The Chopstick Delusion

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blog chopsticks miageLiving in China, there are certain things one hears over and over again. A short list of commonly accepted phrases would include:

“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.

“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.

“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.

Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?

It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.

blog hamburger head“Holy crap! Do you see what’s happening here? He’s Asian and he’s eating a hamburger! A hamburger! I thought he’d be eating rice or something, but nope! It’s a Big Mac! This guy is wild!”

Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.

blog chopsticksBut all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.

Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.

blog chopsticks with fork“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.

You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.

Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.

And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.

Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.

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The Exciting Story of My Dinner

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Eating at a restaurant alone is never fun.  Lonely dinners make me really self-conscious, as though everyone else in the restaurant is looking at me and pointing.  This, of course, isn’t true, because everyone else has someone to talk to.  The only person who would be bored enough to pay attention to me dining alone would probably be somebody else who has no one to eat with.

The other night I had a lonely dinner at a little noodle place in Korea.  The place seemed perfect to me because there weren’t many people there.  I sat at a small table made of wood and poured myself a cup of water.  I like when wood is left looking like wood, unpainted and unvarnished.  Although my table was definitely varnished, it still maintained an excellent deep brown wood color.  I understand that there’s nothing interesting about this, but I didn’t have anything better to think about.  It was, I guess, the thinking equivalent of a really boring conversation. 

French songs played on the radio.  Later, I heard Maria Carey sing “I’ll Be There.”

“Why am I hearing this?” I wondered.  There was no reason I should be hearing Maria Carey.  I flew over an ocean to escape the likes of her, and here she was.  I imagined some lonely Korean guy in an Applebee’s in Pennsylvania, hearing Big Bang play and feeling a similar sense of frustration.

The woman working there came up to me.  “Take out?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “Here,” and I put my palm down on the table to show her I meant business.  There was a menu already sitting on the table, as if it had been waiting for me.  I looked through and swiftly ordered cold noodles in beef broth.  After ordering, I sat and waited.  “I should do something,” I thought.  “What should I do?”  I looked through the menu again.  Then, having exhausted its four pages, I just sat there until the noodles came.

I mumbled a half-hearted “thank you” in Korean and fumbled with the chopsticks.  They were made of thick blue plastic, which made them easier to use than the Korean metal chopsticks.  I don’t hold chopsticks exactly the right way, and sometimes Koreans will correct me.  It doesn’t matter to me because I’ve never held my pen properly and I’m quite comfortable writing, all the while enjoying a chaotic vision of a world where no two people hold their pens the same way. 

Back to dinner.  My noodles were hair thin and grey.  The broth was brown and had ice in it.  I love ice, and will never refuse it.  In water, in soda, in soup…anything but beer, unless the ice cubes are made of frozen beer.  While I ate, a young couple came in and sat near me.  They spoke Korean.  I wondered if they were watching me eat.  My teeth were incapable of cutting the noodles and I found myself having to let some noodles flop back out of my mouth from time to time.  I felt embarrassed and didn’t look over at the couple.  I assumed they had sharper teeth and couldn’t empathize.

There was a hard boiled egg in my soup.  I tried picking it up with my chopsticks but dropped it, splashing beef broth up into my face.  Did anyone notice?  I hurriedly looked straight down.  I could hear the young couple talking and laughing.  Were they talking about me?  I stabbed the egg in a fury until it broke into bits, then ate them.  I had to show everyone that, in the end, I was the one in control and not the egg.

After finishing, I got up to pay.  My knee hit the table hard, but I made sure to show no signs of pain as I hobbled to the cash register and then limped out.

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David Bell and the Idea of Irresistible Similarity

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When David Bell was a kid, he ate some paint chips.  Years later, I met David, when I worked at a day program for people with mental retardation.  David was extremely affable, always in good spirits, energetic, and prepared to tell you about his brother, Joe Lewis.

“Where’s Joe?” he would constantly ask.

“I don’t know David,” I’d say.  “Home?”

“No,” David would tell me, “Joe Lewis GONE.  Shot by the police.”

Later I’d meet David’s cousin, LeWanda Bell, who just happened to be Joe Lewis’ daughter.  She informed me that Joe was fine, living a nice relaxing life on his couch, exactly where one would expect him.  He was not missing, nor was he being consistently shot by law enforcement.

There were so many funny moments with David.  He was in his late fifties, black, and seemed to be stuck in the 70s.  He dressed like he was a character on What’s Happening!!, in plaid shirts and a cap like Rerun used to wear.

“Right on!” he’d yell out, pumping his fist.  In truth, I loved David, and encouraged all of his silly behavior.

“Hey, David?  Where’s Joe Lewis today?”

“Gone!  The police got him!”

David would do another fun thing when I’d take out into the community.  We would go on an outing to the mall, and David would happily approach and talk to every black person we’d pass.

“Buddy!” he’d shout.  “My friend!  Where’s Joe Lewis?”

The black person David had accosted typically would have the same reaction as the ones approached in the past.  First, they’d look at David, confused, wondering if they knew him.  Then they’d see the rest of the group David was with and the light bulb would go off.  Ah, this guy, friendly as he is, isn’t quite right.

“Dang, Joe Lewis…I haven’t seen him…”

“He’s shot by the police!”

“Oh…I’m sorry…that’s too bad.”

The reason I go on about David is because I was reminded of him when I moved away from my people in America and off to the homogenously Asian country of South Korea.  Who are ‘my people,’ you might wonder.  Any non-Asian, I thought.  White people, black people, Hispanic, Samoans, Inuks, the Amish, people of a racial descent that is unclear when looking at them – it didn’t matter.  I thought of David Bell and how elated he was to see another black person, and I imagined that it would be similar here in South Korea.  If I would run into another white person, say, on the bus, we would talk and get along famously!

“Hey!  You’re not Asian!”

“Neither are you!  We must have some things in common, eh?”

“Yeah!  You like Maroon 5?”

“No!  But I can understand how you’d think that, as I am a white person…”

That’s how I imagined it going.  In my first few months, I even tried to strike up a conversation with a blonde girl I ran into on the street.

“Hi!” I said.  “You don’t see many white people around here.”

“No, you don’t,” she said and quickly walked away.

The truth, it turned out, is that in South Korea foreigners run away from each other like they’re diseased.  I’ve gotten used to that now, and have the same apathy when seeing a new foreigner as others had when I first arrived.  Approaching another foreigner, there’s always an uneasy moment where eye contact is painfully avoided.  This could involve checking the time, my cellphone, or looking down at the street as though I’m in danger of stepping in quicksand at any moment.  There is no desire to acknowledge that we’re both expats, just the uncomfortable realization that this person exists and the strong hope that the person won’t say anything.  We’ll walk by each other quickly, and after passing the other foreigner, a wave of relief will wash over me like I’ve just dodged the police.

Yes, the police.  I fear them.  I’ve heard what they did to Joe Lewis.

For good old David Bell, there was something irresistible about seeing someone similar to him.  But for some reason, for expats in South Korea, there’s something very uncool about seeing someone similar.  Perhaps it’s the desire to be unique, to be having a singular experience, or the fact that we left our home countries to get away from ‘our’ people.  I’m not sure.  If human connection is about shared experience, we here in Korea would rather keep that experience private.

“Buddy!” David Bell would shout to someone on the street, if he was here, in Korea, holding his hand out, waiting.

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Plastic Enthusiastic

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In 2008, a woman named Hang Mioku appeared on a popular television program and instantly became one of Korea’s most infamous pseudo-celebrities.  At the age of 28, Mioku underwent her first plastic surgery operation.  Twenty years later, Mioku had gone through so many facial reconstruction surgeries that she was left scarred and disfigured.  Doctors refused to treat her anymore.  But she stayed persistent enough to find one doctor who was willing to give her a home injection kit that she could use to give herself silicon shots.  Believe it or not, giving Hang Mioku a syringe turned out to be a bad idea.  She ran out of silicon and, still wanting to make herself beautiful, began injecting cooking oil into her face.  By the time she appeared on television, her face was swollen and enormous, making her look something like a cross between a troll and a sumo wrestler.  The television show raised enough money to get Mioku help, and she would eventually undergo a procedure where over 200 grams of cooking oil was taken out of her face and neck.

Plastic surgery is generally accepted in South Korea and doesn’t carry with it the kind of negative connotation it has in the States.  An article on Seoulstyle.com states that over 50 percent of women in their 20s have had some sort of operation done.  Of them, a good number had their work done while they were in high school.  The most common procedures are getting a nose job where the bridge of the nose is heightened, or having a “double eyelid” operation to make the eyes look more Western.  The motivation for going through these procedures is simple: Koreans just want to look good and attract a mate.

My motivation for visiting the plastic surgery wing of Gil Hospital was far different.  After slamming my face into a beer glass, I had twelve stitches put in around my left eyebrow, a process that I missed in favor of a nice drunken nap.  You can imagine how odd it felt when I was told I had to have the plastic surgery unit examine me later in the week.  “But I already have double eyelids,” I thought, taking my appointment card from the receptionist.  As much as I was disturbed at having hurt myself while drunk, I was a bit more upset by the idea that a doctor might have to take a scalpel and reconstruct part of my face.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I had my Korean friend text me the words “plastic surgery” in Hangul.  My phone out and ready, I showed the words to the front desk, and later to a bunch of nurses I passed by when I was lost in the hospital hallways.  None of them spoke English.  And since I can’t speak Korean, I would just say “hello” and show them the screen of my phone, which said “plastic surgery.”  The nurses would nod enthusiastically, perhaps thinking that I had gone in for a nose reduction. 

Finally I found the Plastic Surgery Unit.  The nurses were all rather attractive, with pale skin and lovely makeup.  I looked around, hoping to see people bandaged up like the heroine of the Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode.  There was nothing.  The Plastic Surgery Unit was empty.  Eventually I would spend portions of two days there, having my head looked at.  On the second trip, the surgeon – a young fellow who spoke some English – yanked the stitches out of my head.  He did so in silence, and in that blank space of time I concentrated on the pain and tried to picture what my scar might look like.  Like most people who came to this place, I imagined, I would be leaving looking at least a little differently than I had coming in.

Good old Hang Mioku, with all that cooking oil in her mug, wanted to be attractive. I just wanted things to go back to normal.  I guess the difference between us is that she believed that she could, if she put in enough money and effort, really be beautiful.  I’d given up on that notion a long time ago.  Plastic surgery is for people who only trust aesthetics, and who don’t doubt the idea that beauty is possible.  That acceptance is possible, and that beauty and acceptance go hand-in-hand.  When Hang Mioku went on that television show, the loudest thought in her head must’ve been, “Please, please look at me.”

Walking out of the Korean hospital, where I didn’t speak the language and stuck out like a broken thumb, I didn’t particularly care to be accepted by anyone around me.  I’d walk home by myself and that would be fine.  I could even run my fingertip across the ridge of the small scar that ran through the hair of my eyebrow.  Right over the jagged crack in my skin that will stay there forever.

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