The Year of Chopsticks

By Katherine Pioli

Eating utensils as meditation tools.
by Katherine Pioli
Go to any Asian-cuisine restaurant and the setting will usually include a pair of chopsticks. Many people dining in America, however, will not even attempt to use such tools, opting instead for a fork. White Westerners seem to be notoriously bad at balancing their food between two thin sticks, as I learned one day at a restaurant in Boston's Chinatown. I had joined my Chinese-American roommate Li Huan for lunch and was the only non-Asian in the restaurant. When the food was served at our table, the entire restaurant watched as I picked up my chopsticks; could I feed myself properly? Thanks to Li Huan's gift of chopsticks the year before, I managed it in relatively good form.  

The diners in that Chinese restaurant might have had a particular interest in my performance since-as most people agree-chopsticks were invented and first used in China. Although no one can say for sure, some guess that chopsticks have been used in China since as early as the eleventh century B.C. After some time, the invention spread to other areas of the Asian continent, and in each place the chopstick found its own personal style. The Koreans, for example, commonly eat with metal chopsticks. The idea for using metal probably derived from the habits of Chinese royalty, who ate with silver sticks, believing that the metal would change color if it came into contact with poison.

The chopsticks Li Huan gave me were more Japanese in style-being made from wood instead of metal, bone or bamboo. They were an elegant pair, each stick carved from a single piece of dark wood, smooth, round, and tapered at the ends. When I first received them at the end of our freshman year, I admired their beauty. However, unsure when I would ever want or need to use a pair of chopsticks, I promptly packed them away.

Three months later, after a summer of farming in rural New Hampshire, I returned to the hectic life of academia. Readjusting to the stressful routine of class, work, sports, and meetings proved unexpectedly difficult. I missed the simple days feeding animals and pulling weeds. Finally, I decided that if I was to enjoy even one tiny moment in the day I needed to slow down, and one area of my life where I could control the pace was mealtime. Out came the chopsticks. Notwithstanding the variety of food cooked and served at my college co-op, for the remainder of that year I strove to eat everything with my chopsticks. Often that meant fishing blocks of tofu and carrot out of my soup and then lifting the bowl to my mouth and drinking the broth. With non-stick foods such as beans, it meant finding the patience to grasp and chew each morsel individually.

Reaching for a pair of chopsticks in search of tranquility seems completely appropriate. They are, after all, a tool originating from the same land that gave rise to meditation, tai chi and tea ceremonies. These cultural forms, through movement and ritual, promote a life of calm introspection. And, even though my own movements with the chopsticks may at first have appeared clumsy and awkward, these foreign utensils helped me to create within my daily life a moment of calm.

At first I didn't even realize the potential of my choice in promoting mindfulness, but as I continued I began to formulate a practice around the dining-ritual. Sometimes I would focus my thoughts on where the food on my plate had come from, the soil and the rain that had fed it. At other times, I kept my awareness on my chewing, my breath and the movement of my hands transferring the food from plate to mouth.

Of course, the original reasons for eating with chopsticks had nothing to do with meditation. An ancient Chinese rule of etiquette banned knives from the table to avoid reminding the eater of the gruesome event of killing the animal that is being eaten. This required food cut into bite-sized pieces before cooking, which conveniently decreased cooking time and allowed the cooked food to be immediately consumed. The only problem remaining was how to retrieve the hot food from a boiling pot, or from a plate, without scalding oneself. A children's story, written by Ying Chang Compestine, an author from China, attributes the invention to a young boy. Unable to compete with his older brothers at meal-time, the young boy decides one day to grab a pair of bamboo sticks. The sticks protect his hands from burning and while his family waits for the food to cool the young boy eats his fill. 

Unlike him, speed and instant physical gratification were not my aims. When I set the slender chopsticks between my fingers, each bean or leaf of lettuce had to be considered and grasped individually. Picking carefully at my food, all thought of the day's stress and tension faded away, and I felt at peace.

Katherine Pioli is a CATALYST intern who graduated from Bryn Mawr. In the summer she fights fires in Wyoming's national parks.

This article was originally published on February 1, 2008.