Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Respect, Honor and Chopsticks

      Do you ever get pang of regret when some past embarrassment pops up in memory? I sure do. Lots of times these things “appear” in my head when nothing I’m doing triggers it off, but there you have it. It arrives and there’s nothing to be done about it.

      Chopsticks. That was the latest pop. I quite suddenly remembered when I was on a trip to California years ago and had been invited to lunch in a fabulous restaurant by a terrific and beautiful Japanese family. They told me what to order and could not have been kinder or nicer. They spoke perfect English with a charming Japanese lilt and I was happy.

      And then I blew it, bigtime. My parents taught me to never use my eating utensils as pointers so I knew better, but when I saw someone famous across the restaurant that afternoon I said, “Oh look!” and used my chopstick as a pointer. Uh oh. A tiny hand shot out like Japanese lightning and grabbed that pointing chopstick, pulled it from my hand and semi-slammed it down onto my plate. Those delicate little Japanese women are amazingly strong! I was stunned and embarrassed. The tiny woman regained her composure gave me a little history lesson.

      It’s thought that chopsticks began to be used around 5000 years ago in China and they perhaps evolved from the use of twigs used to retrieve hot foods from cooking pots. Years later, this was followed by people preparing food in small bites so the meals would cook more quickly, eliminating the need of knives on the table, and that was exactly what the philosopher Confucius wanted---non-violence, no weapons, especially at meal time. He, like many, disapproved of carving up a dead carcass on the family dining room table. One of his quotes is; “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” Perfect for chopsticks!

      Chopsticks began to be used in Japan around 500 AD and moved on to Vietnam and Korea. And then, (and here’s why I got into trouble with my rude pointing) early Japanese chopsticks were solely used for religious ceremonies. Back then, they were one single piece of bamboo, bent and wound together at the bend, resembling tweezers.

      I could have made more faux pas had I stood my chopsticks up in a bowl of rice for example, and I could have done other things that would have seriously offended my kind hosts, so I’m grateful all I did was rudely point with one.

       There are a few interesting fables about chopsticks. For example, silver chopsticks were sometimes used because of the belief they’d turn black if the food was poisoned. One cannot be too careful. Some Asians will tell you that if you’re given an uneven pair of chopsticks at the table, forget about making that plane or boat or train on time; you won’t. And it’s said that Koreans believe that if one holds chopsticks too close to the tips, one might possibly never get married. And one must never, ever let “tears of soup drip from the ends of one’s chopsticks.” But they don’t explain why that’s a problem.

       Chopsticks come in various forms---wood, plastic, ivory (no more of course) and there are those who insist we should all use them instead of the cutlery we Westerners use today, because amongst other good things, it’s believed using them will improve memory. I’m buying mine today.

       From this embarrassing incident in California, I learned many things; one was to never demean or belittle the sacred chopstick and do not ever use them for anything other than eating. I am now a respectful believer. After all, everyone’s hero, Confucius, was a principled wise man, and a believer in the practice of good manners. He also coined the Golden Rule much earlier than some would believe it had been, only Mr. C. said “What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.” Well said, Confucius, and from this moment on, I promise that chopsticks I own will always be treated respectfully and with honor, as I would wish for myself.

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