I was having dinner in a Hong Kong restaurant one night when one of my wife’s friends told her I held my chopsticks wrong. They spoke in Cantonese but I knew by their body language and by the way they watched me eat, they were talking about me.
When we’re at these dinners, Bovey knows without me asking when I want her to translate. So I shot her the look and she whispered, saying her friend thought my chopstick skills were unorthodox.
I looked at my fingers intertwined in the bamboo sticks then looked at Bovey’s friend who politely smiled back at me with an expression that seemed to say, “You poor ruffian.”
That’s when I realized the way you hold your chopsticks says a lot about you.
Up till then, I was proud of my skills and never thought about the way I held them. I knew my style was different but it worked for me.
I’ve even been known to garner the occasional compliment from the staff at various Asian restaurants where Bovey and I dine. But it’s funny how they never compliment me directly.
They sidle up to the table and dote, usually when they’re coming around to fill our tea kettle, making polite chit chat with Bovey in one of the Chinese languages my wife speaks.
A waiter might lavish praise on me, going on and on with Bovey in Chinese, then right before rushing off to the next table, look at me as I’m shoving a load of rice in my mouth and say something like, “Yeah, yeah. See. Very good.”
It’s meant as a compliment but with all the Chinese banter and gushing back and forth, it feels more like the waiter praises Bovey on the great job she did house breaking me.
Use proper form, you should be able to hold your chopsticks with three fingers, the thumb, index and middle fingers. But for me, I need four fingers.
Proper form says you should put the broad end of the first chopstick in the crook of your hand where your thumb and index finger meet. The skinny end of the stick should rest against the side of your middle finger. Then you grip the second stick with your index finger and thumb. This is the stick that moves.
But when I do it this way, I can’t control the top stick. It falls out of my hand or I press too hard and end up helicoptering it across the table.
I basically need three fingers instead of two to control the top stick. I use my thumb, index and middle finger to secure this one. Using these three fingers to hold the top stick requires me to press the bottom stick against the tip of my ring finger. In proper technique, the ring finger should never even touch the chopstick.
There’s no Forks in Tsuen Wan
When I first started going to Hong Kong, Bovey and her family and I gathered at restaurants near where she grew up in Tsuen Wan. At the first few meals, someone at the table usually asked me if I needed a fork. I politely declined even though I wondered if the staff would be able to scrounge up a fork at all.
Over the years, I’ve made several visits to Bovey’s old neighborhood and I’ve never seen another gwailo on the streets or in any of the restaurants. There is not a great demand for forks in Tsuen Wan.
Perhaps each restaurant squirreled away a few in case of a gwailo emergency. I pictured the confused looks on the faces of the staff when a waiter might walk into the kitchen and ask for one. Everyone would stop and look at each other as if the waiter just asked them where they keep the moon rocks.
Mr. Miyagi Skills
These days, whenever I eat Chinese food I use chopsticks. I like the way chopsticks force me to eat slow. By their very nature, you can pick up only small bits of food at a time. And I sometimes spend a lot of time in between bites harrying the food on my plate, which slows me down even more.
As clumsy as I am with chopsticks, I made my peace with them. To some, my style might make me look like the Western equivalent of the guy that holds his fork with his fist, and I suppose I should be more concerned about this than I am. But I’ve been using chopsticks now for about eighteen years and so far I haven’t found another way to hold them.
If the worse that comes from this is that I look a bit uncultured, so be it. I’m no prince, for sure. I’m not Mr. Miyagi good with my chopsticks, snatching flies out of mid air or anything, but I’m not going hungry either.