My travels have taught me many things – eating with chopsticks is one of them. I can’t say with certainty that I excel in this particular art of shoveling food into my mouth with a chopstick, but I try and sometimes succeed.
On my almost a month-long trip to China in 2013, I had the first real experience of being caught without a fork or a spoon on a hungry stomach with a bow of food on my table and nothing to eat it with but two long sticks which was absolutely useless as far as I was concerned.
I was couchsurfing with a Chinese-Surinamese gal named Deborah Luo in Guangzhou and it was with her that I went to a Chinese diner near her university and faced the biggest meal -challenge.
My first real meal changed the way I perceived Chinese cuisine. To say it was a disaster would be just about right – so let me begin with the way it arrived without a fork or a spoon, which was the real tragedy.
Like Mandarin, the Chinese ritual of using two sticks to shovel food into the mouth has long tested the patience and skill of many a traveler. You eventually learn to balance large meat balls between two thin sticks held in one hand, but when you are hungry it really is …very annoying.
Debbie came to my rescue. But she made an observation first –
“You have traveled so much –you should have learnt how to do this,” and launched into a practical demonstration on the use of chopsticks, pushing my middle finger under one and placing my thumb over the other before showing me how to move my index finger rhythmically with the thumb to sort of form a long tweezers.
I am not a quick learner. I tried and gave up when I dropped the egg drop for the third time.
I had a finger cramp from trying too hard and watched in slight annoyance as Debbie expertly held up vegetables and noodles and meatballs between her sticks.
“Move your fingers up,” she instructed between mouthfuls of noodles. “That should make it easier.”
Easy indeed. I was still having enormous amount of trouble.
“I swear eating should not be that hard. Of all the things invented to eat rice, how did chopsticks get an edge in?”
I cheated by asking for a fork. Yes, I was that uninspired foreigner unable to use a set of chopsticks in a forkless restaurant.
“Really, why would anyone use a 1200BC technique to eat? I mean look at you guys – so advanced in everything else, but this? Gosh, why can’t I just get a fork or a spoon?”
“Because this is China, Anjaly. For God’s sake, try.”
Various thoughts kept running through my mind as I stared at the chopsticks and my untouched food getting cold.
“I have no idea what is going on, Debbie, how about I stab the food instead, like a, err, kebab? Or hey, wait, what if I scooped out the vegetables, after all, I have two sticks and if I placed them together, I have a, sort of scooping device? It worked with a branch when camping outdoors, so why not? If I am going to eat one strand of noodle at a time, how long would it take to finish this bowl?”
I didn’t stop there. “Okay, I feel like a total loser. Moron. But I am going to use my hands instead. Indian –style.”
In the end I just jabbed the meat ball and ate it as though eating it off a skewer. I don’t think she liked me much after that. I also learnt later that it was rude to leave your chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice.