10/22/2014
Chopstick etiquette

Let it be known that Y2 is not terrible at using chopsticks, and not terrible at eating xiaolongbao. This was all an accident, one that, unfortunately, befell her favorite flavor...

"Am I doing this right?" I ask my Vietnamese colleague, stopping in the middle of chowing down my bowl of laksa. She is watching me, and has this grin in her face that said I wasn't.

"No," she says.

"Then show me how!"

She takes my right hand, square in on my fingers, and contort them. This took roughly half a minute, or a minute. I feel uncomfortable, a tinge of stress piercing through a couple of my finger joints. I try my hardest to keep my thumb steady, but in the end, I am just not able to hold on to my chopsticks. It doesn't fall down, thankfully, but I can't use it either.

"It doesn't work!" I say.

"You're doing it wrong!" she answers.

I do not, of course, use chopsticks regularly. Yes, we have assimilated a good deal of Chinese culture - the feng shui, the round fruits during New Year, the proliferation of cheap siomai stalls in every street corner - but we did not adopt the chopsticks as our own. We used to eat with our hands. Sometimes still do, when the food calls for it. The Spanish taught us to use silverware, although somewhere along the way we decided eating with knives is weird and potentially dangerous, and settled for a spoon and fork instead, which is, well, still weird for some ignorant people. That's how we've done it ever since.

Then again, we Filipinos are good at imitating other people, but just close enough to not seem like complete rip-offs. For one, our English. Our American accents are passable - I once again had to tell people that, no, I did not study away from my home country - but we can mangle grammar perfectly, some worse than others. Same goes with our cutlery. We may not be used to eating with a knife and fork, but once armed with the proper knowledge (perhaps a few screenings of that Princess Sarah thing?) we can fumble our way to fine dining.

I like to feel good about myself. I often do this by doing something I think not everybody else can do. Yes, being able to use a knife and fork is not worthy of a calling card, but many times I found myself in an event with several contemporaries, and I see them choose to eat with a spoon and fork, or worse, ask for those from a waiter. Me, I'll grab that knife and proceed to slice that piece of chicken cordon bleu like I've been doing it all my life. And then I'd have a hard time picking up some of my food with a fork, so I scoop it up with my knife and pretty much act like it's a spoon.

I'm a bit more confident with my chopsticks. Inevitably, my parents enjoy Chinese restaurants, and I've gone to eat there from a young age. Soon we moved up from Chowking to North Park, which meant we now had waiters who'd give us hot tea before our food arrived. And before that, chopsticks, bamboo ones (or are they wooden?) individually wrapped in plastic, enabling us to finally eat buttered broccoli the way it was meant to be.

Then we moved on to Japanese food, when my mother discovered Omakase and fell in love with their raw tuna salad thing, so we all moved on to using the same chopsticks on more food that required it. There I was, dipping sushi in brewed soy sauce, then in wasabi, because I am bent on proclaiming that I am adventurous and I don't shy away from spicy food. (Of course, calling wasabi "spicy" is a bit of a misnomer, if you think about it.) I stumbled initially, of course - my dad's tip, of practicing using nuts, was something I took to heart - but now I'd sit at a table and, when it's there, and when it's appropriate to the food, I instantly grab the chopsticks and chow down.

My mother, well, she always requests for a spoon and fork.

Yes, I am now aware that I do not handle my chopsticks perfectly. Me, all I really needed was to feel good about myself. I can eat! In a Chinese restaurant! Without having to ask for a spoon and fork! I feel cosmopolitan! Whether I was holding it right didn't quite matter; what's important was that I was able to eat with chopsticks throughout the meal. The rest, I can learn along the way. The rest, I have learned along the way. Do not stab your chopsticks in your bowl of rice when you're stopping. Do not point with your chopsticks. Do not make a cross out of chopsticks when you're eating. That sort of thing.

In hindsight, I really shouldn't have asked my Vietnamese colleague if I was doing it right. All I wanted was that bowl of laksa, never mind if I said, minutes before, that the fact that we were all eating in a buffet scares me because, well, it's a buffet, and you know what I do in a buffet.

This was Wednesday night, my fourth in Singapore, my second paid-for dinner with colleagues. We were at 1 Market, this buffet place at Plaza Singapura, where Chinese food awkwardly mingle with Indian food, where variants of sushi rub elbows with lobster and crab, and where I can have all the barley drink (unfortunately powdered, if there is such a thing) I could drink. So, yes, I didn't have to use chopsticks all throughout - imagine eating roti with it - but I thought I did with the sushi.

And then I got myself a bowl of laksa. I haven't had it in a long time, and I thought, well, I'm in Singapore, and this might be bare-bones and not genuine, but I'll have it anyway. It tasted good - a cut of fish, a bunch of fat noodles, a curry-based broth and an egg and a bit of sprinkled stuff on top - but the whole "you're doing it wrong" thing hovered above me like a raincloud. Then again, eating laksa with a spoon and fork would be weirder, and I don't say this in a snobbish way. It just is weird. I mean, the noodles are fat, and you'll have curry all over your chest.

Still, I really shouldn't have asked her.

My inevitable dinner with friends in Singapore happened the following night. Y2K would've brought me to Strictly Pancakes, but I was already there the last time I visited, two years ago. (She was still based in Manila at the time, this close to being a hot shot advertising copywriter. To be fair to her, she still is one, although Singapore is just much more different.) So she brought me to another one of her old reliables: Paradise Dynasty, the one at Ion Orchard, the one where people always mill around in front because they take no reservations, ostensibly because of limited seating. (Some of my Cookista friends should remember this restaurant: it is very close to the bookstore where David Cook signed some CDs during his last Singapore gig. That bookstore is now gone, replaced by an art gallery and a furniture store.) If I remember correctly, she was just at the restaurant the night before, having dinner with another friend.

"You eat anything naman, no?" she asks me.

"Of course," I answer, momentarily forgetting the whole chopsticks thing, despite knowing that I'm going to a dim sum place, something I gleaned from quick research I did back earlier that morning at the office.

The only other person to make it was Nadia. We had to move dinner to an hour later, however, because, well, you know Singapore. Mae was supposed to go but didn't make it; Marielle and Kimmy couldn't find time as well. In the end, it was just the three of us, two people who know the place very well, and me, a guy who's all, "no, no, up to you," because, really, I am the visitor and they are the hosts and I was frustrated at the sudden lack of record stores on Orchard Road.

"Scrambled egg white with fish and... anong fish 'to?"

"White fish siguro."

The restaurant's specialty is the xiao long bao, essentially dumplings with soup inside of it. I haven't heard of it either - I haven't been to that many Chinese restaurants, and, again, the assimilation meant what I thought was Chinese really isn't - but Y2K ordered me some of it anyway. Sure. I am the visitor and they know better than me.

"Kainin mo na agad 'yan," Nadia tells me, in that slightly stern tone of hers that I have not heard since our college days. "Hindi na siya masarap kapag malamig na."

Oh, damn, right. That. I was having fun with the noodles and the beans. With chopsticks, of course, because, well, that's how you do it, right? But then, yes, I had to eat the xiao long bao, and it apparently came with an instruction manual.

Well, an instruction slip. There are eight variants, and you eat them in a particular (yet mostly arbitrary, to me) order, starting from the original variant and ending with the red Szechuan one. And there's a proper way of picking one of those babies up, because your chopsticks are a weapon, and a xiao long bao is a delicate little thing. One wrong move and you will spill soup all over your table. That, I inevitably did.

Step one: lightly lift the xiao long bao from the basket to your spoon.

I didn't understand this step fully at first, because while I can eat with chopsticks, I can't eat with both chopsticks and those Chinese soup spoons. I realize that I have terrible hand-eye coordination. Or it could be because I am right-handed, and I usually eat with a spoon and fork, and having chopsticks on your right hand and a spoon on your left confuses my wee little brain so much. I have found a good excuse when someone asks me about my apparently terrible chopstick skills, but still, I am humiliating myself in front of my friends.

Step two: chew off a portion of the xiao long bao skin from the side to allow cooling of the soup broth and pork filling.

I do that in the literal sense of the world, and spill broth all over my table.

"Dapat pino-poke mo siya with your chopsticks," Nadia tells me, and while that made sense, my mind went back to the whole don't poke your chopsticks on things idea. Is that wrong? Is that wrong in this side of the world? Who do I believe now? I try it with my second piece and it barely makes a dent, and I feel more foolish than ever.

Step three: sip the soup broth from the opening you chewed off earlier.

But I didn't chew off anything! I trust my friends more than this slip of paper! And I make a noisy sound, and spill more broth on my table.

Step four: you may now eat the xiao long bao.

Thank heavens I am now using a spoon. With my left hand, yes, but still, a spoon.

But at least I did it the right way, relatively. I followed the order; I saw the point of it all. Original, ginseng, foie gras (I wouldn't have known), black truffle (that's definitely truffle), cheesy (I don't see the point), crab roe, garlic, Szechuan. It starts off light, then swings slowly, to the left and to the right, and then when you reach the last piece, you are rewarded with a explosion of subtle yet intense flavors. I understood why it was Y2's favorite. I understood why it sucked when she mishandled that piece - she was eating out of order; she can afford to cherry-pick now - and the soup spilled all over her side of the table. But at least she was holding those chopsticks better than I ever will. I contorted my fingers a bit, and then I gave up, choosing to instead talk my way through the dinner, about our awkward positions, and later, about brunch.

I had a chance to redeem myself the following day, Friday, our last day of training. It helped that lunch was, well, mostly dim sum, and familiar ones, too, at the Raffles Country Club. What we call "siomai", they call "siew mai", but it is the same idea: pork filling, wrapped around all but one side with a very thin sheet of dough, and with an orange dot on top. Among the twelve of us, only three came from countries who don't use chopsticks a lot: me, the German, and the Australian (well, technically, Kiwi, part-Samoan, and funnily in this case, part-Chinese). The moment the eager waitress gave me a spoon and fork, I said, "for back-up." I didn't need it.

That night, we were at Jumbo Seafood along the ECP, where we - like two years ago - had a smattering of food, including the inevitable chili crab. (Chilli. I would spell it their way, but it feels too weird to me.) I was no longer given a spoon and fork. It was the German's turn to treat them as back-up; he did pretty well with the chopsticks, no mean feat considering his week in Singapore was his first ever trip to Asia, and I only really saw him try that afternoon. He was picking up those peanuts like he was secretly Chinese or something. Or maybe it's the last minute sense of adventure you get when your flight out is just hours away. Too bad he didn't have the crab. Turns out he's not fond of seafood.

I had one of my Chinese colleagues teach me how to hold my chopsticks properly again. I was serious, quite serious. There we were: my fingers, again, being contorted to slightly uncomfortable positions, while another colleague held on to my camera, taking photos. To my surprise, I do hold on to it. It finally makes sense. One stick remains stationary; the other does all the heavy lifting. I do this for fifteen minutes, until I make the mistake of letting go of my chopsticks to eat the crab. Maybe it's the grease, or the wet wipes, but I couldn't do it properly again.

If anything, I was reassured by the fact that one of my Singaporean colleagues, who is of Chinese descent, admits to not being that good with chopsticks either. I am not alone. I most definitely am not alone.

I arrived in Manila on Saturday night. A few hours later, Nia returned from her, umm, adventure in Vietnam and Cambodia. We had arranged to meet over dinner before she heads back to Cebu; it ended up being lunch on a Tuesday, with me going to Eastwood, which is as alien a place as any to me.

When Rainy and I are out for lunch I always try to make her choose, but she'd say she's tired of thinking from work and wanted me to make the decision. I'd mention a fast food chain, but she'd turn that down, which is exactly why I felt pressured when I read Nia's text on Monday night. "My treat, any place of your choice." What do I choose, exactly?

"Up to you," I tell her when we finally met. To my surprise, she was still in the mood for Vietnamese. Like, haven't you had enough of it for a week? On the upside, it meant Pho Hoa, which is another one of those places I've been to many times before, another one of those places where I honed my so-called chopsticks skills.

She had some grilled chicken and rice. I had a vermicelli bowl. Instinctively, I went for the chopsticks, the same, individually-wrapped ones you see everywhere here. She didn't. No matter. We came here - well, I took a cab and she walked a bit - to talk, about relationships and second wave feminism and the novelty of me not following any TV series closely until I began working for BuddyTV. And, well, the fact that this whole thing might not have happened if Nia assumed correctly, and the train she ended up taking, after a series of unfortunate events, to cross the border from Hanoi to Phnom Penh was actually filled with human traffickers. I mean, she looks so young.

I dig through my bowl, still mindful of all the strife I supposedly went through in Singapore, when I realize something.

"These chopsticks are too short," I tell Nia.

"Yeah," she goes, and we resume.

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