One of my favorite teachers, Mrs. McC-, felt that it was important that every one of her students learn how to use chopsticks. Living in the suburbs of Detroit as we did, her logic may have eluded many, but even then the world was increasingly global in nature, and she wanted us to be able to participate fully in it. Besides, we were but fourth grade students, and she still held absolute power. That fateful day, she ordered a cup of fried rice from the local Chinese restaurant (carry-out) for every single one of us, as well as a pair of wooden chopsticks. She demonstrated the technique for us, and then turned us loose, knowing that learning by doing was the way we would best develop this skill.
Obviously, we were messy and none too successful at first, but with patience, persistence, and practice, some of us became quite adept. You can too – most any Chinese restaurant has chopsticks available – either for the asking, or even there for the taking. I’ll share the basics, and you can go practice on your favorite dishes.
Holding the chopsticks is usually the hardest part for novices. All too often I hear people say “hold it like a pencil”, which, of course, is all wrong. That’s far too inflexible, and not terribly comfortable either. Try this method for comfort and maneuverability instead:
Lay both sticks together in the V where your thumb and index finger meet, letting the sticks rest gently against your fingertips. Now slide your middle finger just between the two sticks, just far enough to have one above and one below, with no more than a centimeter of fingertip sticking beyond them. You can grab the top stick between your thumb and index finger, holding the bottom stick against your ring finger with your middle finger. Notice that all of the action is taking place down by your fingertips, not up at your knuckles. You have much better control at the ends of your fingers, so work down there.
Now that you’re holding the sticks, go ahead and use your other hand to slide them up and down a little so that your grip is near the center (where it is easier to balance them) and so that the ends meet. When you’re more experienced, you’ll line them up automatically, but for now, it’s okay to do it manually. Once they’re settled in place, try a little motion. Note that the bottom stick stays put, you only move the top stick, and you do this by pivoting your index finger against your thumb. Your thumb may flex a little bit as well, but “Mr. Pointer” does the majority of the work. The rest of your hand just works as a frame. While you’re doing this, try to stay relaxed. Your motion will be restricted if you tense up, and worse, you’ll cramp your hand long before the meal is done.
Chopsticks can actually be used in three modes. The most straightforward is the motion you were just using, opening and closing them like pincers. This is what comes to most people’s minds as “eating with chopsticks”. This mode is best suited to chunky foods – small pieces of meat, chopped veggies, etc. Try it on little bits of rice and you’ll grow quickly frustrated.
Your second mode, and one much better suited to rice, is to use the pair of sticks as a scoop. Holding the points together to make a V, you can easily scoop a good bite of rice off your plate. If your rice is soggy and not sticking together, your scoop can push the rice right into your mouth from the plate/cup. By knife and fork standards, this isn’t the most polite means of eating, but it’s common with chopsticks. You’ll also see it employed when eating a cup of noodles.
The last way your chopsticks can work is as a skewer. One can stab into a piece of food, and the other then closes against the outside, providing support. With soft foods, this is also a way to cut smaller bites. I doubt that this last is considered a proper way of eating with chopsticks, but if you’re fed up with the other methods, at least this way you won’t have to starve.
Incidentally, being able to eat with chopsticks did turn out to be useful. In graduate school I befriended a number of Chinese students (and many other nationalities as well). We took a break from research one day and went out for lunch to an upscale Japanese restaurant they favored. Now granted, they had spent a good portion of their lives in the U.S., but it was most gratifying when they were not merely impressed that I could use chopsticks, but one guy proclaimed that I used them better than he. Thank you much, Mrs. McC-.