It’s a fact that I had tried to use chopsticks about three times in my life before I moved to Korea. I rarely had eaten Asian food in Milwaukee, and the few times I did, I regarded chopsticks as a novelty that you tried out for two bites, before discarding and opting to use a fork. Actually, the most I’d used chopsticks at home was as a teenager. My beater car lost the buttons used to fast forward or rewind a cassette. I learned that I could shove a chopstick into the button hole and skip to the next song on my mix tapes. And that was the extent of my chopstick skills.
It’s a fact that Asian toddlers can use chopsticks. It’s also a fact that many restaurants in Korea don’t even have forks available. So I was, indeed, far clumsier than most children when I ate in Korea. I often lifted food, carefully, all the way to my mouth, just to have it slip through my sticks and land on my plate before I could bite it.
While most Asian countries have wooden chopsticks, Korea is unique and has metal ones. To me, this just made a difficult way of eating even harder. Metal is more slippery than wood, after all. I figured I could get through a year without trying to use chopsticks unless I absolutely had to.
After a while, I began eating ramen on a semi-regular basis. It was one of the cheapest and fastest foods, which was ideal for a teacher with a ten minute break. When you buy a cup of ramen in Korea, the clerk also gives you disposable wooden chopsticks. I started practicing my chopstick use behind the closed door of my classroom where no one could see me mess up. To my surprise, I wasn’t as bad as I’d been when I’d first arrived.
I discovered that the reason chopsticks were becoming easier for me was that I held them like a beginner (or a baby). I positioned my hand halfway down the chopstick, while experienced adults (and most Korean children) hold the end of the chopstick, far from their food.
Soon chopstick use became a bit of a thrill. I started using them at home, though not for everything. Getting better felt great. I spent my free time in Korea playing guitar and eating with chopsticks. My fingers were becoming nimble little buggers.
I hit my one-year-in-Korea mark, and realized I needed to prepare to go back to America. I had to buy souvenirs for my friends. I shopped around, looking for Konglish shirts and jewelry that wasn’t gaudy. And in the back of my mind, I wondered if anyone at home would appreciate a few sets of metal chopsticks. Because I knew I wouldn’t leave Korea without ‘em.