I wait in line, savoring the cacophony of smells from all six of the restaurants in the cafeteria. The odor of chicken wings tangles with the sweeter odor of burritos, hamburger clashes with bacon, onion rings make my stomach turn as the crisp, refreshing smell of fresh salad greens rights it yet again. Yet none of these are to be my lunch. I have decided long beforehand on this, before my architecture class, before realizing as I had licked the roof of my mouth this morning that I had a sore throat, that I would be taking classes from eight to five into the afternoon in an annoying kind of light torture, the kind that China was so damn famous for. I step forward in line, again, again.
I’ll be having Chinese food today.
The line slowly lurches forward towards the men in costume making sushi. The man behind me begains to tell me about his day, especially concentrating on how very slow this line is, on how much better it is to be in line at some other time, in the off time, he’s got thirty minutes to get back to his office hours, he’s got to get OUT OF HERE, and as he carries on I watch and attempt to understand how this line works, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to be getting cold raw fish as a main entree today. The sign says, “Hot Bowls–Sushi–Wraps”, but I know these tricks of the mind. It may say “Hot Bowls”, but nobody ever leaves with a “Hot Bowl.” They leave with sushi.
I begin to contemplate the hopelessness of my struggle in this line. I begin to panic, watching others leave with strange beverages I’ve never seen before and hope never to see again. Green tea, raw fish, chop… Oh dear God, chopsticks. I begin to become even more nervous. It is becoming quite clear to me that the sushi bar is a den of evil, one where strange souls go to order their bizarre Asian beverages of death and raw fish of inescapable weirdness.
And yet it is not. I order my Pepsi, and a little rice bowl with chicken and peas, and the spicy Chinese mustard that isn’t spicy, and duck sauce.
And, I leave with chopsticks.
I do not know why I take these bizarre instruments. Their history is as storied as the stories of the chosen samurai and Hayao Miyasaki. The former weapons of trained ninjas, chopsticks were once used the way guillotines were in Europe, only naturally being Asian-designed, they were smaller and more efficient, and thus could be portable and therefore used by ninjas. However, white people venturing to Asia, unaware of this storied past, believed that they were eating utensils, and used them as such. As a result of this, Asian people believe that Americans are stupid, and this is of course not helped at all by the fact that many of our teenagers watch Hello Kitty on a regular basis, a show that not even Japanese infants watch.
I know this history, yet I still take these wooden sticks. They are in a paper sheathe with inscrutable Japanese characters on it (they only need a paper sheathe to contain their killing power because, like all things Asian, they are beautifully designed so that they are only deadly whenever used as such; the inscrutable Japanese characters act as a special ancient Shinto spell that keeps the sharp parts from injuring the user while in the sheathe). I break them apart, thus unleashing their magical spells.
“DAMMIT”, I say. I say this, of course, because I do not know how to use these damned things. I first try putting one between my first two fingers, the second between my index and ring finger; they cross each other, and in this position I find them impossible to use. I try to separate the two, but like two lovers found by an angry gun-wielding spouse in a shady motel in a bad part of town, they cannot be separated but by themselves. I try to use them as a fork, trying to scoop the rice with only these two wooden tines, but they cannot scoop. In desperation I begin to stab angrily at the chicken pieces, grinding them to pieces, but still these sticks of wood are not working.
I begin to study others in my predicament. There are five Asian people, three women, two men, who sit down and begin eating with the things. They all know how to do this. They make it seem so easy. They simply take them with one hand and begin to use them like a fork. They do not struggle with keeping them straight or stab at their food in anguish like a bee at the man carrying a can of Raid and not enough common sense; they know how to use these agents of magic and mystery.
So, I resign myself to my fate and get a fork. As I eat, I contemplate the mysteries of the chopstick. Why is it still used? Does it not seem that a fork can do the same things chopsticks can? I supposed, of course, that it was beyond my powers of simple calculation to understand the chopstick. Or Chinese food, for that matter, because the syrupy sweetness of the glaze dripping off the chicken onto the rice intrigued me. Was syrup not intended for pancakes? What was so magical, so unique, about Chinese food that it could break all these rules, its syrupy, stomach-wrenching sweetness, its raw salmon and cooked pork, its strange rice and questionable meats striking such a discordant note with the conventions of modern American culture? What was the magic of chopsticks? Surely they must be better than American utensils, better in some fundamental way, from our own spoons and forks. Perhaps, because they can be used as a stabbing device, a trait reserved in American cuisine for our knife. Perhaps, because there is only one of them, while there are two of the knife and fork, two instruments that, it would seem, cannot be combined.
And then, I remembered the spork. And I realized how proud I am to be an American.