When I was young, a special treat was a family meal at a Chinese restaurant in a neighboring town. I can’t remember whether chopsticks were available, but we certainly ate with a knife and fork and/or spoon. As time went by, more Australians began to use chopsticks. The first I can remember is my oldest sister’s then-boyfriend now-husband. Over the years I ate in a number of Asian restaurants, but always thought that chopsticks were too complicated.

From 2003 to 2006 I sang in one particular church choir in Sydney. We often adjourned to a nearby Chinese restaurant for Sunday lunch. Most of them used chopsticks and I always felt slightly embarrassed (with regard to them and the Chinese staff) asking for a knife, fork and spoon.

Then one day I noticed that everyone was holding their chopsticks slightly differently, so I figured that there was no One Right Way, picked up a pair, started eating and got through most of a Chinese meal the first time. A few days later I got through a plate of Malaysian fried rice.

I came to Korea for the first time in 2006, and impressed a number of people with my ability to use chopsticks. Maybe I was the first foreigner they’d seen use chopsticks, maybe I was the first foreigner they’d eaten with, maybe I was the first foreigner they’d met.

Later, I worked at a government high school, and the staff ate in a small cafeteria. One day at lunch  a colleague said to me ‘Mr [surname], you look Korean’. I tried to think which of my Caucasian facial features might pass as Korean. He continued ‘You use chopsticks’. I thought that there’s more to looking Korean than that.

One of my colleagues had a strange way of using chopsticks. She was left-handed, and left-handed people using chopsticks look slightly awkward at the best of times, but she held them vertically downwards and very close together, and I was amazed that she got any food at all. I later noticed that one of my wife’s nieces was also left-handed and used chopsticks in the same way. My wife said that she (the niece) had eaten like that since she was a child.


Like this, but closer together, and left-handed. Obviously enough people do it for there to be a graphic telling them not to. (Wikipedia)

There are major differences between Chinese and Korean chopsticks. Chinese people (or Chinese restaurants) use plastic chopsticks. The eating end is round and relatively big, and the holding end is sometimes round (and bigger than the eating end) and sometimes square (with a smooth transition between the round and the square). Plastic chopsticks are obviously a 20th century innovation.


There are at least three kinds of chopsticks used in Korea. The most common is metal, and considerably flat – the cross-section is rectangular. The smaller dimension remains constant throughout, while the bigger dimension tapers from the holding end to the eating end. This may also be a 20th century innovation – metalwork did exist in Korea, but was not an important part of culture. The second is  the cheap, wooden disposable kind (developed in Japan, I think) often used with takeaway food. These come in one piece but can be pulled apart reasonably easily. They are also flat and tapered. The third kind is of higher quality wood, are round throughout and quite pointed at the eating end.

Koreans seem to have no difficulty changing from one to the other. The same basic holding and manipulation are used for each. I prefer the metal kind, if only because I use them more often.


Taiwanese melamine chopsticks, Chinese porcelain chopsticks, Tibetan bamboo chopsticks, Vietnamese palmwood chopsticks, Korean stainless flat chopsticks with matching spoon [spoons are often longer and rounder, which I find awkward], Japanese couple’s set (two pairs), Japanese child’s chopsticks, and disposable “waribashi” (in wrapper) (Wikipedia)


2 thoughts on “Chopsticks

  1. I really don’t like the takeaway sort… mostly because I can never get them to split evenly, I think, and I’m always afraid of getting splinters. Every time I get takeaway (which isn’t often), I think to myself, “I really must put a pair of chopsticks in my bag…”

    There’s a Korean food shop at the end of the street my uni’s on which I go to sometimes, and I always just take at back to uni and use the plastic Chinese-style chopsticks we have there rather than take wooden ones from the shop (there are plastic forks and spoons there, too).

    Sometimes it’s interesting to get Korean or Chinese takeaway here to see what cutlery they offer you. Some ask which you would prefer; some automatically give me a plastic fork because I’m white and then I’ll take a pair of disposable chopsticks (there are some foods I just can’t process in my head eating not with chopsticks). Sometimes the workers look so surprised to see a white person using chopsticks… I’m not sure why, since I don’t know anyone of my generation who can’t use chopsticks.

    About Koreans not having difficult changing from one sort of chopstick to another – well, that would be like us changing from metal to plastic knives and forks, wouldn’t it? (Minus the problem of plastic knives not being able to cut).

    Also, what’s with “neighbo(U)ring” in the first line?


  2. For no particular reason, I use ‘neighbour’ and ‘nieghbourhood’, but ‘neighboring’. I am allowed to be consistently inconsistent, or even inconsistently inconsistent.


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