Learning to use chopsticks in China is easy. Learning when not to use them is hard.
Dinner in Shanghai – my home for the past two years – is rarely eaten alone. A dinner is the sort of grand occasion where one squeezes a group of seven or eight (let’s say eight, because eight’s a lucky number in China) in tight plastic chairs across a large, round table. You sit down, unwrap the vacuum sealed pack containing a small plate, a bowl, a tea cup, and a wide-slotted spoon, then someone – traditionally the youngest, with foreigners, usually the one closest to the tea kettle – pours out tiny cups of muddy, lukewarm green tea. Then, the food arrives, always on shared plates – deep bowls of catfish stew with Sichuan peppercorns, fish-fragrant eggplant in a sticky-sweet sauce, soft tofu with pieces of ground, browned pork.
At these dinners, using chopsticks is a point of pride, another piece of the cultural barrier chipped away. When your Chinese friends compliment the way you picked up that cucumber slathered in chili oil and vinegar, it’s the same kind of sense of accomplishment you feel when a cab driver finally understands what your directions, or when the bank teller knows that you are at the bank to replace your card, because a rabid ATM swallowed the last one.
In a place so different from the sleepy Massachusetts town I grew up in, I’ve often felt the need to plunge into Shanghai life headfirst, to have the authentic experience of living abroad in China. Some mornings that means forgoing my double espresso breakfast routine for warmed soy milk. Other times it’s resorting to drinking room-temperature water in sweltering July heat waves, because only tourists ask for their water iced. There’s always a guilt that comes with getting a salad and sandwich combo for lunch, or paying close to eight dollars for a jar of organic peanut butter.
But this desire to fit in is, at times, frankly idiotic. It’s one the cultural myths we build about living in a foreign place – and how it has feel different, even when life abroad is not really as alienating as it may seem. People in China don’t just eat Chinese food. They don’t sip tea in dim teahouses; they line up behind you at the Starbucks to pick up a morning latte. Most importantly, when you – a foreigner trying your best to fit in – maneuver slippery tofu onto your plate with chopsticks, people around you forego authenticity and pick up a spoon.
After a few months of looking like an idiot at the dinner table, there comes a moment when you too get the courage use that spoon. It’s only when you get the confidence to understand what needs to be authentic and what doesn’t, that living (and eating) in China finally starts making sense. This desire to to live authentically is just a need to prove to ourselves that we can embrace life abroad, with all its difficulty, its thrills, and its challenges, but that doesn’t always mean that we forego common sense. People in Shanghai use spoons for eating fried rice or picking up soft tofu. They too watch superhero movies on weekends and eat eggs at brunch.
Living abroad, at the end of the day, is simple. When life – or the waiter at the dinner table – hands you both chopsticks and a spoon, you can, and you should, forget decorum and just use both.