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Chopsticks strike back! E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Mary Higgins
There are two phrases that every single foreigner hears within minutes of arriving in China. The first is the ever ubiquitous 你的中文讲得很好 (Ni de zhongwen jiang de hen hao - Your Chinese is really good). It does not matter how badly you have just mangled the Chinese language. You might have just said “shoe shoe” (or “Thank you” in I-don’t-speak-a-lick-of-your-language-hua). If you are planning on visiting China for the first time then you should expect to hear this phrase well before you’ve even passed through customs.

The second phrase that you will undoubtedly hear is the only slightly lesser known 你的筷子用得很好 (Ni de kuaizi yong de hen hao - You use chopsticks really well.). Now, we’ve all seen foreigners in China that have never picked up chopsticks and are struggling to eat their noodles like a three year old however the reality of the situation is that people like this are few and far between. I’d say that 95% of the foreigners living/traveling in China can use chopsticks reasonably well so it really shouldn’t surprise anyone when someone picks up a pair and starts eating away. I’ve been here for years and I still hear it from people even after I’ve told them how long I have lived here. Regardless, I still get a kick when someone says it to me.

I use them right-handed, left-handed, pick up ribs and silky tofu yet people really feel that they absolutely need to tell me how skillful I am. To a certain degree, I love that the Chinese want to make me feel welcome and show their appreciation but the part where I get a little bit confused is when they tell me in the same tone of voice that is normally reserved for acrobats, people that can recite Pi to 1000 digits, or the rare few that can solve a Rubik’s cube in under 20 seconds. “Oh look! Little Johnny has learned to use chopsticks. Ooh! Ooh! Quick! Get the camera!” Yeah, I’ll show you how well I can use chopsticks WHEN I JAM THEM IN YOUR EYE! But, I digress. Back to the matter at hand.

It is a rare and guilty pleasure of mine when I eat a meal with a Chinese person that requires a fork and knife. I’ve listened to Chinese people scoff at using a fork and knife to eat and why not? To use a fork you merely need to have mastered a stabbing motion, right? Riiiggghhhttt. Even the most Westernized of Chinese that have never left the country struggle to eat with a fork and knife without tearing apart their food into an unrecognizable mess. In the end, many will simply stick a massive clump of food in their mouths and then use their teeth to cut whatever it is that they are eating. I see them struggling to achieve basic normality and I choose to let them keep their quiet dignity. As the food is pouring out of their mouths and being mistakenly flipped off their plates I prefer to keep the lively conversation going instead of putting all of the attention on the incredibly fantastic and wonderful skills.

When using chopsticks for the first time, the initial learning curve is very steep but it quickly levels off. Once you got it, you got it. That’s it. There really is no advanced master class for chopstick users (unless you’re Pat Morita). Sure, you can learn to pick up even more awkward things with varying amounts of pressure but truthfully, it’s all the same thing. The complete opposite is with a fork and knife. You can learn to use it in seconds but it takes a lot of work to learn that you can’t just grip your fork like a dagger and expect to get by. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the fork & knife is up there with the most complex of tasks that require absurd amounts of manual dexterity but I think you get my meaning.

All this is to say that while I appreciate the gesture of congratulating me (repeatedly) on learning to use chopsticks, you’ll never hear me say 你的刀叉用得很好 (Ni de dao cha yong de hen hao - You use a fork and knife really well).

Our valuable Editor Mary Higgins has been with us since Tuesday, 24 November 2009.

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