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How to Pick Up Anything

Learning to use chopsticks has brought me closer to my culture

Credit: Shaiith/Getty Images

MyMy father handed me a folded slip of red paper. Printed inside were the instructions, saved from a recent restaurant excursion, for using chopsticks: Tuck under thumb and hold firmly. Add second chopstick, hold it as you hold a pencil. Hold first chopstick in original position, move the second one up and down. Now you can pick up anything.

He wanted me to learn the proper method, in which the eater only moves the top chopstick. Mine crossed in the back, both chopsticks moving at the same time, like a pair of scissors.

My husband smirked. Even though he’s not Chinese, he had the right approach, because he’s the sort who follows every step of the recipe while I’m always improvising before I get to the end of the instructions. “The food gets to my mouth. That’s what matters,” I said. With chopsticks, I ate enthusiastically and doggedly, but not always with finesse — which also describes how I’ve made my way in life.

I understood how using chopsticks might double as a test of cultural authenticity. It reflected how much of my heritage my immigrant Chinese parents passed down to me.

Whenever my father had chided me in the past for solving problems with “brute-force,” I had secretly taken it as a compliment. “Please try,” he now pleaded. This lesson seemed belated, after he’d guided me through so many other lessons already. He taught me how to ride my bike on a wide stretch of blacktop; how to drive our lime-green Buick LeSabre, stately as a cruise ship; and at my wedding, he’d walked me down the aisle — at my side at different stages in my march towards adulthood.

At this late date, when I was in my early thirties, he still felt a paternal duty, but I didn’t have any desire to learn. Why bother? I was American born and bred, and I’d never be a Chinese maiden in a long silk robe, plucking a zither in a garden. Yet I also understood how using chopsticks might double as a test of cultural authenticity. More than a way to eat, it reflected — measured? — how much of my heritage my immigrant Chinese parents passed down to me, just as mastering the rituals of a quinceañera and bat mitzvah do, too.

I’I’ve picked up many traditional practices imperfectly from my parents, lost in translation somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, some time in the more than a half-century since they left China. See: my overstuffed homemade dumplings, bloody ground pork spilling out of the edges. See: Lunar New Year customs, which I looked up online and began following as an adult — getting a haircut, cleaning the house, and buying new clothes to usher in blessings. See: me trying to puzzle out when my mother’s birthday on the lunar calendar corresponds to the Western one.

I tried to fit in, getting a perm and donning Guess jeans, and other signifiers of suburban girlhood in the late 1980s — and I’d no sooner use chopsticks than bind my feet.

Just when chopsticks originated are lost to history, though the earliest to survive date back to more than three thousand years ago, bronze pairs excavated near Henan, and likely used as a cooking implement. As far back as I can remember, our kitchen drawer has held a deep bin of fake ivory chopsticks, plastic engraved with the characters and illustrations of a dragon and a phoenix — the highest of all Chinese mythical creatures. For a snack, I used to spear a whole apple with a chopstick, and gnaw it down to the core. It was more fun to eat that way, as if I were at a carnival midway. But chopsticks were never my primary utensil.

In the suburbs east of San Francisco, we were one of a handful of Chinese families, and my classmates teased me and snubbed me from early on. I tried to fit in, getting a perm and donning Guess jeans, Esprit canvas tote bags, and other signifiers of suburban girlhood in the late 1980s — and I’d no sooner use chopsticks than bind my feet. At home, and at Chinese restaurants, I insisted on a fork, in a muddled form of protest, of patriotism, to claim that I was truly American. My parents must have tried to teach me how to use chopsticks, in the murkiness before my memories begin, but eventually, they had to let it go. They had demanding careers in science and engineering, and it must have taken everything in them to get our family through the day, let alone try to stem the tide of assimilation.

In college, I started taking a tentative interest in my heritage, but knew no better than my non-Chinese friends where to go for a late night bite in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We ended up at a dive with paper napkins and Formica tables, the air heavy with grease. Without a word, the waiter dropped forks in front of them, and chopsticks by me. My friends protested. I felt pleased, but then almost immediately like a fraud — hyphenated, never quite American or Chinese enough. Most likely, the waiter had decided he didn’t want the hassle of coming back to deliver forks. Maybe, more often than not, tourists didn’t know how to use chopsticks. And I didn’t either — at least, not correctly, not then and not years later, despite my father’s renewed efforts to teach me.

AAnd yet, chopsticks are the ultimate all-purpose tool for me. My mother first showed me how to scramble eggs with chopsticks, the rhythmic tick-tick-tick against the bowls the sound of breakfast in our family. When I’m making zoodles — zucchinis shredded into spiral strands — and a bit gets stuck in the center blade, I poke it out with a chopstick, saving my fingers. To check if cakes are done, I poke one in like a skewer. When my twin sons were toddlers, we whiled away weekend mornings by dragging out the Tupperware, pots, and pans from the kitchen cabinets, and transformed the chopsticks into drumsticks for a cacophonous house band. At restaurants, chopsticks propped on teacups make excellent roads and bridges for toy cars, when meals drag on and we’ve made too many visits to the crab and lobster tanks. I’ve even used chopsticks to make spur-of-the moment cake pops. Plunging one into each sweet and arranging them in a vase, I felt victorious.

I’ve learned from my parents to make do with what we have, to be ingenious and thrifty, and to use Chinese things in American ways.

These examples are highly untraditional, and yet it’s what I’ve learned from my parents: to make do with what we have, to be ingenious and thrifty, and to use Chinese things in American ways.

My sons, who just turned 7, try to use chopsticks when we go out for dim sum. My father passed away before he could teach them how, and I regret all their transitions he will never witness and will never help lead them through. And so, I position their fingers and demonstrate with my own pair, imperfect as my technique may be. We have red plastic trainers that attach to the back end of the chopsticks, turning them into a giant pair of tweezers. We’ve also used a rubber band, with a rolled-up paper wrapper, jammed in between, to make our trainers out of disposable wooden pairs.

For now, when my sons wield chopsticks, most of the slippery noodles or bits of shu mai fall back onto their plate, but they’re still young, and there’s still time to perfect their style. I’ve come to realize, it’s no longer about my own advances, but about fostering it in my sons. Although you pass down what you can to your children, every step, every swipe of the chopstick, takes them further away from you, carrying them into who they will become.

Author, A RIVER OF STARS and DECEIT AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES

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