use them.(See the photo)According to the wrapper, you’re supposed to rest one chopstick on your ring finger and the other between your middle and index finger (like a pencil). You then manipulate them by doing a sort of Vulcan sign type thing.
I had been resting one chopstick on my middle finger and holding the other with my thumb and index finger, which I bet is more difficult for first time learners.
Anyway I tried to correct myself and hold them like in the diagram, but I was unable to pick up any food the correct way. So I gave up. I was already proficient enough the wrong way that it didn’t matter to me.
Over the years, and well into adulthood, there would be people very publicly pointing out to me that I was doing it wrong. These ranged from Asian people who wanted to show off how they were more in touch with their heritage, and non-Asians who wanted to show off that they were more cultured or something.
Then when I moved to Japan I remember one person who gave me the often heard compliment that I used chopsticks very well. I was about to say thanks so that the conversation I’d had more than a hundred times would run its course. (conversation below)
A: You use chopsticks so well!
B: Thank you.
A: Do you like [insert food representative of my culture here]?
B: Yes, I do!
A: How long have you been using chopsticks
B: Since I was about six years old.
A: Wow! That’s so rare for a foreigner.
B: Yes I suppose it is, isn’t it?
A: You really are so Japanese now [or other country].
A: *awkward silence*
Ah, sidetrack, back to the story, after giving me the compliment she went on to inform me that I was using the chopsticks incorrectly, but it was okay since I wasn’t Japanese and nobody would get on my case about it. I think I must have been having a bad day that day because I snapped.
I started asking her how she holds forks and whether she had ever put any thought behind how they should properly be held. I asked her if she had ever met ANYONE (even a foreigner) above the age of 12 who couldn’t use chopsticks, and other angsty passive aggressive questions to make sure she knew that I wasn’t taking this crap anymore!
She replied,”I was just trying to give you a compliment and help you out.”Look people, there’s no ONE way to do things. The function of chopsticks is to put food into your mouth. In my book, if you can do this with one hand and without stabbing, then you’re good. If you can also can pick up frickin’ ice cubes and dissect small cooked fish, who cares how you hold them? Just do what works for you!
One day, over lunch with my dad last summer, I examined for the first time how he had been holding them. I don’t think I had ever thought to do this. As I was staring at his hands, he noticed what I was doing and slightly embarrassed he said… “Son, after all your time in Korea, I guess you’ve figured out that I use chopsticks incorrectly.”
“No you don’t, Dad. No you don’t.”
(edit: My father is Korean you idiot trolls.)