Nov 10, 2010

Chopstick Envy

Today in the school cafeteria, we were served great big sheets of seaweed, wet and fresh, with the faint taste of saltwater. I waited in the cafeteria lineup, wondering how many I could stack on my lunch tray before getting called out as piggish by another teacher.

Closer and closer I got to this great, slippery plate of sea-awesomeness, as the teachers before me scooped up one or two modest pieces for their meals. As I was trying to figure out the Korean way of saying "yes I do need ten pieces, I'm iron deficient," my turn came. Joy of joys! I grabbed the metal tongs and scooped up a great wad of slippery, slimy seaweed.

Jeez Louise.

These sheets were HUGE! You could put them in a photocopier and run off administrative memos on these suckers. Unfolding a sheet was like like watching a clown pull one of those never-ending handkerchiefs from his coat pocket. Seaweed just kept coming, layer by layer.
The seaweed, laid flat in all its glory, covered half my tray. I looked down at the utensils in my hand; a spoon and two metal chopsticks.

Maybe it's boiled, and comes apart easily? I thought Yes, boiled seaweed. Sounds weird, but no weirder than scooping A4-sized vegetables into one's mouth.

I took my green pile to the staff table and found a seat.

Jung-ee, the meek history teacher, gave her signature shy smile as I sat down. Poking at my rice, I watched her carefully for seaweed-eating tactics.

Jung-ee took her chopsticks and, in a few twists of the fingers, had folded the sheet of seaweed into a bite-sized portion, which she popped in her mouth with a small smile. Somehow, the plant folded passively under her touch. She probably could have chopsticked an origami bird if I had asked.

I took my own chopsticks and folded the seaweed, which sprang back to it's flat shape. Defiant, are we? I took a deep breath and tried rolling the seaweed, cigar-style. The roll stayed intact, but I was left chomping the roll, bite by awkward bite, unravelling bits with my teeth.

I turned to the teacher beside me, Soon-nam, the bubbly math teacher who wears pink lipgloss and sparkly eyeshadow, even on staff hiking trips. Obviously, Jung-ee has circus freak dexterity. I would study someone else.

Soon-nam folded her seaweed, and I mimicked. She folded again, and I followed the lead, my knuckles turning white trying to keep the thing from springing open. She scooped the seaweed up quickly and put it all in her mouth. I tried to scoop, and tried again. Desperate, I took my spoon and cornered the seaweed ball, stuffing it frantically in my mouth.

Soon-nam looked up then, smiling as she swallowed. "You're so good," she said sweetly, "with chopsticks, so good."

Eight more seaweed sheets to go.


  1. Great story, Anne! Have you encountered the self-conscious minority that holds their chopsticks crossed like an x?

  2. Crossed like an x? Really? I've never seen it.
    I did see a girl from Georgia (the state, not the country) attempt chopsticks for the first time and hurl them across the table in frustration. There's no silence eerier than the sudden silence of a crowded Korean mockoli joint...

  3. Thanks for sharing that story! While I haven't been to Asia (yet), I do like to use chopsticks here in the US when appropriate. I've always wondered how natives use the chopsticks with larger, unruly bits of food. Looks like it takes practice and lots of dexterity!