A brief lesson in chopstick etiquette is absolutely necessary should you be foreseeing a trip to Asia. How one wields chopsticks is of great significance in Asian culture, both in terms of respecting local customs and values, as well as being respected by one’s hosts as either a well-mannered gentleman or an ignorant foreigner.
When visiting a foreign country, it is only respectful to learn and abide by the host country’s norms and customs—that should be a given. In many cultures, eating is regarded as a highly refined ritual, so good manners at the dinner table are essential when visiting a foreign country.
The same is true in many places in Southeast Asia such as Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China, where using chopsticks properly may distinguish a well-mannered person from one who is uncouth. Chopstick etiquette is, therefore, an essential part of being a good guest when visiting these places.
There are many rules for how not to handle your chopsticks at the dinner table—things that are considered vulgar or unclean or regarded as having negative or unlucky connotations by the host culture.
Everything from how to set down your chopsticks to how to pick up food from a communal plate, to how to eat rice or soup from a bowl—there are correct and incorrect ways to handle all of these things. So, if you are to show your hosts the respect they deserve, by all means, make note of these dos and don’ts. Here are 10 common chopstick tips:
1. Never stick a pair of chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice. This is an incredibly offensive gesture because of the negative, solemn associations it has with death: Chopsticks are normally stuck vertically into a bowl of rice only at funerals, as a way of making an offering to the deceased.
This unseemly act brings such negative vibes to what should be a warm and cheerful atmosphere. Although a patient host may forgive the naive guest for this, why not save them the shame and embarrassment it might cause them, and just refrain from doing it?
Instead, if you need to put your chopsticks down, you should place your chopsticks on chopstick rests (as shown below) located near your dish (if they are provided). Alternatively, you may place your chopsticks neatly beside your bowl, or horizontally across your bowl—and you will be well received by your host. But, do not cross your chopsticks on your bowl either.
2. When dining with several people, it’s common to share a few dishes together. In these situations, each person will have their own rice bowl, while there may be ‘communal’ dishes in the middle with a set of chopsticks for each dish—just for serving, not for eating with. But sometimes, if these are not provided, each person may use their own chopsticks to serve themselves.
But, be sure not to go fishing around, sifting and sorting through the communal dish with your own pair of chopsticks—it’s unsanitary and unappealing to the others at the table. If you pick something up, take it and don’t put it back.
3. Chopsticks are not for spearing food with; it looks terribly barbaric and unrefined. If you can’t pick up a particular bit of food with your chopsticks, there must be a more civilized way of transporting it to your bowl.
There may be a serving spoon or perhaps you may bring your bowl closer to the plate in order to transfer the morsel across. But by all means, refrain from using chopsticks as skewers—they most certainly are not!
4. Don’t stir your soup with chopsticks, or clean them off in your soup or tea as if it were dishwater. This is incredibly unappealing and unappetizing. We wouldn’t want to subject our dear hosts to that.
5. Also, never eat directly from a shared dish. Rather, place what you have taken from the communal dish into your bowl, and then proceed to eat. Indeed, this demonstrates respect for the others who are sharing the same communal dish.
7. By all means, never lick the ends of your chopsticks! Why? Well, it’s just considered uncouth in Asian culture.
8. Please be aware that you ought not to mix and match your chopsticks as this is reminiscent of funeral rituals in some Asian cultures, and again… that’s considered bad luck to some hosts.
Although it may seem superstitious, Asians indeed feel very uncomfortable about the negative vibes that all things related to death and funerals bring to a lively social setting.
9. Without a doubt, when dining with company, you’ll be engaged in a bit of conversation to some extent. If you are in the habit of talking with your hands, please remember that it is impolite to wave your chopsticks about or use them as pointers whilst you talk.
10. Here’s one tip for the kids: Don’t tap or play with your chopsticks like drumsticks on the table or anywhere. Drumsticks are for playing with, whilst chopsticks are for eating with.
And with that, whether you be traveling abroad or just visiting your local Chinese restaurant, feel free to impress your Asian hosts with your own well-cultivated manners!