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from the May 2017 issue

Fear of Manners

Recently, I heard a story from a friend.

Apparently my friend’s boyfriend had a bad habit that bothered her so much that finally one day she begged him to stop. Her boyfriend had agreed, resolving not to do it anymore, and then told her that there was something he wanted her to stop doing as well.

My friend said she could comply with his request but, knowing how difficult it would be for her boyfriend to stop doing the thing she had asked, she wondered with trepidation what he would ask for in exchange.

She said that he said, “I can’t stand the way you hold your chopsticks.  You’ve got to fix it.”

When I heard this part of the story, my only response was a “hurm.”

The habit she had asked her boyfriend to change was a significant vice.  Most people would say that it was not comparable to holding your chopsticks in a weird way.

Nevertheless, how she held her chopsticks was just as crucial a matter, an issue no less important to him if they were going to be together.

 

Day in and day out, so many personal habits can drive us crazy.

Someone who taps his foot unconsciously or someone who always inflects the end of her sentences, the sound of a sneeze or the way they close the refrigerator—the list could go on and on.

And yet it seems to me that, even among all these annoying quirks, the ones that seem to especially bother us have to do with table manners.

Perhaps it’s because something about eating is connected with the sexual or physiological parts of us.  Or maybe with the fact that it’s absolutely necessary for survival, and thus the habits themselves—those on display during the act—indicate that person’s outlook on life.

In any case, it’s impossible to imagine ending a relationship over the person holding their chopsticks in an unacceptable fashion.  Though I think I did hear about a doctor who broke off his engagement because he didn’t like the way his fiancée slurped her soba noodles.

 

I myself have no sense of the right way to hold chopsticks.  Instead of simply allowing the upper chopstick to rest on my middle finger, I use that finger to grasp the other chopstick tightly, the same way as my index finger.

I thought I had more or less overcome this—after my mother’s urging—but not so long ago, while eating curry with some friends, I was startled when one of them said to me, “Kanako, the way you hold your spoon is so interesting.”

Ordinarily, you hold a spoon the same way you hold a pencil, right?  But me, I use a backhand grip, holding it more like a scoop.  Thus, when I bring the spoon up toward my mouth, it’s as if I’m going to hit myself in the face with it.

My mother warned me about this too, and I thought I had corrected it, but I had let my guard down among my close friends and, without even realizing it, had slipped back into the old pattern.

 

Another thing is that I eat very fast.

I eat so fast you’d think I was a police detective or a beat reporter. I barely chew, I scarf my food down so quickly. If I’m out with a strapping young guy, eating curry or ramen, I often finish before him. And at a multicourse meal, I usually spend more time waiting for the next course than actually eating the food.

Besides this, I spill food, I talk with my mouth full, I’m the first to start eating with my hands—my table manners are certainly nothing to brag about.  Which is why, rather than merely tolerating others’ behavior, it’s safe to say that I am more at ease when I find myself with people whose habits go against conventional etiquette.

What I mean is, instead of being impressed when I see a guy who very properly switches his chopsticks to his left hand before placing them on a chopstick rest, I think, This guy must be really annoying. Or, when a person constantly dabs at her mouth with a napkin, I say to myself, I could never have an intimate conversation with someone like that.

No doubt this is just evidence of my own complex—I simply cringe in the face of people who know their proper manners—but then again, eating is pretty high on the list of important things in life.

 

I have a dream in which I’m the dorm mother for a boys’ school, where I prepare meals for the students.

The schoolboys come back to the dorm starving, and I like to watch them hungrily devour the plain food I’ve made—rice, pork cutlets, croquettes, gingered pork, fried soba noodles.

Now, I enjoy eating a fancy, multicourse meal—I can appreciate that this is one of the joys of living—but I’m more interested in life itself.  I like to see how so much of the food we eat gets used up and consumed, its fundamental transformation into a person’s flesh and blood.

As for the boys’ table manners, the worse, the better.  I like to see grains of rice go flying, or let them toss it into their miso soup and have it get all soggy, or instead of pinching their food with chopsticks, why not just stab it?

I called it plain food before—just basic for consumption—but watching these boys, it seems like this food is anything but.

 

 

© Kanako Nishi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Allison Markin Powell. All rights reserved.

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