Chopstick Etiquette

Adrian Fernand – Australia’s most stylish agony uncle and etiquette guru – looks at using chopstick correctly and the different social protocols across certain Asian countries.

More Westerners seem to know the annoying little piano ditty better than how to use chopsticks correctly. Often one’s education is imparted by one’s parents at a first outing to yum cha; the fork confiscated and a hurried hack’s 101 is instructed before any dim sum hit the floor.

For the traveller, trips to Asian countries are often on the itinerary so knowing how to behave at the table is paramount, particularly if you want to be invited back again. They might be simple in design, but not knowing how to operate the two wooden lengths is the equivalent of holding a knife and fork in one’s fists.

Here’s our little guide to getting you using chopsticks like a virtuoso…

The Basics

  • Hold your chopsticks towards their end, not in the middle or close to the tips. Holding chopsticks incorrectly reflects badly on one’s parents, who are charged with the responsibility of instructing their children.
  • Just like flatware, chopsticks are never to be played with unless you wish to be perceived as being vulgar. So all you aspiring drummers out there, use them for their intended purpose.
  • Chopsticks should not never remain in one’s mouth for too long and must certainly never be bitten on. That means no sucking for those with a Freudian oral condition.
  • Never move an object other than food with chopsticks, this means plates, bowls and dishes. Food should not be toyed with, much like pushing around food on plate with a fork.
  • You shouldn’t pierce ever pierce food unless you’re tearing larger items apart in order to share it or make it a more demurely-sized portion. Use both chopsticks and pinch them out to cut the food—this takes some practice. Every attempt should be made to pick up foods that are slippery such as dim sum or cherry tomatoes. Stabbing food is an absolute last resort and is reserved for amateurs.
  • Use a separate set of chopsticks for communal dishes; these are often longer than the diners’ chopsticks. Never use chopsticks to dig around for the food you want—pick whatever’s closest to you.
  • Never pick up  food from a dish on the table and place it directly into your mouth. Food must always be placed in your own bowl or on a plate first.
  • Food should never be transferred from one diner’s chopsticks to another’s. Instead, food that is being shared should be done so on a clean plate or by placing it on the recipient’s plate.
  • When you have finished your meal, leave your chopsticks on top of the bowl horizontally. Placing them on the chopstick holder indicates you haven’t finished, much like crossing your cutlery.
  • Never leave chopsticks standing upright in your bowl as this is considered extremely poor manners and offensive; many Asian cultures believe it’s reminiscent of the incense sticks used in funeral rites and in offerings for deceased relatives. It is also poor manners to use unmatched chopsticks, as this is another funeral rite.

Regional Customs

Like the subtle differences between Western cultures of how to handle cutlery, so too different standards exist between the chopstick-using countries.

China

  • The host always has the longest chopsticks as the host places food on each diner’s plate. Children are offered smaller and shorter chopsticks in accordance with their social status. If your chopstick’s aren’t the same length, don’t eat with them and instead ask the host or the waiter or waitress to exchange them for a matching pair.
  • Never point your rested chopsticks at someone else seated at the table as it is considered very poor manners.
  • Never tap chopsticks on the edge of your bowl as it believed it is the noise made by beggars to attract attention of passers-by.
  • It is acceptable and the status quo to hold one’s bowl up to one’s mouth and use chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth.
  • It is expected and a sign of respect to pass food to the elderly before commencing the meal. It is also allowed to pass food to closely related family if they are having difficulty gripping the food.
  • Serving chopsticks are often used and are a different colour to the diners’ chopsticks. These are to be returned to the plate after use.

Hong Kong

  • The eldest member of the family holds their chopsticks first as a mark of respect.

Taiwan

  • To use chopsticks like a knife and fork in order to cut soft foods into smaller portions for children is common practice.

Japan

  • When resting between mouthfuls, the pointed ends of the chopsticks should be placed on a chopstick rest. If one is unavailable, one can be made with the paper case that contained the waribashi—disposable chopsticks.
  • It common practice to pick up the rice bowl, but it is never lifted to the mouth as in Chinese culture. It should be held in the left hand with four fingers and with the thumb resting horizontally on the edge.
  • Like vertical chopsticks in the bowl, crossed chopsticks also represent death and should never been done.
  • It is rude to rub wooden chopsticks together after breaking them apart as it is a gesture to the host that the diner thinks they are cheap.
  • When finished the meal, chopsticks should be placed in a right-left direction with the tips on the left. Anything else is considered poor manners.
  • In formal dining, disposable chopsticks should be placed back into their wrapper at the conclusion of a meal.

Korea

  • In Korea, chopsticks are paired with a spoon and there are conventions that govern their use.The spoon is used most often if the food is likely to drip including soups, stews and liquid side dishes, but both a spoon and chopsticks may be used to eat rice.
  • One should never pick up a dish and bring it closer to one’s mouth as it’s considered uncultured.
  • Chopsticks should always be placed to the right of the spoon when laying the table. Chopsticks are only placed on the left when preparing for a funeral rite.
  • It is incredibly rude to use the same hand to hold chopsticks and the spoon simultaneously. Likewise placing the spoon on the table whilst holding one’s chopsticks.

Vietnam

  • The rice bowl is lifted to the mouth as in Chinese culture to eat rice. Chopsticks are used to pick up rice from plates rather than a spoon as Vietnamese rice tends to be sticky.
  • It is proper etiquette to always use two chopsticks at once even when using them to stir liquids.
  • Chopsticks should never be placed in a V shape when finished eating as it is considered a bad omen

Image reproduced from idobelieveicamewithahat.com

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About Adrian Fernand

Adrian Fernand is a writer specialising in screen, television and fiction. As the Agony Uncle for etiquette and social protocol site, I Do Believe I Came with a Hat, he responds to the quandaries facing polite society in a modern world. He has in excess of 90 pairs of shoes. Follow Adrian on Twitter @AdrianFernand

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2 Responses to Chopstick Etiquette

  1. Gary says:

    Hi – excellent info. Thanks!

  2. Lewis says:

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but this post was great. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

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