06 October, 2012


It probably goes without saying, but I’ve had a multitude of firsts since arriving in China. I’m still pretty proud of my first blog, teaching my first class and cooking for the first time, but for this first BlogThings prompt, I really want to tell another first story…

Before coming to China, Chinese food was never my favourite. We rarely ate it at home, and the one in my college town wasn’t very tasty. I’ve mentioned before about how I regularly visited my grandparents in Tennessee. Every visit, one of our traditions was to go to an elaborate Chinese buffet that everyone really liked. (It was still American Chinese food; so don’t let my use of the adjective “elaborate” fool you.)

I always prefer a fork.
Without fail, every time we ate at said restaurant, my brother would rib me about my refusal to use chopsticks. I told him I didn’t know how; he told me I’m embarrassing. You know… the usual. For years, I told my brother I had a fork, so using chopsticks seemed like an exercise in futility.

Did I miss the mark on that one, or what?

Fast forward to my first day in China. It is time for me to open mouth and insert my foot (that is, instead of my food). Breakfast was provided by the hotel, so I slept through it. By lunchtime, we were placed in language classes, and it was our LCF’s responsibility to take us out to lunch. (LCF stands for Language and Culture Facilitator; the Peace Corps loves acronyms…)

For lunch, we stopped at a noodle shop. I now know this to be banally common, but at the time I had not yet been in Chengdu for twenty-four hours. It was crazy and foreign and exotic and fascinating. Our teacher showed us a menu. I sat there in awe; it blew my mind that all these silly squiggles and pictures could actually mean something. She asked us what we wanted to eat, so I did what any foreigner would do if they were still reeling from culture shock: I shrugged.

At this point, I cannot recall exactly what kind of noodles I got, but when they came, I was shocked and appalled to find chunks of meat with bones in them. The LCF tried to comfort me, explaining it normal to find meat still on the bone. The slight reassurance this gave me evanesced immediately as a fellow volunteer handed me a pair of chopsticks from the cup on the table.

I wish there was a photo of my face. I imagine it was sheer incredulous panic. I have to eat that? With these? Come again for Big Fudge?

I chuckled to myself and sheepishly admitted to the other volunteers in the group that I did not know how to use chopsticks. (I had just met these people and would be working with them for two years… Nothing like a good first impression.) Luckily for me, everyone was gracious about it and there were no PTSD-like flashbacks to my grade school days of being the target for many a bully.

As I picked up the slender pieces of plastic and tried to learn how to hold them, our LCF made a quiet noise of puzzlement (which I now know is a thing; my students do it ALL THE TIME). She asked me why I was trying to use my left hand. This marked the first of many conversations she and I would have about being left-handed in China (which is all very fascinating, but I’ll save it for another post).

With the newly learned ability to hold chopsticks without dropping them, I attempted to pick up my first noodle. I dropped the chopsticks. Attempt two, the chopsticks stayed in my hand, but no noodles would stay between the chopsticks; they slid right off and back into the bowl of broth.

Needless to say, it was a long, frustrating meal.

I eventually found that if I leaned forward and put my face closer to the bowl, I did not have to lift the noodles as far, which meant there was less of a chance of them slipping off and falling into the broth. This worked well enough, but wasn’t perfect. As I ate, I noticed there was some splash damage when noodles fell back into the bowl. Little droplets of broth were accumulating around my bowl, and what was even worse, some of those drops had found their way onto my clothing.

Lanzhou la mian
One pet peeve I have that sends me into a table-flipping rage is getting things on my clothes—especially when those clothes are my nice, professional attire. If there was one thing Peace Corps China stressed to us pre-departure, it was the importance of looking professional. On the first day, I was hoping to make a hip first impression, so I went with khaki trousers, my green plaid shirt (with complimentary green socks, of course) and a skinny black tie. I supressed my outrage at seeing small speckles of lunch juice on the front of my trousers and vowed to never eat noodles again. (Looking back, this is hilarious, especially because I am living in Lanzhou. Lanzhou’s specialty dish is its “world famous” beef noodles—niurou la mian (牛肉拉面). I’ve had a half-written blog devoted to the meal cooking for a while now (pun intended), so hopefully it will be up soon.)

Sighing with resignation, I just accepted that messes happen and will be a growing pain until I can master the art of using chopsticks. After paying for our noodles, we gathered our things to return to training. I stood up to return my satchel to its proper shoulder, only to look down and watch a slow-motion disaster.

That morning, we received our PC-approved medical kits. The volunteer to my left (which is never a fun place to be when I’m trying to use chopsticks) brought hers to lunch at set it on the table, teetering upright, when she stood up to leave. The table was bumped, and over fell the med kit onto the bowl formerly known as my lunch. The toppling med kit caused the bowl to launch the remaining noodles and broth into the air on a collision course for my crotch.

On the bright side, you could no longer see the little dotted stains I made.

Needless to say, my first time using chopsticks was followed by quite a few other first: using a Chinese washing machine, and then when the stains did not come out, going to a Chinese dry cleaner. At that point, I was living with my amazing host family, and they were so helpful.

Speaking of my host family, they were also pretty amused at my inability to use chopsticks. My host father told me I would be more successful if I used my right hand. I’ll never forget, the first breakfast where I successfully picked up a slice of apple and put it in my bowl, they clapped and cheered for me.


Next week’s BlogThings prompt: Take a picture of something you see on a regular basis, and write about it.