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.
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)