27 Sep

Plastic Forks.

Plastic Knives.

Plastic Spoons.

“Where are the chopsticks,” I asked the Panda Express cashier. He pointed to a spot near the soda machine, barely visible, behind the napkin dispenser and a canister of straws.

Seated at a window table, I twirled the wooden sticks in anticipation as I stared down at the steaming plate of crispy orange chicken and Lo Mein before me–dusting off memories from the days when eating with forks wasn’t an option.

In the cafeteria of Bei-Wai (Beijing Foreign Studies University), there was never a fork in sight. Students hunched over their plates and bowls expertly maneuvered scoops of rice, chunks of chicken and other delicacies into their mouths before rushing back to class or study hall. 

Thanks to a fellow left-handed American, I learned to make do by clumsily swiveling them the best I could.  I became downright functional with larger items like pieces of meat and vegetables. But no matter how hard I tried, this lefty simply could not master eating rice or noodles.  I slopped and threw the pieces all around me but into my mouth, an embarrassing fate I had all but accepted, until one day, in a small village named Yiwu, a local villager showed me the right way to do it. After laughing heartily at my distress, he showed me, through grunts and hand gestures how to use the sticks to shovel the rice from the bowl.

Moments before, this silent stranger had sat down, unceremoniously joining me and another American classmate, at our table at a local restaurant. I should use the word “our” delicately. It implies a sense of ownership that does not seem to exist in the mainland. There, public property is truly public and it was not uncommon for people who didn’t know each other to sit down at the same little round table at restaurants or cafeterias for meals. Accustomed to the American sea of separate loners munching at individual tabled islands in a restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice the difference. 

But I was grateful for his gift and used it for the rest of my visit.

Two years after my trip to mainland China, I still resign myself to use the wooden sticks whenever I can. It’s a simple matter of pride, a means of practice and a trigger from my time a world away from home.

To accompany my memories, I brought trinkets back with me.  Amongst them was a 10-pack of chopsticks wrapped in silk fabric. Though the sets themselves may not be particularly memorable, the way I acquired them is:  

Me before the journey

Don't be fooled. This is a before picture. I had no idea what I was in for.

Local villagers, seeing the sweat on my brow and anguish steps offered their help.  One tried to show me a shortcut.  Determined to be able to honestly say I had completed this journey on my own, I declined.  Another tried to offer me a hand on some of the less secure stairs.  “Bu yao, xie xie”  (No thanks) I would reply, determined to complete this obstacle independently.  However, this second villager was quite persistent. 

A woman of at least 50 of petite frame, she gingerly leapt from stone to stone, effortlessly maneuvering throughout the structure.  Though I continually decline her offer to help, I grew quite accustomed to her sturdy presence.  Needless to say, her acquaintance came at a price.  About halfway through the climb, she asked that I purchase something from the souvenir bag she was lugging so she could return home. 

“Local farmer.  No work, no job.  Walk the wall everyday”, she said in broken English.  While I certainly didn’t like feeling pressured into giving, I felt genuine empathy for this woman.  I selected a set of 10 cloth-covered chopsticks. It wasn’t until I heard other villagers vying for patronage repeat the exact same story verbatim that I realized I have been hustled, China-style.



4 Responses to “Chopsticks”

  1. kym September 27, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    Wow you have traveled the world. I’m so proud of you. I feel a huge sense of pride as I read your story and ask myself how many other who came to my.YWCA (there is my ownership) have gone on to have so many wonderful experiences.


    • lcooksmarketer1 September 27, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

      Thanks so much, Kym. I’ve been very blessed. Praying, hoping and planning to put my traveler’s shoes back on sometime soon. 😉


  2. Mao's Army October 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Yes! I love any post related to China, you have my full support!


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