On the pathetically long list of abilities I lack, include the ability to use chopsticks. Maybe it's because I didn't eat real Chinese food until I graduated college, or the fact that I never got in to the sushi craze that afflicts so many friends and coworkers. I don't care for seafood in general, so not cooking it only makes it less desirable. Why don't I just stick my face in a river like a bear and see what I can grab in my maw?

The irony is that I own a pretty nice set of chopsticks, given to me one year as a Christmas present from my mentor at my first job out of college. He taught me quite a bit about printing presses and traditional photography, how to determine the quality of a transparency and whether or not it was duped or blown up by checking the notches. When that crappy, now out-of-business, publisher forced him in to retirement, I think they were counting on the assumption that he'd taught me everything he knew, and that I'd provide the same expertise for a fraction of the salary. They even gave me some bogus new title like “assistant technical director”, to encompass my technical responsibilities, from designing to maintaining the computer network to rating photographs and scanning the best quality shots for our books. I was underpaid when I was doing one job let alone three or four, and I didn't stay with that company much longer after that.

I still have those chopsticks though, stained wood in a highly crafted box with a sliding top decorated with dragons made out of inlaid seashells. They just seem too nice to use, plus I'm not sure I trust stained wood as an eating utensil. Mmmm, varnishy! When I finally did get talked into going to a Benihana at my last job to bid farewell to a coworker, I fumbled with the chopsticks for a bit before opting to go for the knife and fork option, especially useful as I'd of course ordered some cooked mammal, either beef or chicken.

Life has a way of putting us in situations we try to avoid. A few months ago I was invited to a friend's birthday dinner at a sushi buffet in the city of her choosing. Turning down a gathering for an occasion is considerably more difficult that a sushi outing for sushi alone, and after consulting the restaurant's online menu I found that I didn't need to be rude; there were other options besides fish. There were chopsticks on the table, but knives and forks at the end of the buffet where we grabbed plates. I didn't even unwrap my ‘sticks.

Friday was the last day for a writer at my current job who was departing to spend more time with her 10 month old baby. I've turned down lunch invitations from my new coworkers before because they always seem to be going to this sushi place, but I couldn't very well miss saying goodbye to my writer friend. Besides, it couldn't hurt to make more of an effort to socialize with my fellow employees, especially now that I've been there nearly a year. To the surprise of a few who've asked me along before, I accepted.

“Oh! You have new friend!” said the waitress as she showed us to a table. Apparently the others were all regulars, and our hostess even asked for one by name who'd taken a vacation day. Four out of the eight people at the table ordered Chicken Teriyaki, including the girl who was leaving, so I didn't feel like such an oddball. It was a pretty cool set-up with the booths, wooden benchs that we could grab seat cushions for, fit so tightly with the table that it gave the illusion we were crouching, but the floor was hollowed out underneath.

“You know...they'll give you a fork if you ask them,” noted one woman as she observed me spearing a piece of lettuce. Eating salad with chopsticks is hard. Still, I always reach this point where I get tired of whining about the things I can't do, and actually try to learn a new skill. It takes me a while to reach this point, and I often fail and get discouraged, but it never stops me from trying again eventually. “You just need to keep one stick stable,” she pointed out, as I tried to mimic what others at the table were doing. I sort of braced one stick on my thumb, and everyone else seemed to be using their index and middle finger to move the other stick. I couldn't quite get that bit to work, and ended up making my thumb do double duty, holding one stick stationary while working with my index finger to move the other one. It was sloppy, like the wacky way I hold a pen, something else I never learned, but it worked.

By the time the main course came out I was manipulating chicken like a ninja. I never let a little thing like lack of dexterity stand between me and my food. The rice was considerably more of a challenge. When stuck together in clumps I could grab it better, otherwise I found myself keeping the sticks crossed and using them as a sort of fake “spoon” to scoop up the rice.

I'm way too immersed in the West in general and my ways in particular to ever fully grasp a utensil that doesn't pierce my food, spoons the only notable exception though the milk and cereal on my chin most mornings can attest to my struggles there as well. I did fine with the chopsticks on dessert as well. If you've never tried a fried banana, you're missing out on something. I don't know if they added sugar or it was the natural flavor, but that was a damn tasty treat with a crispy shell and soft center. We can't all use chopsticks and even if we learn, we may never have a full grasp on the art. If we don't try though, we might miss some important discoveries.


Blogger b13 said...

Dude, you are coming out to Minado's with me. I'll have you catching flies in no time Daniel-san.

7/19/2008 1:43 AM  

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