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Korea: Chopsticks… Rather Complicated…

When I went out with East Asian editors one night at the Global Voices Summit 2008, we were so into talking about the differences between chopsticks. Why does Korea use iron for chopsticks while other chopsticks countries use wooden materials? Since returning home, I searched for whether some bloggers post about chopsticks. I am introducing some of the interesting posts here.

젓가락의 유래
젓가락을 처음 쓴 나라는 중국이라는 데는 이견이 없습니다. 어 떤 중국학자들은 젓가락이 처음 사용된 것은 음식을 먹기 위한 것이 아니라 요리를 하기 위한 목적이었을 것이라고 생각합니다. 초기의 젓가락은 썩기 쉬운 나무나 대나무로 만들었던 것 같습니다. 바로 그것이 젓가락이 처음 사용된 때가 언제인지를 정확하게 말하는 것이 거의 불가능한 한 가지 이유입니다.[…] 이렇게 젓가락의 유래는 대나무로부터 시작되었으며 젓가락은 세계에서 15억명 이상이 쓰지만 한, 중, 일 세 나라가 젓가락인구의 80%이상을 차지한다 합니다. 같은 젓가락 문화권이라도 상대적으로 덜 미끄러운 나무젓가락을 쓰는 중국과 일본과는 달리 한국은 쇠젓가락을 써 왔습니다.

The origin of chopsticks
There would not be other opinions than that the country that used chopsticks first was China. Some Chinese scholars explain that chopsticks were for cooking at first, not for eating food. […] In the early times, chopsticks were made by trees that were rotten easily or bamboo. Therefore, it is hard to track down when they were exactly used.[…] The chopsticks started from bamboo trees and now they are used for 1.5 billion people in the world. Three countries, Korea, China, and Japan, consist of 80 percent of the whole population. While China and Japan use less slippery wooden chopsticks, Korea has used iron chopsticks.

The use of chopsticks is like a childhood rite of passage in Korea. A netizen shares his experience on the meaning of chopsticks in Korean society.

대학교때 여자후배 둘에게 밥을 사주고 있었습니다. 선배에게 빌붙기하는 여자후배의 귀여움에 넘어간것이죠. 그떄 유부국수인가를 먹는데 두 여자후배 모두 젓가락질을 못하더군요. 그 크로스로 하는 젓가락질 아무도 가르쳐주지 않으면 크로스로 하게 되는데 두 후배모두 젓가락질을 제대로 안배웠거나 배우다가 포기했구나 하는 생각이 들더군요. 그러면서 제 어렸을떄 풍경이 떠 오르구요. 한 7실인가 8살로 기억되는데 외가댁에 갔다가 엄청 혼났습니다. 다 큰녀석이 젓가락질 못한다구요. 삼촌3명에게 둘러 쌓여서 개인레슨까지 받았습니다. 그러나 그렇게 쉽게 젓가락질을 배웠다면 누구나 다했겠지요. 포크질이나 숟가락질을 누가 가르쳐주지 않아도 한번보고 따라할수 있지만 젓가락은 그런 수준의 스킬을 요구하는게 아닙니다.

그렇게 1주일동안 혹독하게 젓가락질 수업을 받았습니다. 나중에 스트레스로 밥도 먹기 싫더군요. 제가 손이 남들보다 좀 작아서 악력이 상당이 약합니다. 뭐 손으로 하는것은 무조건 남들보다 못합니다. 그래서 그런지 정말 잘 배워지지가 않더군요. 하다하다 삼촌들이 포기했습니다. 그리고 집에 와서 혼자 해봤지만 잘 안되더군요. 그래도 계속 노력을 했습니다. 노력을 하면 되긴 되는데 제대로 삼지법으로 되는건 아니고 비슷하게 되더군요. 언뜻 보면 제대로 하는 것이지만 자세히 보면 약간 다릅니다. 그 모습을 다시 외가댁에 가서 보여줬더니 그냥 통과 시키더군요.

그 이후로 계속 그렇게 살고 있습니다. 위의 사진처럼 삼지법도 이제 할수 있습니다. 어렵지 않더군요. 하지만 습관이란것이 무서워서 그냥 약간틀린 모습으로 살고 있습니다. 플래쉬백되었던 기억을 다시 주머니에 넣고 앞에 있는 여자후배들의 크로스 젓가락질을 보면서 이 후배들은 어려서 부모님들이 회초리들고 안가르쳤겠구나 하는 생각이 들더군요. 어느정도 방임을 하거나 자유로운 집안분위기에서 살았겠구나 하는 생각이 들구요. 뭐 별것도 아닌것 가지고 생각의 가지를 펼친것은 있습니다. 회사생활할때도 젓가락질 못하는 신입여자직원을 봤을때도 물끄러미 쳐다본적이 있습니다. 어느누구하나 젓가락질을 가지고 뭐라고 하지는 않습니다. 하지만 나이들어서 젓가락질 못하다니 하는 시선은 있는듯 합니다. 그런것을 가지고 말하기는 그렇고 그냥 속으로만 판단하는 단계이죠.[…]

혹시 주변에서 젓가락질 못하는 분들을 보면 어떤 생각이 드나요? 나이들어서 젓가락질도 못하나~~ 하는 생각을 하시나요. 아니면 뭐 어때 자기가 편한대로 먹음되지라고 생각이 드나요.

젓가락질 참 오묘한 스킬입니다.

I was buying meals for two female college friends. Being younger than me, I decided to buy for them. We were eating noodles. Both of them were bad at using chopsticks. It seems that they haven’t learned how to use chopsticks, once I saw them making chopsticks cross. Maybe they gave up after learning a little bit. I thought about my childhood. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was reprimanded in my mother’s parents’ house. They scolded me for not using chopsticks appropriately. I had to take lessons from three uncles. But if it was that easy, I didn’t have to have a hard time. You can use a fork or spoon without learning, but you need different skills for chopsticks.

I had tough lessons on how to use chopsticks appropriately for a week. I even didn’t want to eat meals because of the stress. My hands are smaller than others and I don’t have enough power in my fingers. So I am not good at doing something with my hands. In the end, my uncles gave up. After getting back home, I practiced by myself on and on. It didn’t look great, but it was almost close. If you glimpse at it, it looks fine. But if you look into it, I still have some problems. Anyway, when I showed how to use them when I visited my grandparents’ house again, I passed.

Since that time, I have lived like that. I can do it as in the photo. It’s not difficult. But the habit is scary. I still keep a slightly wrong habit. It seems that these two friends were not taught by strict parents when they were kids. Their parents must have been permissive and let their kids alone. I might think way too much. When I am at my working place, sometimes I look at female co-workers who don’t use chopsticks well. Nobody comments to them about that. But of course, there are such looks at adults who can’t use chopsticks in an appropriate way. It is the time we think inside, not speaking loudly.[…]

What do you think when you see people who don’t use chopsticks well around you? Do you think how they can’t use them in adulthood? Or, you just think whatever is convenient they do?

How to use chopsticks… it’s a delicate skill.

What is the difference of chopsticks of Korea, China, and Japan? And what is the best way to learn the skill?

[…]사실 아시아의 15억 인구가 바로 이 젓가락을 사용하지만 각각의 사용처와 기교는 서로 다르다. 젓가락의 종주국을 대표하는 한국, 중국, 일본의 젓가락질을 간단히 비교해 보면 다음과 같다.

중국 한국 일본
길이 대 중 소
재질 나무 쇠 나무

중국의 젓가락이 가장 긴 이유는 중국의 음식 문화에 있다. 중국의 음식 문화는 기름에 튀긴 것이 많은데 일단 음식을 기름에 튀기고 튀긴 음식을 먹기에는 짧은 젓가락 보다는 긴 젓가락이 유리하기 때문이다. 또 젓가락의 재질은 튀김에 사용하다 보니 나무 재질이 많다. 참고로 우리나라에서도 튀김용 젓가락은 나무 재질의 긴 젓가락을 주로 사용한다. 일본은 우리와 비슷한 밥상 문화가 발달한 국가이지만 해양 국가로 생선류를 자주 먹으며, 밥을 들고 먹는 특성때문에 젓가락의 길이는 우리보다 짧다. 또 밥을 들고 떠먹는 습성때문에 우리와는 달리 숟가락을 사용하지 않고 젓가락만 사용하는 문화로 정착되었다. […]우리의 젓가락은 대부분 쇠로 만든다. 나무 젓가락의 명칭이 와리바시라는 일본 말로 불린 것을 보면 우리문화에는 아예 나무 젓가락이 없는 듯하다. 쇠로 만든 젓가락과 나무 젓가락의 가장 큰 차이는 쇠로 만든 젓가락이 나무 젓가락에 비해 사용하기 더 어렵다는 점이다. 쇠로 만든 젓가락은 표면이 매끄럽기 때문에 젓가락으로 다른 것을 집으려고 하면 잘 집어지지 않는다. 상당수는 금방 미끄러진다.

따라서 한국의 젓가락이 사용하기 가장 힘들다. 사실 젓가락으로 콩 하나 하나를 집어서 먹는 묘기는 다른 어떤 나라 사람들도 할 수 없다. 따라서 우리나라에서는 젓가락질을 하는 방법이 따로 있고 아이들에게 밥상 머리에서 가르치는 것이 젓가락질이다. 우리나라 사람들이 젓가락질을 잘하는 이유는 간단하다. 그 역시 음식 문화에 있다. […]
우리나라는 반찬을 거의 대부분 젓가락으로 먹는다. 매끈 매끈한 콩 자반도 젓가락으로 먹고, 무르디 무른 묵도 젓가락으로 먹는다. 어른들은 싫어하지만 밥도 젓가락으로 먹을 수 있으며 물에 말은 밥도 젓가락으로 먹을 수 있다. 공중에 떠있는 콩 자반을 젓가락으로 매가 참새를 후려치듯 후려쳐서 뺏았가는 것도 가능하다. 이처럼 우리는 젓가락을 이용해서 다른 사람과 오늘도 경쟁하며 음식을 먹는다.

남은 이야기 필자는 젓가락질을 아주 못했다. 사실 젓가락질은 쉬운 작업이 아니다. 젓가락질은 엄지, 검지, 중지의 절묘한 상호작용이 있어야 가능한데 이런 절묘함은 쉽게 익힐 수 있는 것이 아니기 때문이다. 젓가락질이 좋아진 것은 중학교 3학년 때이다. 당시 필자의 제안으로 7명이 시작한 도시락 까먹기가 그 시발이었다. 보통 도시락은 점심시간에 먹는다. 그런데 한참때라 점심 시간까지 기다리지 못하고 중간에 까먹는 때도 많았는데 이렇게 먹으면 학교를 파하기 전에 배가 고프다는 점이 문제였다. 그래서 도시락 까먹기 계를 조직했다. 총 7명이 참여한다. 아침에 오면 누구의 도시락을 먼저 까먹을지를 가위, 바위, 보로 정한다. 그리고 수업을 시작히기 전에 꼴지의 도시락을 7명이 동시에 까먹는다. 2교시에는 또 다른 녀석의 도시락을 까먹는다. 이런 방법으로 7교시까지 도시락을 까먹는 방법이었다. 당연한 얘기지만 도시락 하나를 7명이 까먹기 때문에 경쟁이 아주 치열했다. 젓가락질을 두번 하기도 힘들며, 채가는 것도 가능하고 흘린 것을 주워먹는 것도 가능하기 때문에 젓가락질을 잘하느냐 못하느냐는 생사와 직결된 문제였다. 직접 제안을 했지만 젓가락질을 잘 하지 못하다 보니 아주 불리했다. 며칠은 쫄쫄 굶고 손으로 떠 먹었다. 그러나 손으로 떠 먹는 것을 금지하는 법안이 상정된 뒤 손으로 떠 먹는 것도 힘들어 졌다. 결국 다른 녀석에게 젓가락질 하는 방법을 배웠다. 그리고 중학교 3학년이라는 어린 나이에 밥의 전쟁에 뛰어 들었다. 이때 이후 젓가락질 솜씨는 아주 늘었다.

[…]1.5 billion population uses chopsticks, but the skill and how to use them are different. I am comparing three countries, Korea, China, and Japan, which are regarded as the representatives of chopstick countries.

China: The length of them is long and material is wood.
Korea: The length of them is medium and material is iron.
Japan: The length of them is short and material is wood.

The reason why Chinese chopsticks are the longest is due to the food. Chinese food is usually fried. In order to cook and eat them, long chopsticks are better than short ones and wooden materials are better as well. For reference, chopsticks for fried foods in Korea are also made of wood. Japan has the similar food with Korea, but they are surrounded by ocean and therefore they eat fish. They also raise bowls close to their faces when they eat food and therefore the length of their chopsticks is short. In addition, rather than using spoons, they mostly use chopsticks.[…] Korean chopsticks are made of iron. The reason why wooden chopsticks are called waribashi (Japanese term) in Korea is because we don’t use wooden chopsticks. The difference between iron and wooden chopsticks is that iron chopsticks are more difficult to use than wooden ones. The surface is slippery and therefore when you try to pick something up it is hard to grab. Most things slip away.

Using Korean chopsticks is not easy. The skill to pick a bean up with the iron chopsticks is not what others can do. Therefore, what we learn at mealtime is how to use chopsticks. The reason why we’re good at it is simple. It is from Korean food. […] When we eat small dishes, we usually use chopsticks. Shiny bean food and soft tofu… we all eat with chopsticks. Even though adults don’t recommend it, we eat rice that was soaked with water, using chopsticks too. We snatch a bean in other person’s chopsticks with chopsticks. Using chopsticks, we eat meals competitively with others.

I was really bad at using chopsticks. As a matter of fact, using chopsticks appropriately is not easy. Cooperative work with a thumb, index finger, and middle finger is necessary. The time when I was comfortable with using chopsticks was in my secondary third year. It was from cracking lunch boxes with 7 friends. Of course, lunch boxes are for lunch time. But we couldn’t wait and usually ate them before the lunch time. But the problem is if we eat early, we get hungry easily before the classes are over. So we have a club to crack a lunch box and seven people participated. Every morning, we had the game of paper, stone, and scissors and a loser’s lunch box would be taken for the seven people before the first class started. The next loser’s lunch box would be taken for us in the second class. In this way, to the seventh class, we finish all lunch boxes. Of course, having a lunch box with seven people was really competitive. Using chopsticks two times is hard. Snatching others was possible too. Therefore, using chopsticks well or not was connected to filling your stomach. Even if I was the one who suggested this game, I was at a disadvantage due to my short skill. For several days, my stomach was empty and sometimes I used my hands. But after we made the rule not to use hands, even using hands was difficult. Finally, I had to learn how to use chopsticks well. I jumped in a battle of meals at such a young age in the secondary third year. Since that time, my skill with chopsticks increased fast.

At home, there are usually kid chopsticks, father chopsticks, and mother chopsticks. A blogger brags how his grandchild can use chopsticks, called ‘Edison Chopsticks’ that were created for children by a Korean inventor.

어느덧 미국에 간지 6개월..작년 10월달(둥이 36개월)부터 조금씩 연습을 시켰는데, 처음에는 쉽지 않아 잘 사용하지 않았단다. 그런데 몇달이 지나 요즘들어 그냥 쥐어줘 봤더니 아니~ 자연스럽게 면을 먹더라나!!

It’s already 6 months since I moved to America… From October (36 months), I let him practice little by little. He couldn’t use them well in the beginning. But several months passed. I handed chopsticks to him. And then he was eating noodles with them so naturally!!

A photo from a blogger, introducing how we can use chopsticks for making hairpins.

9 comments

  • When I was to Korea I was surprised that they used iron ckopstick and spoon, instead of the wooden one. I remember a young girl that was really amazed of my poor skills in using chopsticks so her mother showed me how to use them correctly. Now, I am a bit relieved to know that also for Korean people it is not so easy!!!

  • Therese

    Using a fork, knife, and spoon does take practice — I’m terribly bad at using them and just use chopsticks instead.

    I don’t think that using chopsticks are difficult and don’t see what the fuss about them are. Using metal chopsticks do not make Koreans special — it just makes their hands cold in winter. Yawn.

  • Sonagi

    @Therese:

    LOL. It’s a Korean thing. They probably don’t do this so much anymore, but while I was in Korea during the 90s, when Koreans would sit down to eat for the first time with a foreign acquaintance, they would utter the requisite praise, “You use chopsticks very well.” From Korea, I moved to China and lived there for several years. I ate with Chinese from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds from government officials to the village friends of my housekeeper and only ever got praised once.

    Another Korean thing is contrasting something Korean with something Japanese or Chinese, in this case, chopsticks. Back in the 90s, the English-language TV broadcaster Arirang featured a program called “Beseto Express,” or something like that, “Beseto” being an amalagram of “Beijing Seoul Tokyo.” The show would contrast clothing, architecture, food, and other representations of traditional culture, and conclude that the Korean XYZ was a little better. I understand very well why Koreans feel the need to distinguish themseles from their larger, better-known neighbors, but the “we’re better” tone that sometimes underlies these contrasts (Hyejin Kim’s posts don’t do this) holds little appeal with foreign audiences.

    • Margaret

      Yup!! I’m a Korean-American, and I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s kind of sad, and I wish we could all rise above it.

  • JuliusCaesar108

    I know your post is from over a year, but I want to comment anyway. I’m a foreign English teacher, and Koreans tell me the exact same thing – “You use chopsticks very well.” By reading your post, nothing regarding Korean politeness seems to have changed.

    I also learned another set of chopsticks manners not posted here. If desert is provided, you still use the same chopsticks, but with (at least) disposable chopsticks, you turn them around when picking up the desert. After observing this at the table, I did the same thing; and boy the school officials noticed and were smiling and talking to each other how cool they thought it was. It was something so simple to learn by observing, and yet they act like I did something complicated.

    • Margaret

      Is it safe to assume you’re American? Well, Koreans love their Americans. They’ll treat you very well and compliment you for simple things like that.

      Also, I first heard about using the other end of chopsticks from a man who’s married to a Japanese woman. I’m guessing it’s just a shared custom, but I’d be surprised if it originated in Korea.

  • […] (via Global Voice Online) […]

  • Patrick

    The “you are good at chopsticks” line is pretty famous among the foreign community in Japan too. I didn’t realize Koreans had the same mentality but it makes sense. I don’t know why they think it’s such a miracle that someone other than themselves can use a pair of sticks to pick up food. I always feel like I’m disappointing people when they ask me if it was “really hard to use chopsticks” when I say “No, not at all.”

    I will admit the Korean version is a bit tougher than wood. Certain things would just slip right off. I did like that you eat rice with a spoon though.

  • FatherZ

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kangwondo in the 1970s, and not only was I constantly praised for my ability to use chopsticks (actually aluminum, vice iron, and yes, more difficult than those of China or Japan), but my willingness/ability to eat kimchee was met with disbelief.

    After two years in the village, with kimchee at every meal and no fork within a hundred miles, that was still true, although when I pointed out how much weight I would have lost in two years if I couldn’t use chopsticks, they admitted I had a point.

    I’ve also lived three years in Japan and spent a little time in China, and Korean chopsticks are by far the hardest to use.

    Regarding the reversed chopsticks, that was usually done in restaurants when taking from a common bowl, in order to avoid placing the ends you’d put in your mouth into the food.

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