My best friend in childhood was a first generation Chinese American girl. I spent most of my weekends and many a summer break at her place. At six years old I learned to always take your shoes off before entering the house, and how to eat with chopsticks like a pro. Her mother was always busy, so dinner was usually Chinese takeout. They had a kitchen drawer filled with wooden chopsticks and a bread box crammed with stale, chewy fortune cookies that had been in there for months. We played Mahjong the way kids play, which was usually making up rules as we went along. We taught ourselves to speak Cantonese together, only later we figured out that her mother spoke Mandarin, so we learned that instead. I’ve since forgotten it all, except for the shoe thing and the chopsticks.
Ohio is not especially known for its authentic Chinese food, although I profess a fondness for the Americanized variety, as does my mother, though her husband steers clear of anything foreign. Chinese food became our thing to do together, my mother and I, and often was done under subterfuge, because my mother didn’t want my step-father to know that we’d gone and had lunch together without him. My mother is stubborn, so I taught her to use chopsticks by simply hiding her fork when she wasn’t looking. It’s a surprisingly effective method that I’ve also used on my friends from time to time.
My first time I went to Chinatown in Chicago, I hunted all over for the perfect set of chopsticks. I finally found them, a set of six black chopsticks printed with lucky cats, nestled in a simple black box. I still have those chopsticks, one of the few things I brought with me to Hawaii. One year, for my birthday, a friend got me a beautiful set of lacquered chopsticks in an individual box. I used to carry them to restaurants to use in place of the flimsy wooden disposable ones. I’ve since misplaced them, although I’m sure they’re floating somewhere in the stack of boxes my mother has stored in her shed, relics of my past.
Southern Ohio has the sort of demographic where you’re automatically given a fork when you enter the restaurant, and thus the first words out of my mouth, after ordering “Coke, please”, would be, “Chopsticks, please? Two pairs.” Or three or four, depending on how many friends I had dragged along with me. And sometimes the waitress would be forgetful and I’d have to hunt her down to get my chopsticks, but I refused to eat Chinese food with a fork. It just wasn’t done.
Hawaii has a different sort of demographic, and so it is that, more often than not, if you go to a Chinese restaurant (or a Korean restaurant, or a sushi restaurant, or just.. a restaurant) you’ll probably be given chopsticks. Unless you’re a pale girl with an Ohio accent, then they fork you. It was the strangest feeling, the first time I was forked, while my pidjin-slinging half-Fillipino cousin was given chopsticks. I just sort of looked at her, and her chopsticks, and my fork, and then the waitress came back, and I said “Coke, please” and then “Chopsticks, please.” And the waitress, somewhat surprised, possibly flustered, obliged. And the locals would smile and praise me, “You use chopsticks so well!”, as if it were a talent, as if it weren’t something I’d been doing since I was six.
My mother called me the other day from a Chinese restaurant, indignant that she’d been forked.