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Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
Tangling over chopsticks
"You know what we should do?" I tell my wife over lunch. "Find a way to insert some Chapstick onto the end of a chopstick. We could call it the "Chapchop-stick" and make millions."
She eyes me as her final noodle snakes into her mouth. I know those eyes. They are that lady justice pair of "right" and "wrong" and they are narrowing now to the side of "wrong."
"Millions of what?" she says. "Enemies?"
Uh-oh. Just who or what have I offended this time? This restaurant, perhaps? The cook? Her chapped lips?
"Chopsticks," she says, "Are more than just eating utensils. They are a respected part of Japanese culture, not to mention other cultures throughout Asia. You shouldn't take them lightly."
"Me?" I gasp. "Take chopsticks lightly? Never! Why, there is nothing I respect more. I tell you, I would rather sit on a chopstick than disparage one."
Her eyes roll. "You from the West just can't understand. You have nothing to compare. Forks and spoons have no cultural echoes whatsoever."
I eye her back. "Have too."
"OK. Tell me something cultural about a fork. Tell me some faux pas one should not commit with one."
"Oh that's easy," I say. "You should never use your fork to comb your hair."
She shrieks. People in the shop glance our way. I give her a shush.
"That was a shriek of joy, " she whispers. "I am so happy you are bald. Besides, that has nothing to do with eating. That has to do with being an idiot. Tell me some table manner glitch with a fork."
"Um . . . You should never plant one in your neighbor's thigh?"
"Just what I thought. Nothing."
"And, and, and with spoons," I add, speaking fast, "One should never stick one on your nose while eating. You should wait till you're done."
"See. You come from a cultural wasteland. Meanwhile, we Japanese have oodles of taboos related to eating with chopsticks."
"I suppose you're not allowed to sit on one."
"Listen and learn," she says. "First, there is the No Passing Taboo. You should never pass food from one set of chopsticks to the other. It reminds people of the way bones of the deceased are passed after cremation."
"How about passing chicken bones? They're deceased. They've been fried too."
"No. You put the bone on a plate first and then pass the plate."
"With the chopsticks? Sounds hard."
"With your hands! And that's the second taboo, the No Dish Moving Taboo. One should never use chopsticks to pull a dish your way, even if it holds your favorite food."
"Got it. Use both hands for that."
"Next is the Skewering Taboo. Never use chopsticks to skewer food, even if the item is somewhat hard to pick up, like tofu or Jello."
"Ah, reminds me of the guys I've seen trying to skewer girls at parties. Some are hard to pick up. Some not at all."
"Will you be serious? Culture is flowing by you like a river and all you do is laugh at it."
"No, I'm laughing with it."
"Speaking of rivers, there is also the Fish Around Taboo. Never use your chopsticks to fish through the common pot to pull up what you want."
"C'mon. Everyone does that."
"No." She shakes her head. "Only cretins. Similar is the Wavering Taboo. You should never waver your chopsticks over a selection of food while pondering what item to chose."
"I am quickly becoming very fond of knives and forks. Are you done?"
"Not nearly. There is also the Lick Taboo. Never ever lick your chopsticks."
"How about other people's chopsticks?"
" I'm going to ignore that."
"And how about at times other than eating? For example, might one lick his or her chopsticks while on the train on the way to work?"
She taps her fingers and hums. When I corral my grin, she moves on. " Next is the Pointing Taboo. Don't use your chopsticks to point at people."
"OK. I use a spoon for that anyway."
"We also have the Push Aside Taboo. Don't use your chopsticks to push aside food you don't want."
"So what do I do? Tilt my plate and let it slide off?"
"Last . . ."
". . . is the Resting Taboo. Chopsticks should be placed on a chopsticks rest, not across your bowl or plate."
We glance down and, sure enough, my chopsticks rest atop my bowl. But . . . so do hers.
"But here they don't have chopstick rests!" Her face turns a humble red.
"This is way too much culture. But I notice there is no Chapstick taboo. With some tinkering, we could be rich."
"No one would ever use a Chapchop-stick."
"But how about if it was flavored? With miso or something. How could people resist?"
"You'd make more money with a fork-comb."
And off we go again.