Less than an hour ago, quite late for supper, I was sitting on my sofa, a second helping of stir fried chicken and veggies and rice fast disappearing: being transported to my mouth with a set of black lacquered chopsticks…. But it was only towards the very end that I suddenly became aware of the fact that I had been picking up the last few grains of rice one by one, rather deftly, contemplatively even,with the chopsticks held between my fingers…and I stopped to reflect on how that came about….these rather alien eating instruments so easy in my hands….and essential: I would not dream of using a fork when I have an oriental inspired meal at home, or the real thing out. In fact, I have a stack of chopsticks. bunched together in a beautiful black porcelain container, made by a potter friend of mine, on my kitchen counter, at the ready..

A stir-fry or a noodle dish always to me seems the perfect solitary meal: it’s quick, and tasty, and I can sit cross-legged on the sofa with the bowl held close to my chin… no airs and graces: not that I am a total stickler to that!! But of course it was not always like that….there was a time in my life when I had no idea about using chopsticks. In fact, the only Chopsticks that I knew about, was a rather irritating tune which everyone (except me) seemed to have been able to sit down at a piano and churn out!!

Well, maybe it was not quite that bad: I read a lot and I knew that Chinese and Japanese people used chopsticks to eat their meals, but it took an aunt of mine, my dad’s youngest sister, to introduce that into my young life. I think there was a kind of a craze in the seventies: all very exotic, to be able to present guests with a Chinese meal. Certainly I remember this same aunt setting a table with the ubiquitous blue and white Chinese crockery, and chopsticks, which I fancifully thought were made of ivory(they were beige plastic) dutifully set out next to each bowl: even porcelain soup spoons, since in “true” Chinese tradition which she was trying to imitate, and in accordance with those set menus in Chinese restaurants, there had to be a soup as a starter….

I remember a specific lunch: the soup had been served, and then it was time for the rice and sweet and sour pork dish. My dad watched everyone struggling to use their chopsticks which my aunt, his sister, had insisted we all use, and then, with a flourish, presented the porcelain spoon which he had secreted away on his lap in the napkin, and playfully offered to “auction” it to the table of struggling adults… He ended up triumphantly eating the rest of his meal with the spoon. My aunt was furious: the kind of furious which hostesses experience when their perfect plan as to how a dinner will go somehow gets scuppered…

It was only much later that I had my first proper meal in a Chinese restaurant: downtown Johannesburg, with a first boyfriend at varsity(he had a car, so we could go anywhere) at a restaurant which I cannot now remember the name of: but something like Little Lantern or Little Swallow(the bird!) rings a bell.. A proper Chinese meal would consist of items ordered from a safe set menu: a soup, chicken and corn maybe, a beef/chicken/ vegetarian chop suey or chow mein, ending with bowties and jasmine tea. In last week, waiting for my lover in a local Chinese restaurant, I saw that set menus are still very much in evidence. And always there would be plastic tablecloths, red mostly, and images of dragons on the menu and a squat statue of the Buddha on the counter and murals of stark steep mountains with tiny boats floating about on the walls…

My most nostalgic memory associated with eating with chopsticks, must be of about five years ago, in London that December. I had just bought a Chinese noodle dish, soupy and fragrant in a square carton to take away, a set of disposable chopsticks in the packet. I walked to the Royal Academy: earlier, at the British Museum, I viewed an exhibition of Chinese art and culture. It snowed lightly as I sat down, the stone bench freezing under my denim clad bottom, snowflakes melting on my eyelashes as soon as they settled there, my left hand in a bright red woollen glove around the warm carton as I scooped up the noodles into my my mouth, my right hand bare and freezing around the chopsticks. I sat there thinking about an old lover, an Englishman, whom I knew worked in London at the time, and wistfully scanned faces of men hurrying by, bundled up in dark coats against the cold, in the darkening afternoon light, hoping to see him appear, achingly remembering how he left me 14 years before….

Waiting for the man whom I now love on Thursday night, I watched Chinese music videos on a loop up on a big tv screen, a more modern aspect, but knowing that the dish of beef and black bean sauce will be the real thing, as it’s been made through generations,the exact taste and texture of it which I can only hope to approximate in my kitchen. And I did not think of an old love: just of my love of Chinese and other oriental food…

Even though I cannot really replicate a true Chinese dish(much as my western aunt could not) I take a secret pride in using chopsticks: even when I am alone: no-one around to impress, I will elect to use those chopsticks, a pair plucked from that bunch proudly displayed on my kitchen counter….

I still, however, cannot play that tune on a piano…. And I guess I’m quite fine with that!

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