I am not adept at fine dining. Even after a couple of terms of formal meals in college (albeit curtailed by the pandemic), I still haven’t quite grasped how to neatly balance a pile of peas on the back of my fork, which is apparently the European style. There seems to be such a vast grammar of cutlery knowledge, from spoons to wine glasses to napkin arrangement.
Frankly, I think I’m much more accustomed to the simple language of chopsticks. Simple, however, is by no means straightforward. To me, the humble art of chopsticks conveys more than any elaborate silverware ever could.
My grandfather’s love language is to teach. One of my earliest memories is of him teaching me to use chopsticks, the proper way. “Only your first two fingers should be moving”, he tells me “and your two chopsticks must never cross”. He can use the chopsticks ambidextrously. He shows me chopstick tricks and we play chopstick wrestling (trying to pry a pea from the other person’s chopstick grip). In the grasp of his skilful hands, there is no need for any other cutlery. There is no need for knives at the table when even slippery noodles can be sliced clean with a pair of chopsticks.
My grandmother’s love language is food. In her hands, the wooden chopsticks are no longer just cutlery, but a vehicle of her concern: “Come, eat more. I cooked this especially for you”. She teaches me not to waste food, to 省, to save. Though she knows little of the origin of chopsticks, they were invented for this very reason — to scrape the leftovers from the bottom of the cooking pot. Leftovers do not exist, however, in this household. For in spite of all the nagging that she gives my grandfather, when he comes home from a long day’s work, what really matters is how my grandmother gently places the best ingredients onto his plate with her chopsticks, and takes the remainders for herself. There is no need for grand gestures, when the simplest emotion of all can be expressed with a pair of chopsticks.
There are all sorts of ways you can use a pair of chopsticks. The custom of using chopsticks differs across cultures, across countries, even across households. But wherever you are, using chopsticks takes practice, patience and perseverance. After more than fifty years of marriage, my grandparents are still figuring it out, with every meal and every mouthful. Deciphering the code of chopsticks takes work, and perhaps nobody is ever really an expert — but isn’t that the beauty of it? That though our chopsticks may cross from time to time and we might drop the food on the table, we can always pick it up and try again.
Artwork by Rachel Jung