Colorful Chopsticks

Hi everybody, it's me, The Geek.

I grew up being able to use chopsticks, called ohashi (お箸) in Japanese. My best friends, who lived next door, were half Hong Kongese, and I ate dinner at their house regularly. Their dad would often cook Chinese food, and when he did, we ate with chopsticks. So when I came to Japan, it was not an issue at all to be using chopsticks regularly. It was essentially second nature to me.

Now, this reminds me of a joke by Jerry Seinfeld:

“I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day … Shovel … Spoon … Come on … There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues …”

The part I felt he was missing when I first heard that joke however, was that the great thing about chopsticks is that you don't have to plow through your food. Chopsticks allow you to be very selective in what you are picking up to eat. I'm actually pretty open to either chopsticks or a fork for many foods, but there is one food where I prefer chopsticks to the degree that I actually consider bringing chopsticks with me when I go overseas: salads. With a fork, I have to just stab and take what I get with a salad. With chopsticks I can select exactly which part of the salad I want to eat.

While I grew up regularly using chopsticks, it's not the same world-wide. In the United States, roughly 1/3 of people rate themselves fair to expert in chopstick usage, with near 1/4 rating themselves terrible, and another 1/4 reporting to have never used them. Even in Asia, many of the cultures traditionally used their hands to eat, and so don't use chopsticks so much in the modern age. So it's not surprising that some people can find themselves in some difficulty when they first come to Japan. There is an image in Japan that foreigners (or at least white and black people) do not know how to use chopsticks, so they will often ask whether we would prefer a fork or chopsticks.

Sometimes however, the Japanese will give a fork to visible minorities without even asking. Personally, I don't mind this so much most times, as I'll just ask for chopsticks if I prefer them for the food I'm eating. But it's definitely frustrating when I get back from the store with my lunch that I'd prefer to eat with chopsticks, and I discover they slipped a fork in the bag when I wasn't looking, without asking first which I preferred. I know they were trying to be helpful, but in the end it's actually caused me frustration! So I try to make sure that I'm watching when they put the utensils in my bag.

Being offered a fork, or being given one without even asking, is something many foreigners in Japan absolutely hate though. Here are some comments in a recent Japan Today story on discrimination:

I find being offered a fork at a restaurant that clearly uses chopsticks for their food slightly offensive. If you ask the average Japanese they just say "they are trying to be helpful".... I point out you are assuming foreigners can't do something you can, thus you are profiling

People continuing to be amazed that I can use chopsticks is less offensive than it just is annoying.

it's a clear example of Japanese thinking their culture is uniquely unique: they can adapt to other cultures, but foreigners will not be able to adapt to theirs--not even the use of chopsticks. Japanese need to know that using chopsticks is not a special talent inherent to them. Japanese children need to be taught how to use chopsticks just like western children need to be taught how to use a fork and steak knife.

As you can see, in some people's eyes, even being offered a fork instead of just being given chopsticks, can be taken as offensive, or at least annoying. But the other side of the story is that I've been to restaurants with visitors who cannot use chopsticks, and the offering of a fork is received happily by them, as they don't have to feel discomfort in asking for a fork when the utensil of the land is chopsticks. So I don't feel that there is an easy answer to whether or not a fork should be offered.

Disposable chopsticks
Waribashi - Japanese chopsticks

I do have one major issue with chopsticks however, and it's has nothing to do with being offered them. In Japan, you will often receive waribashi (割り箸), disposable chopsticks. The word itself actually means 'splittable chopsticks', in reference to the fact that these wooden chopsticks are usually joined at the base of the chopsticks, and you break/split them in order to use them.

The problem with waribashi is the sheer volume of them that are used. According to an article on

  • In China, about 57 billion (that’s “billion”!) pairs of wooden disposable chopsticks are made each year. Cottonwood, birch, spruce and bamboo are the main sources of these one-use chopsticks.
  • Half of these disposables are used within China itself. Of the other half, 77 percent are exported to Japan, with South Korea taking most of the remainder.

57 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks is a lot of trees being wasted, for single-use meals. It's unsustainable. To deal with this, people in Japan have started on a trend of using 'my hashi' (my chopsticks), whereby they carry a set of reusable chopsticks with them to work, or out and about, so that they do not have to waste disposables, thereby being environmentally friendly.

Japanese utensil drawer
Japanese utensil drawer

Finally, a last point I found extremely interesting about chopsticks. Growing up in a cutlery culture, we bought sets 4-6 identical sets of forks, knives, and spoons etc. So when setting the table, we'd put out the utensils with little thought of who got each. However, when I got married, my wife soon let me know in no uncertain terms, that we had our own chopsticks; hers were hers, mine were mine, and they weren't interchangeable. As the chopsticks themselves are visibly distinguishable, by color, length, and/or thickness, they are easily identifiable. So when I cook my breakfast in the morning (eggs and sausage), I make sure I always grab my own chopsticks, from the drawer, and most definitely do not grab hers!

And yes, you read that right, I eat my eggs with chopsticks.