Friday, March 20, 2009

struggle with chopsticks

According to the world-famous blog Stuff White People Like, "all white people love Sushi." Actually, I know a lot of white people who refuse to even try sushi, so that claim seems fallacious (and maybe even specious).

But then, the white people anatomized at Stuff White People Like are really a certain kind of white people--urban, pseudo-sophisticated, personally health-conscious, ironically individualistic, hypocritically worried about their carbon footprint, and so on. So I guess in that context, a general claim about white love for sushi is okay.

I'm a little surprised that SWPD doesn't mention chopsticks, nor chopstick usage. However, it does describe white love for "Asian Girls," and for "tea," and for "Asian Fusion Food"; with all that white love for Asian-ness, maybe it's just a given that this kind of white person knows how to eat with two pointed sticks.

However, a lot of other white people struggle with chopsticks. Not just with how to use them, but sometimes, even with whether to use them. Are there guidelines or standards for white people when it comes to proper chopstick usage?

If white people enter any sort of Asian restaurant, or otherwise encounter Asian food, should they use them? Would they look foolish using a fork and spoon, when everyone else is using chopsticks? What about when the server gives a white person Western utensils, and he or she asks for chopsticks instead? Does that seem, like, pretentious, or something?

And what if you point out that using those disposable wooden chopsticks uses up a lot of trees, and increases your carbon footprint? Would that seem, like, pretentious, or something?

What's a well-meaning, self-conscious white diner to do?

One thing it seems white diners should do is learn how to use chopsticks. You know, just in case. Maybe they could begin with this here starter-kit thingie, the "Chopsticks Aid." It's like chopstick training wheels!

The Chopsticks Aid,
via Serious Eats

The other thing white folks who encounter apparently Asian food could do is just learn how to drive chopsticks, without training wheels. It's really not that hard, and I've noticed that a lot of Asian restaurants have the directions printed right on the paper package that chopsticks often come in.

Or you could just use these directions, and practice at home. Go on--you can do it!

What about you? Do you and chopsticks get along okay?


  1. OMG that is hilarious. Not really an aid, more of a converter. I went to a sushi place couple days ago with my 2.5 year old toddler and they gave him a modified chopsticks that he just had to press. they made it in house with the chopstick wrapper and a rubber band. INGENOUS. seen it before but realy appreciated their effors to accomodate all family members.

  2. i work sometimes at a thai restaurant, and you'd be amazed (or maybe not) how many people ask for chopsticks. the thing is, thai people don't use chopsticks. of course we have them in the back anyway. we know how customers like to define authentic on their own terms!

    but i'm offended by the white folks who can't use chopsticks well, but am kind of annoyed by those who claim to use chopsticks well. i don't hear anyone bragging about being able to use a fork.

    btw, i am very bad with non-chinese style spoons for anything but cereal. most people don't think that's possible.

  3. I can eat bigger things with chopsticks. Sushi is no problem.
    Rice, however, I start to sweat. I fumble. My sticks get all crossed. Rice goes flying. It is very embarrassing.

    1. With rice, it's okay to just "shovel" it into your mouth.

  4. Wow that "aid" thing is totally ridiculous. I mean, just use a fork already at that point!

    A few notes. There are really 4 major chopstick-wielding nations in Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam) so it's a bit off to equate Asian food generally with chopsticks. Let's not disappear South, Southeast, and Central Asia, ya know? Spoons and hands are actually probably more common on the whole.

    My favorite line about eating utensils comes from Jet Li in "Once Upon a Time in China", when he sits down at a western-set table and says, "Why are there so many weapons on the table?!" Plenty of Chinese folks have struggled to get used to sticking sharp metal objects in their mouths, and slashing slabs of meat at the dinner table.

    Sushi is meant to be eaten with fingers. Sashimi is eaten with chopsticks.

    It's not pretentious to say "No thank you" when servers bring you fork and knife. Lecturing about environmentalism, however, is. Traditional chopsticks are made from bamboo, which is a renewable resource (a fast-growing grass, to be precise).

    In my (Chinese) family, when I was growing up, it was normal to judge people based on their chopstick skills. Kinda like handwriting, it said something about your character, whether you were adept or sloppy, whether you did things with grace and skill or were an uncaring slob. Not really fair, but that's how it was.

    And yes, I still secretly laugh at white folks struggling with chopsticks. As I did in this thread.

  5. i LOVE chopsticks. at home i eat everything that usually requires a fork with chopsticks. being a fast eater, i like chopsticks because they slow me down--but not a lot. im always sad when i go out for thai or indian & feel it would be inappropriate to request chopsticks--do they even have them?

    yay chopsticks....

  6. i learned how to use chopsticks from my high school boyfriend, who was korean. i now attest that asian food simply does not taste as good without using chopsticks. in fact, i now won't let my fiance back in the car after picking up any asian food if he has not put chopsticks in the bag.

    it's not like it's all that difficult to learn. i think everyone should at least give it a try. my fiance doesn't use them at home, but if we're at a restaurant and they're offered he won't demand a fork or anything.

  7. I was lucky enough to go to a public school where the teachers spent a week (clumsily I admit) teaching us about 'Asian Culture' (read: very basic Chinese & Japanese history) which included us using chopsticks. Since then I have used the regularly - out and at home. But I agree with giles - that using them and bragging about it is a bit ridiculous.

  8. I never had much trouble using chopsticks. I don't think it's pretentious to ask for them in Asian restaurants, either. Sticky rice isn't the same with a fork.

    I went to China and Vietnam for a month, and I was surprised at how many of my fellow travelers could not use chopsticks. Our Chinese professor told us that when he first came to America, he could not eat spaghetti with a fork :)

  9. As someone who has been to Asia a few times, I save my pretension on chopstick use to the establishments that warrant it. The generic faux-Chinese buffet place on every streetcorner? Nope, fork time. Sometimes it depends on what they give me. I'll rarely ask for chopsticks outright. If they have them on the table then I'll usually use them. Giles's comment about "defining authentic" is a good way to look at it.

    Also, I wonder if the topic of using foreign languages in "ethnic" restaurants is worth exploring. I know in most of the sushi places where I live the owners and employees are predominantly Korean, and whenever someone tells me I should order in Japanese they are always a bit shocked when I tell them it would do no good.

  10. uh btw, i meant to say i'm NOT offended by the white folks who can't use chopsticks well in my above comment...i'm offended by those who turn it into a big whooptidoo when they can use chopsticks well...

  11. Thanks for the insight, Kai. And right on, Giles. I was just thinking the same thing myself about the couple of posters who claim the food tastes better, etc. when using chopsticks.
    Bull. Shit.
    And I'm black. And I sometimes use chopsticks.

  12. I have developed an obsession with observing how people use chopsticks ever since dating my first ex who was afflicted with yellow fever *sigh* told me that I wasn't asian enough (amongst many things) because I used chopsticks "the wrong way" ie. not the same way as in your second diagram.
    Anyway, I have found that the majority of my aquaintances of East Asian ethnic background use chopsticks "the wrong way" like me :P and I always ask for chopsticks when I have Thai food because that is what I am most comfortable eating noodles and rice with. That's all.

  13. I just use whatever is given at the restaurant. Servers are busy, and I'm not going to ask them to make an extra trip just because my utensils aren't "authentic" enough.

    And I agree with giles that it's incredibly annoying when people make a big deal out of how well they can use chopsticks. Gee, lets give you a pat on the back for being able to feed yourself. wtf?

  14. I learned to eat with chopsticks when I was a child; my father worked in LA a lot and we often went to Chinatown for dinner. That and six weeks in Tokyo, followed by two weeks in China when I was in college back in the early 80's (where it was either chopsticks or fingers) and I'm pretty good at them (I have trouble with non-sticky rice, too). I have a collection of them at home bought or given to me while I was in Japan and China that I use when we order take out. But I don't think it's a big deal one way or another. When I'm at the mall I usually eat with the spork they give me.

  15. I love using chopsticks. I can't imagine eating something like pho without them. I would feel foolish if i ate pho with a fork.

    I do think it is funny when I see a white person struggling to use chopsticks.

  16. I was born in Taiwan. I live in the US now but I've been using chopsticks all my life. My grip is a little atypical (I cross them) but it works and in fact my mom, who lived the majority of her life there, has the same idiosyncrasy.

    Imagine my surprise when, while at work and eating noodles on my lunch break, a white woman comes up to me and physically tries to correct my grip.

    Huge "excuse me?" moment.

    I found out that she'd never even left the United States once in her life and yet she had the temerity to try to correct me. It was pretty jaw-dropping.

  17. Ellie, can I add you to my ever growing list of "atypical" chopstick users please? Thanks :)

  18. I live in China, learned my chopstick grip in High School off the back of the package (Tuk under thurnb) and it's become a frustratingly frequent conversation at dinner here about how I'm a westerner with great chopstick skills relative to most of my local friends. (There I've done 2 of the "things white people do" in one paragraph. Three if you count this as fessing up.)

    But what I want to talk about is the whole Thai food/chopsticks thing. Thai eaters use chopsticks on occasion when they eat noodles (a Chinese food), and in Chinese Thai restaurants you invariably get a set of chopsticks which suck for curry, but work ok otherwise. If it gets the food to your mouth, roll with it.

    I don't bemoan anybody who wants to use chopsticks for any kind of food, save a sandwich maybe. It just doesn't seem to carry too much meaning. That said, I'm not going to listen to anybody lecture me on when, why, and how to use chopsticks. To me that's as offensive as forcing people to acknowledge your cultural sensitivity by flaunting your skills. My take is even if the person giving it a shot is terrible and eating the wrong food with it, let them give it a whirl.

    And so what if white people are clumsy at chopsticks, they're clumsy at a lot of things. I'm white as a fresh piece of paper, like translucent white, and you should see me try and brush my teeth.

  19. My parents taught me how to use chopsticks when I was a kid. I'm not super duper awesome at it but I get by with a passing grade, and enjoy using them. In fact for certain dishes, like noodles, I prefer them. Irregardless of the ethnicity of the dish. And when hubby and I started dating I taught him how to use them. I think he's better with them than I am now.

  20. My relationship with chopsticks is rocky, sometimes I am good with them and sometimes the rice goes flying. But I'll eat with whatever is put on the table, and if I'm given chopsticks I will always just use them until I manage to get food in my mouth.

  21. Oh dear, I am one of those white people who flaunts my chopsticking abilities. It's not exactly common amongst us white folks. But I will make an effort to stop doing that.

    My boyfriend and I have a supply of chopsticks that we bought in Chinatown in Boston, and keep them around for when we have Chinese takeout (embarrassingly frequent) since they are laquered and more pleasant to eat with than the plain wooden ones that can give you splinters.

    So yeah...I'm good at chopsticks and can even eat rice without too much trouble. Brag brag.

  22. @giles:
    That's hilarious! Funny, the first thing I think of when I think of Thai food is the cute little forks they give you!

  23. I never ask for either unless they didn't give me either chopsticks or a fork. I'm passable enough with a chopsticks, I don't brag because if I do the next thing that will happen is rice flies everywhere.

    Most of my Chinese friends wield forks 99% of the time anyway.

  24. I always ask for a fork. Tried chopsticks a couple of times, don't like them, far too much work for me. What's the point in making things more difficult for yourself? If you are bought up with chopsticks then it makes sense to use them, otherwise not. I don't really see why it matters either way.

  25. I once went out for dim sum with four Chinese American friends. The table wasn't set when we sat down, and the server brought each of them a pair of chopsticks and me, the white girl, a fork. This gave everyone a major case of the giggles.

    I can't recall exactly when I learned to use chopsticks, but I've been eating with them since I was a little girl. So yeah, we got along all right.

  26. Actually, there are many white people who use chopsticks better than Asians. Some white people are offended when not given chopsticks and/or when they are asked if they would like a fork. Usually, these white people will loudly and arrogantly proclaim that they know how to use chopsticks. And then of course there are those times when the token white person in a group of 10 Asians is the only one using chopsticks while all his/her Asian friends are using forks.


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