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Essay

Table manners

By Samantha Loong

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Many years ago, a friend, her friend and I decided to have a dim sum lunch at a favourite Chinese restaurant of ours in Wellington. As we waited for the parade of steamed deliciousness to begin, my friend's friend — a white woman — picked up the pair of chopsticks in front of her and asked in all seriousness: "Why don't they move on to something more modern?"

My friend gasped in horror at her friend's comment. "What do you mean by ‘modern'? You can't say that!" My friend's friend seemed to associate using chopsticks with being backward.

I'd forgotten all about this incident until recently, when I started reading a fascinating book on the history of cookware and cutlery. The chapter I read was about knives. Historically, in many parts of Europe it was common for men, women and children to carry their own personal knife on their body. Apart from being useful for defending themselves, it was also used for decorative purposes, eating and other everyday tasks. Meanwhile over in China, the idea of bringing a knife to the table had always been considered brutish and uncivilised. A knife's place was in the kitchen only. It was only much later that European countries started to see dagger-like knives at the table as bad manners, and these knives were gradually modified to be less lethal. First, knives for eating started being made with only one sharp edge. Then, curves were added to make them look more gentle. It appeared that the Europeans were the ones "catching up" with the Chinese.

Table manners are a bit of a minefield. People still debate which side of a fork should face up as you put it in your mouth. My grandmother used to fret over how to use a knife and fork. She was a leftie, but for the sake of not rocking the boat at mealtimes, she learned how to use her right hand for chopsticks.

Thankfully, in most countries these days, people are more forgiving when it comes to which hand is used to handle which eating utensil. Yet, there are still rule books to read, and courses to take so you don't offend people when you're dining with company.

But perhaps the best way not to offend others during mealtimes is to avoid insulting the culture that the cuisine comes from — and that includes the eating utensil. Chopsticks, knives, forks, spoons and hands — how we use these at the table says a lot about different cultures and families. Every culture and every family has a different approach, so instead of asking "Why don't they ...?" maybe we should learn to ask "Why do they ...?" The history makes for a much more interesting discussion.

テーブルマナー

最近読んだ本をきっかけに、かつて友人らとランチに行った際にテーブルマナーをめぐり気まずい思いをしたことを思い出した筆者。文化が違っても皆が気持ちよく食事するには、どうしたらよいのか?

The Japan Times ST: December 9, 2016

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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