Earning My Chops

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The first time I had sushi I was in Las Vegas on a spur of the moment weekend date with a boy I had met on a dance floor. It was one of those thoughtless things we do in our twenties. I was grooving with friends in my new leather jacket and Kevin approached me to tell me he liked my moves. He was from out of town and asked me on a proper date after we had danced together all evening. I drove to LA for the date but because his roommates had commandeered the household to work on a film project, we had no privacy to get to know each other over the dinner he had planned to make. So naturally we decided to drive to Las Vegas. The drive was one long questionnaire in getting to know each other and by the time we arrived in Sin City, it was pretty clear we did not have a love match. He liked pop music and I liked alternative, jazz and classical. He liked bubbly, career-oriented professionals and I was a funny yet brooding artist. So we went to the world’s biggest buffet at the Rio Hotel & Casino and decided to just be friends.

When I picked up a slice of sushi roll with a fork, he (who was half Asian and half French) said incredulously, “I’ve never seen anyone eat sushi with a fork before.”

My face reddened in shame. The truth was I didn’t know how to use chopsticks—had never even tried to before.

Twenty years later, I had still not learned how to use chopsticks. You know what happens when you are embarrassed by something once in your life? You tend to shy away from that moment for the rest of your life. Sure, I had faked it many times at Chinese restaurants with friends, holding the sticks improperly and using them more as a scoop, adhered together between my awkward fingers to dig into rice, avoiding the meatier chunks of vegetables or meat. But no one noticed. That is, until I met my current boyfriend.

He’s Asian and loves his cultural cuisine full of fatty, slithery foods meant for twirling around those trickery implements with grace. So inevitably we ran into the moment where I was sitting across a table with him, clumsily wielding two wooden sticks. He noticed my klutzy hit-and-miss attempts between the bowl and my mouth and decided to help me out by giving me a crash course in the proper way to use them. After a hilarious meal of hand cramping I at least had the concept down and told myself I would use them every chance I got. Which was easy, because he made plenty of homemade bowls of steaming Asian soups in our kitchen over the course of our first year together.

My biggest moment of fear came when, at Christmas, it was time to meet his parents. I wanted to make a good impression, which meant that in the very least, I had to get my chopstick acumen down before I met his mother. I also prayed that the opportunity to use them might conveniently NOT come up. I offered suggestions when we were planning our many meals out together for the holiday. How about the steak house? What about a good burger? Let’s go to that fancy Italian place with the arancini and panzanella salad. But it did no good.

Eventually, we were sitting down at a casual Japanese restaurant and I had a threatening bowl of ramen before me with the fattest and most slippery noodles I had ever seen swimming in a broth slick with oil. Acting all confident with my newfound skills, I leaned over to try a bit from my boyfriend’s bowl. As I pulled up the noodles to take a slurp, they dropped right off my sticks in a slosh, spewing hot liquid all over him.

“What are you doing!?” he blurted out as he jumped back to escape the mess.

His mother pulled up the big porcelain spoon on the side of her bowl and tried to give me a tip about first scooping the noodles into the spoon but enveloped in mortification I could only hear what I assumed was going on in her brain, damn fool, what kind of idiot woman is this with my son. Of course, that is probably not true, but nonetheless, I pretended to be full a lot faster than I was that evening so I could stop my awkward chopstick dance.

A year later during their next Christmas visit, I was sure I would be better equipped to eat a chopstick meal. We went to a dim sum restaurant where the shumai came oversized. I cringed inwards as I held my hand to the middle of the table to pick up one of the dumplings with my sticks. The minute I raised one from the plate, it wiggled free and plopped right back down on the plate. In my embarrassment, I poked the chopstick into the food and lifted it up, primitive spear-style like a dunce.

My boyfriend’s mother promptly asked the waitress for a fork, handed it to me, and said, “The pieces are so big, just use a fork.”

With blood red cheeks, I finished the meal realizing that any attempts to win the parents over were now forever doomed. I had to dig into a well deep within me to realize that I was not perfect, never would be, and that was okay. That was a liberating lesson in itself.

And of course, every liberating lesson comes with a Murphy’s Law dose of corrective action because after my boyfriend’s parents left on that particular visit I became a chopstick pro. This was partly due to the fact that I started eating my lunches at home with chopsticks. I became the queen of the expertly tossed rice bowl. I even began to enjoy the unseen benefits of chopstick utilization which included slow eating, the savoring of individual ingredients, getting full faster on a smaller amount of food and most of all, reestablishing some modicum of my pride.

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