You’re having dinner at a restaurant in downtown Kowloon and your cellphone rings. You fumble to pick it up and in your haste, you stick your chopsticks upright into your bowl of rice.
During your call, you glance up and notice the elderly diner sitting across from your table. Her expression crumples into a frown as she stares first at you, then at the bowl in front of you and back at you.
Above the din of the dinner crowd, you hear a distinct “tsk’ as she turns back to her bowl, her chopsticks deftly sweeping strands of noodles into her mouth with a quick flick of the wrist.
You gaze around and notice that no one - not a single person in the room - has rested their chopsticks in their bowls the way you have. A kind diner at the table to your right smiles at you and deliberately holds up his chopsticks. He then gently places them on the chopstick rest by the side of his bowl.
Aha. I see, you say to yourself, as you grimace back apologetically and swiftly use your free hand to place your own chopsticks in a similar fashion. Saved from a cultural faux pax by a friendly local. You nod a silent ‘thank you’.
Two pieces of bamboo, wood, plastic or metal - sometimes flat, sometimes circular, with ends that are either pointed or blunt. Often simple and monochromatic, while some of the most prized pieces may be embellished with gold paint or pearl inlays as precious family heirlooms.
It is amazing how a single utensil used in different Asian countries spanning from China to Nepal can take on such a multitude of nuances.
But that only covers its physical appearance.
At a cultural level, different countries across Asia observe very specific do’s and don’ts regarding the use of chopsticks. You may have experienced that yourself, through friendly interventions as above or well-meaning attempts to correct how you hold a pair while picking up a slippery fishball.
(FYI, tempting as it may be, never skewer the bulbous mound with the pointy end of one of these eating implements!)
Even among Asians, not everyone is familiar with the chopstick norms of their counterparts across the sea or just across the border.
Brief History of Chopsticks
Developed about 5,000 years ago in China, the first chopsticks were used to stir, move, or pick up food from a pot or out of a fire while cooking. They proved so effective that over the centuries, the Chinese began using chopsticks not just for cooking but also for eating, encouraged by a population boom across China in A.D. 400, when a drop in resources force cooks to develop cost-saving habits.
In order to use less cooking fuel, they chopped food into smaller pieces, which in turn made the chopsticks’ tweezers-like grip perfect as a gastronomical tool.
By A.D 500, the humble chopsticks eventually spread to Japan, Korea and beyond. Folks in Japan originally used chopsticks made of bone and ivory only during ceremonies but their wooden and bamboo counterparts eventually made their way into regular meals as well.
Across various nations, the chopstick became integrated as the preferred utensil for dining, its shape and use eventually modified and moulded according to regional and cultural nuances.
Today, chopsticks come in a variety of lengths, shapes and materials, while the norms by which they are used are just as diverse.
One will find that Chinese chopsticks are often longer and made of plastic, with a rounder shape and blunt end. In Chinese restaurants, food is often served on Lazy Susans at the centre of the table, hence the longer length makes for better reach.
However, be sure to use serving chopsticks if these are available, to pick your food to place them into your bowls, instead of using your personal chopsticks. Never use your personal chopsticks to pass food to another diner or cross your chopsticks on the table.
And yes, never place your chopsticks upright in a bowl as this resembles joss stick offerings at a funeral. When at rest, make sure your chopsticks don’t point at someone else at the table.
Japanese chopsticks are often made of intricately designed lacquered wood or bamboo, with rounded tips. They may be of different lengths and styles, depending on function - from cooking to eating to ceremonial purposes e.g. funerals.
It’s okay to lift your bowl to your mouth and use a pushing action to put food into your mouth instead of picking and eating. When at rest, chopsticks should be placed on the table above the plate, with tips pointing to the left.
Should you get disposable chopsticks, never rub them together (it implies the chopsticks are cheap which is an act of insult to the restaurant) and remember to place them back in the wrapper at the end of the meal, especially in fancier restaurants. As in China, never cross chopsticks or place them vertically in your bowl.
In a Korean table setting, the chopsticks are usually placed on the right of the spoon. Placement on the left is only acceptable during funerals.
It is not acceptable to bring your bowl up to your mouth to shovel food in with your chopsticks (the complete opposite of Japan here!)
Lift your food from your plate/bowl instead and put it in your mouth. As a sign of respect, never pick up your utensils before your elders.
Bonus fact: Early Korean courts used silver to make chopsticks as the metal would discolour if any poison was present in the king’s food!
(Photo source: https://ikidane-nippon.com)
(Photo source: https://canthomekongtour.com)
Chopsticks are often made of lacquered wood, with souvenir pieces for sale at tourist markets often inlayed at the wider end with mother-of-pearl motifs. The lacquered finish makes them more resistant to the heat and humidity that is characteristic of the country.
In Northern Vietnam, chopsticks are often made from bamboo, while the south uses coconut wood as the material of choice. Like China, these chopsticks also tend to have blunt ends but are round rather than flat in shape.
Children are taught to use them as preschoolers - practicing on ‘training’ chopsticks imported from Japan - and are sternly reminded to never tap their chopsticks like drumsticks on the table or on bowls. Apart from this being perceived as rude, the noise might attract hungry ghosts!
If this might seem like much ado about chopsticks, it is actually only a glimpse into the world of cultural norms and practices that vary across Asia.
As a result, an awareness and understanding of this diversity and nuances is a must for travel, tourism and hospitality brands when it comes to localising branding and marketing content to these markets.
This is why we at IPPWORLD, with our penchant for building bridges across cultures, we pride ourselves in being your ideal partner in transcreating and localising content to suit your target audience.
We understand these markets in-depth and take great care in ensuring your content across all Asian languages resonates with your readers while aligning to your brand-speak.
In other words, transcreation (creative translation) and content localisation make for a more palatable and pleasant customer experience journey, eliminating the risk of a potential marketing faux pas. Think: "Lost In Translation".
But even more so, it clearly showcases your brand’s commitment in serving these markets in East and South-East Asia.