For 34 years, I never learnt how to use chopsticks properly. At the time of this letter, I am 35. Your mother, though able to use chopsticks, also never really got the hang of it, and would default to the metal spoon and fork whenever possible (where not possible, it would usually be in opulent Chinese restaurants where she needs to look presentable in front of relatives).
You started asking to use chopsticks since you turned 3. Nearly a year later, you’ve made more progress with using chopsticks than your fishball-stabbing mother and I would have at your age. Needless to say, we are impressed, and proud.
But there’s much more to the way of the chopstick than just making things difficult for people in Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Korean/Japanese restaurants. It’s something I learned a 2 years ago that spurred me to refine my hand in wielding the sticks at the dinner table. And it began with something Jerry Seinfeld said.
Many a Western diner cannot understand why Asians continue to maintain such a convoluted, centuries-old method of eating. Of course, we would agree with them, particularly when it comes to their food, which we also happily tuck into with fork, spoon and knife as customarily prescribed. But you will also learn through your own experience that with some Asian food, there is simply no compromise.
You see, there are certain dishes in Asian cuisine that require a very delicate touch; tofu, sashimi, dim sum, and particularly xiao long bao come to mind. Such delicacies require a gentle, yet experienced and masterful hand to cut, create, process, prepare and present to dinner guests, with the intention that once it is laid on its receptacle, be it a porcelain dish, a bamboo basket, or a leaf of green, it must maintain its form as its maker intended right up to the point where it enters the mouth of a patron. For many of these dishes, once its aesthetic is broken, so will its soul be lost, not only in taste, but in the eyes and mind of the diner and the chef.
So where forks are merely tools for the efficient transportation of food into our mouths, chopsticks are utensils of respect. Respect the food enough to handle it with care, and it will return that respect with all the meaning and character that its creator intended.
And if ever anyone tells you chopsticks are too difficult to use, just say, yes. Of course they are. Respect, after all, is not easily earned.