07.28.09

Chopsticks really aren’t that difficult

Posted in Travel at 12:15 by RjZ

“Excuse me, where are you from?” the boy sitting next to me in the waiting area asks. “United States,” I answer and he looks puzzled. “U. S. A.” He smiles. He just wants to practice his English and he’s quite please with himself, justifiably so. I point to my ticket and ask him if this number here is my seat. His eyebrows knit and he says finally “My aunt has my ticket.” “I mean are there assigned seats or can I sit anywhere.” “Anywhere,” he responds (although it turns out he’s wrong about that.)

Even if I spoke Mandarin, I doubt I could walk up to any approximately asian person Colorado, where I live and ask them where they are from. The many asian Americans, even of Chinese descent, would quite likely be offended and be forced to awkwardly answer something like “San Diego.” But in China it’s a pretty good bet that a westerner isn’t from around town and, even he can speak the language, and I certainly see many clever tourists and westerners who can, he’s not likely to be offended. It’s an easy question and safe conversation starter that I’ve mentioned before is often used by touts and weirdos.

This exchange also illustrates something very different about our U.S. and Chinese cultures: we in the west may be ignorant of the subtle details of the mysterious orient but from the looks of it, we seem to know much more about them than they do about us.

How many times have western tourists to China heard how excellent we are with chopsticks? I, for one, have been using them, now and again, since I was about eight years old. I’m not likely to ever have the proficiency that the Chinese have, but using sticks to shovel food from a bowl into my open mouth is hardly as difficult as, say, Chinese calligraphy.

It is the tradition in China to offer guests a wide range of food (and lots of it). During a recent meal, I remarked how similar a dish was to kung pow. “You know kung pow?!” my astonished host asked, his eyes widening. “It’s very popular in the States…” “Hmmm,” he seems to be having trouble swallowing.

At every turn, it’s the same. You know there are different languages in China? You’ve heard of Chairman Mao? You were able to use the subway? (The signs were in English and even if they weren’t I can match the little symbols on my map with the ones on the platform.) We have much the same foods in the U.S.A., and for that matter, most western places I’ve visited. It may not be what mother back in China used to make, but it passes. We’ve seen kung fu movies about the Han dynasty and posters of revolutionaries waving the little red book. Chinese Americans are a prominent minority in the United States and knowing several hardly makes me an authority on this ancient culture, but evidence suggests that, in comparison, at least for the last 30 years, the Chinese were left completely and utterly clueless about life outside of their borders.

They do know a little about us: They know about the NBA and Starbucks. They have a brother/sister/uncle/aunt living in the United States and going to university. They pick up their McDonald’s burgers with their hands and forego the chopsticks, but for now, despite television and the internet, western clothes and German automobiles, the Chinese still seem pretty comfortable looking at the rest of the world as if it’s some peculiar, very interesting oddity. Good thing too, otherwise I might not have known I could ask boy sitting next to me if this was the correct waiting area for the train!

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