The Chopstick Challenge

May 6 2013

I had never wanted a fork so badly in my life.

The dumplings sat on my plate. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. My stomach grumbled. I’m pretty sure someone in Beijing could hear it. My mouth watered.

But there was one problem – I had no way to get the dumpling from plate to mouth without adopting a caveman style of eating.

So they just sat there, taunting me.

It hadn’t crossed my mind when I had signed up for a semester abroad in Shanghai that the food I would eat every day would be eaten with chopsticks.  I was so used to the knife and fork culture of America that I simply assumed that these would be readily accessible at restaurants in the Eastern half of the world as well.  I was proven wrong.

The first night of the semester, the study abroad program brought us all to a dumpling restaurant around the corner from the apartment complex where half of the students lived.  I had been in China for 24 hours by the time dinner rolled around and had not eaten a speck of food up until that point.  A power nap had turned into a six-hour deep sleep, and upon waking, I realized I was absolutely famished.  I was humiliated by my Chinese and terrified to venture out into the city, so I anxiously waited for dinner to eat my first authentic Chinese dish with fellow students and potential new friends.

Pork, shrimp, vegetable – these yummy dollops of goodness sat on the table waiting for me to eat them.  Jiǎozi (饺子) are a Shanghai staple, and I was so ready to dig in.  But one thing was holding me back.  I was surrounded by all of these new people in the program, and my desire to make a good impression stopped me from simply putting my face to table and devouring these tasty treats. 

Taking the chopsticks out of the paper protector, I realized I had NO IDEA how to hold them properly.  Chopstick etiquette was not a number one priority in my British household growing up.  My fingers grasped the two little wood sticks. I pushed and prodded the dumpling.  While plastering a fake grin and trying not to scrunch my forehead in chopstick concentration, I attempted to lift one of the little dumpling devils to my lips.  No success.  I was so hungry, I know that someone in Beijing heard my stomach grumbling.

Luckily, one of the other members of the program saw my inner dumpling struggle.  He nodded from the other side of the table, ferociously stabbed a dumpling in the middle with the chopstick, and ate it.  Not the most elegant tactic, but it did the trick.  A plate of dumplings later, I was a much happier camper.

And as everyone went back to the off-campus dorms pleasantly full, I pocketed my chopsticks from the dumpling house and scurried to the corner store to pick up a bag of M&Ms.  By 10 p.m. that night, no yellow M&M could escape the wrath of my chopstick technique.  I felt on top of the world and ready for a semester of dining, chopsticks and all, in one of China’s greatest meccas for cuisine.

So be prepared to use chopsticks and to use them often when you’re in Shanghai. As a later-in-life chopstick user, I’ve assembled some tips that you might find helpful:

  1. Use your thumb and ring finger to steady one chopstick, and use your index finger to move the other chopstick.
  2. Pretend like you are holding something really delicate.  If you try to grab onto the chopsticks too tightly, they won’t move and that makes eating your food quite difficult.
  3. Try to hold the chopsticks somewhere in the middle.  Holding them too far up or down the chopstick makes picking up your food more difficult.
  4. Lefties of the world – one of my biggest struggles was watching my right handed friends teach me and try to translate chopstick etiquette to my left hand.  Since it feels awkward already, just learn with your right hand; it will save a lot of the hassle.
  5. Once you got it and can pick something up, force yourself to let go of the chopsticks and set up the chopsticks again.  Do this 10 times until you can pick up the chopsticks and easily get it set up.
  6. Some people say it looks sloppy to have the chopsticks cross.  I couldn’t figure out any other way to do it.  As long as the food gets in your mouth, in my mind, you have learned your own successful method of chopstick use.
  7. Find a way of holding the chopsticks that is comfortable for you.  You can have your friends teach you or look up instructions, but if you find a way that works for you, go with it and do what works for you!
  8. Practice! I practiced using M&Ms and definitely recommend them as a tool.

Charlotte Evans is a senior at NYU with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and East Asian Studies.  She loves to travel in her free time and wishes Floo Powder existed to cut down on the flight costs!