Q: You said how you can’t stab chopsticks into food?
H: 落去飯(lok6 heoi3 faan6), right?
[Translation: Into rice right?]
Q: Yeah, 飯 (faan6) or 嘢食 (je5 sik6) in general?
[Translation: Yeah, rice or food in general?]
H: 嘢食 (je5 sik6) or 飯 (faan6) or whatever. Why?
[Translation: Food or rice or whatever. Why?]
H: 你拜神你係唔係插咗兩枝香落去 (lei5 baai3 sen4 lei5 hai6 m5 hai6 caap3 zo2 loeng2 zi2 hoeng1 lok6 heoi3). It look like 你拜神插嗰啲嘢(lei5 baai3 sen4 caap3 go2 di1 je5).
[Translation: When you pray, don’t you stick the two incense into the holder? It looks like when you’re praying and you have the two incense in the incense holder.]
I collected this piece in a Cantonese-English conversation about Chinese and Vietnamese folk beliefs. The informant can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding. The informant is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens. She didn’t mention specifically where she learned not to stab chopsticks into your food from, but only said, similar to a number of other folk beliefs and customs she knew of, that you would just know or pick up this sort of thing growing up from the community around you.
The basis of many folk beliefs is the belief in magic, either sympathetic or contagious. In the case of not stabbing your chopsticks into food, the idea that like produces like comes into play because as the informant says, the two chopsticks standing up looking like sticks of incense used when praying. Praying occurs for a number of reasons, death in the family and respecting one’s ancestors included, and it can be highly ritualized in Chinese culture, particularly when praying to the ancestors due to the long-standing tradition of ancestor worship and respect for those who came before you in your lineage. There are rules about where the incense and incense holder are placed, what kind of offerings should be made, and when to pray. For example, praying for ancestors has set time frames but praying after an individual’s death is done as appropriate. As such, standing chopsticks in food not only emulates incense in the physical image, it may be seen as a poor recreation of the ritual and consequently a disrespect to one’s ancestors. With such emphasis placed on respecting one’s lineage, this is very majorly looked down upon. Furthermore, considering how like produces like – especially if it is not the correct time to pay one’s respects to their ancestors – someone may bring death or other bad omens to themselves or those around them through emulation of praying at an otherwise inappropriate time.