Can two American kids of Swedish-German-Irish descent, raised since birth by a Chinese amah , master chopsticks as easily as Chinese kids do? In this, one of the East's most inscrutable customs, which is dominant: heredity or environment? All the federal agencies I approached, some of them winners of the famous Golden Fleece awards, turned the proposal down icily; so, unfunded, I decided to go ahead with the study on my own.
First a little scholarly research disclosed, from the National Geographic Society, which keeps track of such things, that the forerunner of chopsticks may have been a single stick with a hook-shaped cut in its narrow end.
One wonders why the Chinese -- who, of course, invented chopsticks, which the Japanese, of course, copied -- didn't stop there; but that's one of the mysteries of the East. A stick with a hook would have been welcome, when, as a 22-year-old junior foreign-service officer, I was thrust into the Orient with no experience of Chinese food other than dormitory chow mein. I probably embarrassed the United States many times, not only by sheer ineptitude with chopsticks but by faux pas . For example, one never rests one's chopsticks across one's plate until one is finished with the meal.I won't recount all the advantages I never had. Hence the amah, whose name is Sin Mui.
The result is a true cultural exchange. Mui has taught the kids pidgin English and a few words of Cantonese, which none of them will translate, and they have explained to her all about Superman and the Incredible Hulk. They love Chinese food and prefer it to anything I cook for them, but lately I've had this sinking feeling that, as far as chopsticks are concerned, heredity may prevail.
But Mui, who has been feeding them morsels with her chopsticks since before they developed teeth, said not to worry.
"My China, children, parents, eat together, sometimes finger, sometimes spoon, give chopsticks, soon learn," she said reassuringly.
A pushy mother, however, accelerates the learning process. Whenever we served Chinese food, I began issuing only chopsticks. This provoked a minor, rebellion on the part of three-year-old Caroline, who has only recently learned the proper way to hold a fork; but the kids soon learned some new tricks that helped them beat the system. They learned to request the fan-ju, the crusty part of the rice around the edge of the pot, which sticks together and can be lifted to the mouth with chopsticks with only minor risk. They learned that when you eat out of a bowl, at least en famille, you can raise the bowl close to your mouth and use your chopsticks like a snow shovel; that things with texture -- such as deep-fried pork balls -- are easier to get a grip on, and that sweet-and-sour sauce can be used as an adhesive. They have also figured out that, in desperation, to get them to eat, their mother will look the other way if they use a chopstick as a sword and jab the food or even use fingers or sneak to the drawer to get spoons. Although there was probably more rice on the rug than in the kids after such meals, it seemed to be time to make our chopstick debut in a restaurant, and compare the kids' prowess with that of some genuine Chinese kids.
As a control, we brought along another American kid, eight-year-old Marietta Davis, who'd had relatively little immersion in Asian culture. The place was the Golden Palace, where Chinese families often gather for Saturday lunch. Saturday lunch had a further advantage in that we could eat dim sum, relatively easy to tackle with chopsticks.
As we waited for the dim sum wagons to roll, bringing Chinese hors d'oeuvres and pastries in an endless stream, we consulted some experts on the subject of chopsticks: Chinese-American kids.
"I just copied my Mom," said Karen Wang of Potomac, who had just finished a multi-course meal without the aid of silverware. "I guess I was about six when I started using chopsticks, but I don't do it very well." "We didn't teach them," said Karen's mother. "We just let them try. It took them a while. They started with two chopsticks held together." t
The hardest things to eat with chopsticks are peas and corn, Karen and her 12-year-old brother Linus agreed. But to their father the most elusive food is "rice on a plate."
"Usually we eat rice from a bowl, which can be lifted up," he explained. "But when we eat in a restaurant sometimes the rice is combined with vegetables and served on a plate."
Apparently one does not lift up one's plate.
When I explained my attemps to teach my own children the art of chopsticks, the Wangs were sympathetic but skeptical.
"I remember when I was learning English in Taiwan, one of the essays we read was on how to teach foreigners to eat with chopsticks," said their friend Ralph Chan, shaking his head.
At the next table, six-year-old Jack Lee and his eight-month-old brother, Michael, were both holding chopsticks, although the baby was just playing with them. Jack, holding the chopsticks about two inches from the tips that grab the food, deftly picked up a dumpling and raised it to his mouth.
"Of course he holds them close to the end," said his mother. "They're so long."
She wasn't too helpful, however, about the process of learning to eat with chopsticks. "I don't know when he learned, because I didn't teach him," she said. "Children don't need to learn to eat with chopsticks."
Meanwhile, back at our own table, the dim sum had arrived and some non-learning was in progress. First Mui demonstrated the proper technique -- the lower stick held firm and the upper stick subject to manipulation by thumb and forefinger. Then she started more direct tactics.
Caroline announced that she wasn't hungry, thank you, and didn't want anything to eat even if she could eat it with her fingers. Marietta presented special problems because she's left-handed -- or, in Mui's view, "Her hands wrong." Since Marietta couldn't eat with her right hand and Mui couldn't put herself in the place of a left-handed person, Marietta ended up mainly jabbing the food or eating morsels held by Mui's chopsticks. Tabitha, who's had six years of Mui's training, did a lot better and was soon grabbing dim sum as deftly as adults. Following Jack Lee's example, she grasped the chopsticks near the business end. Unfortunately, when you do this the sticks have a tendency to cross at the other end, which can be almost as disastrous as having your skis cross in back.
The difficulty shared by adults and kids alike was with the larger dim sum -- the big, doughy rolls stuffed with meat, for example. They're too big to lift to your mouth in one fell swoop, and chopsticks make poor knives. Mui, however, a chopstick in each hand, manages to carve the rolls in several pieces. And Tabitha found an ingenious way to deal with the Chinese sausage in pastry crust. Since Chinese sausage is one of her favorites but she was too full for pastry crust, she used her chopsticks to maneuver the sausage out of the crust and into her mouth, leaving the empty crust for an unsuspecting adult.
Even Caroline got into the spirit of things toward the end. While the rest of us were engrossed in eating and conversation, she discovered a big bowl of sugar packets. Dumping half a dozen packets into her Chinese tea, she looked around for something to stir with. Finding no other utensil, she grabbed a chopstick.