Clash of the Utensils (#78)

You wouldn't eat a grapefruit with chopsticks...
You wouldn’t eat a grapefruit with chopsticks, would you?

Chopsticks never made any sense to me. Eating rice with them is a special kind of torture. I’d corner a pile of rice on my plate, smoosh it together with chopsticks, and lose half the pile on the way to my mouth. The futility of eating rice with chopsticks was inversely proportional to the size of the rice pile; the smaller the pile, the harder it was to get a few grains to your mouth. There were times when I’d manage to get two grains of rice in my mouth. This is fantastic for dieting, but lousy for sustenance.

The first time I had dim sum with Andy’s family was a revelation. (It was also something of a humiliation.) First, the rice wasn’t put on a plate — it went it bowls. Second, the rice was sticky. Third, Andy and his family lifted the bowls off the table and held them directly under their chins. They used the chopsticks to shovel the rice directly into their mouths. Any rice that fell off the chopsticks landed back in the bowl.

Andy’s family also ate fast. They took huge bites. Whole dumplings disappeared into Andy’s maw. Which shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve won money because people did not believe Andy could fit an entire doughnut in his mouth.

I never thought to try eating a dumpling whole. For one thing, my mouth is about half the size of Andy’s. But even if my mouth had been twice the size of his, the manners my mother had drilled into my head as a child would have prevented me from an attempt. I was trained to take small bites, so I could swallow quickly and answer when asked a question. Massive mouthfuls were only acceptable on Taco Night, where my Ex-Stepfather gained familial respect by eating a hard-shelled taco in two bites. (Big Brother could only do it in three bites.) Except for Taco Night, we were expected to sit up straight, elbows off the table, and to bring our food up to our mouths on a spoon or a fork.

So it dawned on me, watching Andy’s Cantonese family successfully chow down, that it wasn’t the chopsticks that were the problem. It was me. I had been a total idiot to eat Chinese food with American manners. Duh. Each culture’s acceptable table manners developed in conjunction with their cuisine and eating utensils.

For example, in China, land of wrapped food, the chopsticks carry the potsticker to the diner’s mouth whole, without piercing the thin wrapper. Which makes sense – it youcut up a potsticker or pierce it with a fork, that sucker is going to fall apart and you’ll be stuck trying to convey a bunch of slippery little pieces to your mouth with chopsticks. (I speak from experience.) When Andy makes potstickers, he even uses chopsticks to put them in the pan and remove them from the pan.

In my home, the big familial faux pas was chewing with your mouth open. Open-mouthed chewing was grounds for an instant parental reprimand. If my parents didn’t notice it, well, one of my seven siblings would, and they would rat me out instantly. (If I got exiled from the table, my food was fair game.)

At dim sum, everyone chewed with their mouths open. Which makes sense – you can’t close your jaw with a massive mouthful. (Well, I can’t. Andy can.)

I soon adopted Chinese table manners. My rice went into a bowl. I held the bowl up to my chin. Safely isolated from watery sauces which destroy cohesion, the sticky rice stayed together in the chopsticks for the short trip to my mouth.

I scooped that rice into my mouth very quickly. I think I ate more rice in my first meal with a rice bowl than I’d managed in twenty years of dining at Chinese restaurants.

I tried stuffing a potsticker in my mouth whole. It felt weird, but it worked. And I only chewed with my mouth a teensy bit open.

Jian dui (fried dough balls covered in sesame seeds and stuffed with red bean paste) were too big for my mouth. But jian dui was my favorite food at dim sum, and so I was determined to conquer them – without the damned fork the oh-so-helpful wait staff kept trying to press on me. I figured out I could eat half of the ball off the chopsticks in one bite, keep the chopsticks in the air, and then come back for a second bite.

I’d NEVER have left any food on the fork or spoon in my white childhood. You were supposed to not only remove every bit of food from your utensil, you were required to do it silently – with your lips. My mother could not stand the sound of metal clicking against tooth enamel. (I believe 4 out of 5 dentists agree that metal scraping tooth enamel is BAD, by the way.)

But with soft wooden chopsticks, ha! No nasty clicking if your teeth hit. No future veneers, either.

And noodles? Well, chopsticks work much better than a spoon or a fork. Once you’ve gotten hold of the noodles, you use the same rice bowl shoveling technique! Plus you slurp to cool down the noodles. BECAUSE SLURPING IS OKAY IN CHINA! My mother would have hated China. The woman had a fit over the noise a straw made when you got to the bottom of your drink. (There was no slurping in my childhood. Not even from drinks CALLED “Slurpees.”)

Bring on those noodles. After two years with Andy, I now slurp with a vengeance. In fact, even if I’m eating with girlfriends at P.F. Chang’s, I grab my rice bowl and chopsticks without thinking. Halfway through the meal, I see my friends wielding their forks and realize that like Andy, I now match my utensils and manners to the cuisine. Though I will never match my husband in speed of consumption nor in chopstick dexterity, of course.

The transition between white manners and Chinese manners became automatic. When Andy gets his chopsticks into Asian cuisine, I ignore the ensuring speed and carnage. I forgot that it’s a little disconcerting for other Western diners.

On our honeymoon, we went to an Asian-fusion restaurant with Canadians Yelena and Mark. Andy ordered the fish, which was served whole, complete with head and eyeballs. The rest of us ordered more western entrées.

There was the usual conversational lull when the food arrived. I averted my eyes from Andy’s plate, the better to avoid eye contact the fish. (Yes, I prefer to pretend my food was never a living creature, which is very hard to do when it IS STARING AT YOU.)

A minute or two later, I asked, “What do you guys think?”

There was no answer. I looked up. Yelena and Mark stared at Andy, who had polished off most of his fish. With chopsticks. And yes, in under two minutes.

Andy bit off an eyeball. Yelena swallowed and wrenched her gaze back to me. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Your beef? How is it?”

“Oh, um, fantastic,” she murmured, pushing a piece around her plate.

Neither she nor Mark ate much until Andy’s fish was reduced to bones a few seconds later. They didn’t say much until dessert. And they politely declined our invitation for another group dinner, though they joined us for tea and drinks on the beach daily. I was a little disappointed, but I understood.

Some people just can’t handle the power of properly wielded chopsticks.

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

37 thoughts on “Clash of the Utensils (#78)”

  1. How I HATE HATE HATE the smacking and slurping! I always imagine how I pierce those smacking Chinese’s eyeballs with a fork. It drives me nuts! When we eat at home, slurping and smacking is absolutely FORBIDDEN! It is absolutely ok for Mr. Panda, but his parents unfortunately don’t care at all.
    When we eat in HK I get asked all the time if I don’t like the food, because I always eat so silently. I always have to assure them that I love all the delicious food and that these are just my Austrian table manners.
    And I also already did a blog post on how fast and how much all of them eat. (My first post, and this shows how much this topic is a burden to me. xD) Now I also do so, but just so I can leave the table early so I don’t have to endure all the smacking and slurping anymore…
    http://www.bettyhasapanda.com/index.php/2015/07/10/how-i-learned-what-jealousy-about-food-is/

    Hurray for Western table manners!

    1. LOL, poor Betty! It does take some getting used to, that’s for sure. I think I was so delighted to figure out how/ why to rice eat properly that the noise did not bother me. The burps of Popo were shocking, though!

      I think the next time you are in HK, you’ve GOT to guzzle a soda before dim sum and belch like a champion when his parents ask if you like the food. Cuz that would be hilarious.

      Andy tells me I should be grateful that I’ve never had to witness the someone wiping their face on the tablecloth. But seriously, when in Rome…

      1. I ate dinner almost everyday with 3 Chinese for 5 years as we lived together and it got worse day by day. In the beginning I could still handle it somehow, but now I also can’t stand people chewing gum too loudly on the train. I somewhere along the way developed Misophonia, and it is level 5/6 of 10 D:

        Oh and I’ve seen people doing it, and also people spitting on the table next to me, at home or in a restaurant. Challenge for Andy: Try to show me something I haven’t seen so far. LOL.

        And next time, I’ll order a coke and let them hear in a grand finale how much I liked it 😀

  2. Rome I could handle. All this Chinese manners I’m not so sure. I never even attempt chopsticks. In my favorite Chinese restaurant they automatically give me a fork. Kudos to you for mastering them.

    1. You just have to start to use them, you will get used to them so fast. You just need to start. Then you can make all Chinese in China speechless when you use them like a pro. And when they want to give you a fork, just demand chopsticks and make them go all “Ahhhh!” and “Ohhhh!”

  3. Poor Mark and Yelena, they’ve probably told the story about the guy who ate the whole fish, eyes and all, at a couple of dinner parties. I love sushi but always have a little mound of rice in my soy sauce cup by the end of the meal, just can’t seem to pick it all up with my chopsticks.

  4. The various Asbough connexions who are most intimately concerned with my well-being have three concerns, one of which is that I eat too fast. They share this concern with my own connexions: as my late, lamented father noted, “What’s His Name, you eat like you’re going to the Chair.”

    Clearly, I should have been Chinese!

  5. This clearly reminded me of one thing. A Clown’s slurping and chewing while dining with me, virtually. So, on skype. Yeah, typical of China people. xD I remember him asking when I was going to start on eating. xD But I already was. Silently. Though, he later made fun of me for being such a slow eater, pfft. (Even my family makes fun of me for that.)

    So, yeah, there’s a huge difference between Asian and White culture.

    Also, how could he eat the whole fish?! I tend to cut its head off.

    1. It’s kind of amazing. I think he picks up the whole fish with the chopsticks and eats it that way. But like I said, I try not to watch.

      Eating slower is much healthier, good for you.

  6. Autumn, you’re not the only one who doesn’t know how to use the chopstick properly. Me, too.

    There’s a difference between Asian, Oriental and Western (White) culture. In the UK, Asians are defined as those from the Indian sub-continent. There’s also a difference between Chinese from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; they have different mindset and fashion sense etc.

    I lived in the tropics for many years. I had yet to see Chinese families, not even Muslim-Chinese families eating with chop sticks at home. The only time they used chop sticks were dining out in Chinese eateries. These were mainly professional families, times may have changed ……………….

      1. LOL………They did not observe a lot of the traditions like they do in Mainland China. In one prominent Chinese family, a number of the children went against their parent’s wishes eg career choices, one answered back.

        Yes, there was a clear distinction between the definition of Asians and Orientals in some of these countries back then.

        I struggle with the the bowl shovelling technique of eating rice.

  7. I didn’t know jiaozi/dumplings were called potstickers, that’s a funny word, haha.

    I think the type of food and the way it is prepared dictates the utensils you should be using. For Chinese food, which is almost always readily cut into small pieces, chopsticks make sense. But I never understood how they can eat a whole fish with chopsticks. I can only manage to pick very small pieces. And during my first years in China I tried to avoid noodles soups, because the noodles had the nasty habit of falling from my chopsticks back into the soup and splashing all over my clothes. And, you know, in student dorms and rented apartments, washing machines only use freezing cold water so they don’t really wash much…

    1. Oh, the falling noodles! Yes, a serious hazard for chopstick neophyte. Yes another reason to go with Chinese manners and stick your face close to the bowl.

      But I thought the worst was the falling apart potsticker, which splashes the balsamic vinegar dipping sauce on your clothes. Which why I am such a fan of stuffing it in my mouth quickly and whole!

  8. This is a great post and I can totally relate. Yes, Chinese and Cantonese families eat fast. The second my mother puts the rice and dishes (two meats, veggies mixed with the meat plus a bowl of soup with boiled meat for each of us) on the table, everyone grabs chopsticks and starts picking at basically everything, and sometimes on a good day we get dinner down in ten minutes.

    I’ve always had trouble eating dumplings with chopsticks on the first bite…sometimes the dumpling crashes onto the plate and bobs everywhere…none has hit the floor yet.

    Hahaha. Mark and Yelena sounded horrified washing Andy eat that fish. You know what, it sounds like you and Andy could win an eating competition 😀

  9. Oh man Autumn, growing up I was just like you. Despite being half Asian, I ALWAYS struggled eating rice. I would always try to lift up little pieces of it from the plate to my mouth and fail miserably. I bet my Vietnamese mom watched me, laughing on the inside, as I put our culture to shame.

    Anyway, the bowl shoveling technique is the only way to eat rice with chopsticks (as far as I know). Japanese rice kinda makes it possible, because it’s so darn sticky, but other than that it’s shovel or get a spoon.

    The fish thing blows my mind. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the mountains of Utah (landlocked mountain area) and didn’t eat seafood all that much, but when I went to Japan and China I was blown away at how beautifully they ate a whole fish! While I was poking at the fish and spitting out fishbones, my Chinese/Japanese friends finished the other half of the fish gracefully, not a sliver of flesh left on the bones of their fish. It was an art.

    Chinese people also rock at peeling off nut shells (sunflower, walnut, you name it…). I went to a Chinese friend’s house once and tried to eat the walnuts her mother gave me. I broke two nails to scoop out a minuscule piece of walnut, while my friend and her mother cracked open the nut whole and plump with ease. So jealous.

    1. I am relieved to know I am not the only American who thought chopsticks were crap for rice. 🙂

      I now await your post on Japanese table manners versus American table manners. Or did I miss that one already?

      Maybe your mom wanted you to gain more dexterity with chopsticks?

  10. One of my Cambodian coworkers slurps and smacks with gleeful abandon at his desk, as we all eat at our desks and your post made me think of him 😛

    Hmmm, potstickers.

    Yeah, growing up with both cultures was kind of nice, now that I think about it. I like both foods and can manage with both fork and knife (sort of) and chopsticks.

    It was funny b/c the first time we were given chopsticks, my brother and I were like, “Uh, help. How do you use these?” We were at a Chinese restaurant. And my mom was like, hahahaha, you better figure it out or starve. Soooo, that’s how I learned.

    What I like to do is see how everyone at the table holds their chopsticks. Fascinating stuff.

    Hmmm, potstickers…

  11. Great article — and so true about the difference in table manners! You simply cannot eat Chinese food and follow Miss Manners’ every etiquette suggestion for the table…it just doesn’t work, period.

  12. Can you believe that after living in Taiwan for the past number of years that I still follow Western table manners? I have never held my bowl to my mouth, I eat dumplings with two bites, and I never slurp my food. But, then again, people are impressed with my chopstick skills – I am a master of the two sticks.

    And yes, Taiwanese eat fast, too! Most usually focus on their food. For me, I talk a lot and they usually end up waiting for me to finish.

  13. It was hard for me to change my western etiquette at first too. When it comes to Chinese food you just need to enjoy. I remember I use to get in trouble with my bf’s mother for not eating with meh elbows on the table. Apparently, it’s rude not to unlike western culture. I’m not completely over eating food with faces. It still bothers me time to time. :p Once Tony’s grandparents gave me rabbit stew…it was delicious till I discovered it’s jaw and other body parts. ;___;

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