Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

by on Monday, 26 August 2013 Comments

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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