Posted by: Lotus Light | May 18, 2011

Chopsticks.

One of the most frequent questions asked of any foreigner in China is “Can you use chopsticks?” The safest answer is “I’m still learning.”  Why?  Because the minute you say “Yes, I can use chopsticks” then as you nonchalantly pick up the streamers of steaming noodles, they will spill all over the table or onto your neighbours lap.  Seriously – it happens every time!

However there does appear to be an art to using chopsticks.  But, like anything in China, it is complicated by regional differences.  I’ve been told that I have a ‘classic’ chopstick style, that I am holding them all wrong, that I am holding them the Japanese way… you name it, I appear to have held chopsticks in a myriad of ways!  But I have only one method and use it all the time.  My method is one chopstick resting on my middle finger (like a pen), the other held between my thumb and index finger (again like a pen), with my fingers as far away from the collecting end of the sticks as I can make them.  This way the top chopstick is mobile and the lower one stable.  It (mostly) works for me.
As far as I am concerned it is not so much the method of holding the chopsticks that is the problem, but the slipperiness of the food.  After any meal in China, check out the table.  Little bits of food at everyone’s place.  Chinese food is cut up small so chopsticks can easily pick up the tasty morsels, but, the smallness also means bits fall off as the chopsticks move gracefully from dish to mouth.

Using chopsticks to pick up noodles is a definite art.  The noodles are tangled in the bowl, interspersed with meat, vegetables, or tofu and all slicked with an oil based sauce.  It is easy to pincer the first small amount, but pulling your selection out of the bowl becomes more and more difficult.  As you pull, the strands entangle more strands, who in turn gather a few more friends on their way up and out.  I have to lift my hand higher and higher to keep pulling, then stand up to pull the noodles out of the bowl.

If I do manage to pull the noodles out, without adding any more strands and making my selection of noodles a metre long, then I have to transfer them to my plate without dropping them or flipping them into my neighbour’s face.  In the meantime, the meat and vegetables are dripping down the noodles and, along with the sauce, grace the table.  Chinese restaurants are used to this and most of them have a plastic cover on the table that the waitresses merely pick up at the end of the meal and throw out.

I have tried twirling the noodles around my chopsticks, similar to twirling spaghetti, but my Chinese friends laugh at this.  Occasionally a lovely friend will lean over to help and catch the trailing strands of noodles in her chopsticks and place them on my plate for me.  Other times someone will use his chopstick to cut the longer ends that refuse to leave their friends behind in the plate.  I am grateful for this help, but feel as if I am a child again, needing my parents to cut my meat for me.

If I am trying to show a new acquaintance that I am quite comfortable with chopsticks I will order ding ding noodles and skip the whole ‘long strands’ process.  Ding ding noodles are small squares of noodles and so much easier to manage.  I feel as if I can eat them a little more gracefully and elegantly!  But, my chopsticks skills have improved and I now can eat watermelon slices, small tomatoes, peanuts and mini-burgers with chopsticks.  i get a little miffed now when in a fancy restaurant the waitress brings me cutlery.  I can use chopsticks, thank you!!

Chopsticks have other uses as well.  They can be used to cut birthday cakes (as above!), eat soup (well, at least eat the vegetables and meat in the soup!), rescue small items that have fallen under sofas, play drinking games (laohu laohu ganzi anyone?) and sword fight.  They can be hair decorations for dress-ups and bookmarks when eating and reading. Chopsticks are also used to describe the legs of people or their arms, leaving me with a vision of decorated, stiff, thin legs and arms waving oddly in the air.

There are extremely elegant choptsicks in beautiful boxed sets, plain cheap bamboo ones, plastic and wooden re-usables, small chopsticks for children and long chopsticks for cooking.  The variety, colours and decorations are infinite.  Students have convinced the powers-that-be at our uni to toss away the disposable chopsticks in favour of recyclable, reusable ones, playing their part for protection of the environment.

One of the stories about chopsticks is that when you pull apart the joined, disposable sets, if the sticks break evenly, your relationship will be stable.  If one side is thicker than the other, then one person will dominate.  I’ve also heard a variation on this describing your love life as well….  🙂

Chopsticks are part of my life now – but never to be taken too complacently!

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