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Chopstick etiquette--was this wrong?

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  • Sue Mar 16, 2000 02:47 PM
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I just had a delicious lunch at Cho Dang Gol, a Korean restaurant on W 35th St. specializing in tofu. Ordered the Kim-Chi Cham Doo-Boo, a casserole of tofu and broth served with various kim-chi and rice.

*BUT* I had a sort of odd experience and was wondering what all you Chowhounds think of it.

As I was scooping up rice with my chopsticks, the host came over and asked if I wanted a fork. I assumed it was because my friend and I were the only caucasian party in the restaurant, and I said I was fine with just the chopsticks. He then took my chopsticks from me and gave me a lesson on "how to properly use them," and he wouldn't leave the table until I did so.

I found his method harder than my usual way (which I learned in a Chinese restaurant when I was five). So after he left, I reverted back to my old method, but was a little humiliated and was conscious of my technique for the rest of the meal--did I look like a fool? Do the Chinese hold chopsticks differently than Koreans? I may not be the most elegant user, but I am quite functional and not at all clumsy with them. And I eat various types of Asian food--with chopsticks--on a nearly daily basis. I feel like as long as I wasn't flinging rice across the room with my ineptness, I should have been left alone. Was the host out of line?

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  1. "Was the host out of line?"

    by american standards, of course. but as standards of whats acceptable are so very, very different across cultures, IMHO its just best to roll with it. there's a wonderful rule umpires of cricket are supposed to follow: batsmen are to be always given the benefit of the doubt. i've found that applies equally well when eating out.

    funnily enough, i think that your host might have thought he was just being helpfully friendly - the sort of exaggerated insistence that grates so easily here in the west is de rigueur in the east as a display of sincerity.

    again, i'm sure the experience was annoying, humiliating and certainly interfered with what you were there for: to eat the food. but i think the issue isn't how you hold chopsticks but rather a failed attempt to chat up a customer.

    12 Replies
    1. re: howler

      This reminds me of the time, in an Empire Szechuan, of all places, when the waitress showed my friend and me how to eat mu-shu: she split the pancakes in half, spread the sauce, rolled the half-pancakes into cones, filled them, and set them into a little rack usually used for sushi handrolls!

      To this day, I still eat mu-shu in this fashion. Except I don't have the rack.

      1. re: MU

        I'm pretty sure that I'm horribly out of line when I eat Ethiopian food with my left hand. My friends don't mind my left-handed ways, but I'm not so sure it would go over well with people I don't know so well.

        1. re: Jim Dorsch

          re: ['cause I'm] "left-handed..."

          "That's the hand you use, well never mind."

          -- Paul Simon, c.1967

          1. re: AHR

            I talked to an Ethiopian today, one who lives in Addis Ababa, and was told in no uncertain terms that I had better eat with my right hand in her town. OTOH, I've eaten with an Ethiopian in an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC, and no one paid the least bit of attention to my lefthandedness.

            1. re: Jim Dorsch

              In some African countries, if you "scoop" with your right hand, they will not shake it after the meal!

              1. re: Mr. W.

                To link this discussion back to chopsticks - I was once told by a Chinese acquaintance that it was rude to use chopsticks with my left hand. Has anyone else ever heard that? Considering that I'm a lefty & had no other way of getting the food to my mouth, I thought this person was kind of out of line telling me that.

                1. re: pam

                  I guess it's not just the pre-Vatican II Catholic church that disapproves of left-handedness! (They made my father, who's a lefty, write with his right hand in parochial school; when it was illegible, they made him type--and this was elementary school.) I haven't heard of a Chinese equivalent to the Ethiopian convention (eat right/wipe left), but maybe there's something universal here...

                  1. re: pam

                    Eating with your left-hand in East Asian countries (China, Taiwan, and Korea, at least) is traditionally considered not only a faux pas but a serious display of rudeness and poor parenting. Even into the 90's, some schools and homes have forced lefties to change their ways so that they can eat, write, etc. with their right hands.

                    Of course, all this is changing along with increased exposure to "liberal" Western ideas, and people in urban areas don't care all that much anymore. But rural folks and some of the people who immigrated here and brought older customs along them still cling to the notion that using the left hand is a big no-no. We had the same idea before, too, as we can see in the etymology of English words like "dextrous" and "sinister," among others.

                    Anyway, just take your acquaintance's advice for what it is, and go ahead with your lefty ways. May s/he was just trying to advise you on the Chinese customs, or maybe she was offended by it herself. The latter seems more likely since you felt she was "out of line." In any case, if I were you, I'd just remind her that customs are different on this side of the Pacific and that they are changing in Asia anyway. But don't think of her poorly, since it's just a blind belief in etiquette that we all have, the only difference being that hers is different from yours.

                    1. re: Chris

                      Thanks for your explanation - it's pretty much what I always suspected, but never had confirmed.
                      The incident happened a *long* time ago & I probably over-reacted. The Chinese woman I was with (who had been living in the U.S./Canada for a long time) was likely just trying to educate me on Chinese customs, as you suggest. Interestingly, a Japanese friend who was with us that night had nothing to say on the subject - perhaps the Japanese don't share the same taboo?

                    2. re: pam

                      Japanese do share the same taboo, it's merely that perhaps your friend has been brought up to be less inclined to speak her mind. It is considered impolite to correct others of higher rank, age, or even a male.

                      As for the lefthandedness issue, I wholeheartedly agree that it is merely an Asian custom that eating with your left hand is a sign of poor upbringing, equal to that of people who I suppose, make loud clanging noises with their cutlery in restaurants, or talk with their mouths full. In schools, in my days 10 years ago, children who start writing with their left hands are immediately beaten severely so that they do not continue to do so. I know of someone who, as a child, stabbed himself with a pencil to immobilize his left hand so he would "learn" to be right-handed. The mark remains to this day.

                      As for the initial chopstick issue: I suppose it is my eastern values speaking, but I didn't find his incessant decision to teach you how to use chopsticks the right Korean way to be in any way offensive. I suppose it is because I picture him as being (a) the owner, and (b) being older... I suppose I am an old-fashion Chinese girl..? I would take it with stride, as a new lesson, and I always try to abide by one rule: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". I find myself occasionally pointing out incorrect chopstick usage to my Caucasian friends when we dine in restaurants, and I suppose it is etiquettly wrong, but it is one of those things any human does when you see someone whom, to your eyes, appears to be struggling. You just want to help, or maybe you belive that the person "never learned the right way". :) I see it is as being parallel, my dear, to if you saw me eating with my fork and knife in the same hand, trying to pick up food. It may be slightly ungraceful, but wrong, and I'm sure you'd open your mouth to tell me to hold my fork in my left hand.

                      1. re: Aliki

                        I think it's horrendous that as recently as 10 yrs ago children were getting "beaten severely" for writing with their left hands. If that's the "right way" I can live without it.

            2. re: MU
              s
              Siobhan (Shi-vaun)

              We had mu-shu in a LI chinese a few years ago and the elderly waiter showed us how to eat the folded pancakes "like hot dog" and *insisted* we eat the way he told us to while he watched. One of my better restaurant experiences on LI. Don't be offened - enjoy.

          2. OK, I have one too. It's been bugging me since August.

            So I stopped into Campagna one day this past summer for a $20 prix fixe lunch. I have no complaints about the food - actually, it was excellent, and a really great value. I remember a delicious grilled octopus appetizer, and entree was two good-sized soft shelled crabs, with tiny capers fried in brown butter, and some plain roasted red potatoes on the side.

            HOWEVER. I crushed my potatoes with my fork and poured on a generous amount of the very good, fruity olive oil that was on the table, and ground some black pepper on top of that. As I was happily eating my doctored potates, my waiter (who was not friendly at all to begin with) swooped down and took away my olive oil and pepper. I was sort of concentrating on eating while he was doing this, and I was eating alone so there was no one to comment on how bizarre this was. Anyway by the time I was fully aware of what had happened, he had disappeared and I was too intimidated to ask why he took my olive oil away (all the other tables still had theirs).

            Can anyone explain this behavior? My first exposure to real Italian food was in Umbria, where they pour olive oil all over everything. I just can't imagine that I did something wrong (and the potatoes tasted so good!) but I would like to know if I committed some egregious faux pas.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Daveena

              I think that what prompted the waiter may have been cost, not etiquette. They probably put the olive oil on the table for use on bread, which is fairly limited; but potatoes could soak up a lot of oil.

              OTOH, once they put it on the table, I think you can do what you want with it (ummmmm.......within reason!)

              Some places give a little dish of olive oil instead, maybe Campagna ought to do that.

            2. How extremely irritating--it's very difficult to enjoy your meal once you've been made self-conscious. I think chopstick styles are like handwriting: everybody does it a little differently, and you've got to do what works for you, especially if you weren't born with chopsticks in your hands. For what it's worth, though, lots of Korean food is eaten with a spoon, for instance bi-bim-bop, and it's much easier that way. I've been to Cho Dang Gol a few times and usually they're very solicitous toward non-Koreans. They'll patiently explain the menu and help you figure out what you're supposed to do. So I think your waiter was probably trying to be helpful, and might not have realized that he ended up making you feel like a rube.