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A Chinese Chopstick Custom and Folk Belief

My informant says this about her background:

“I was born in Connecticut, left when I was two months old, went to Taiwan. For elementary school, went to Hong Kong and went to Shanghai when I was starting middle school, and finished high school there. My parents are typical Taiwanese or Asian parents who only came to America for school and they don’t know that much about American culture and aren’t that great at English. So I was raised in a very “Asian” atmosphere/family.”

One time during dinner at a shopping mall, she brought this folk belief up, reprimanding one of her Caucasian friends for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice:

“If you stick chopsticks in the rice straight down into the rice bowl, it’s a bad, a very bad omen. It’s disrespectful because it’s like you’re putting incense on a grave and yeah, okay.”

Before I elaborate on this custom, I just wanted to talk about my own background first. I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.

Returning to the topic at hand, in Chinese culture, it is customary to use incense as a way of communicating with spirits or as a way of indicating something is an offering to the spirits of our ancestors. My informant reprimanded her friend for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice because it is similar to putting incense on foodstuffs Chinese people offer in front of graves.

I grew up in a Chinese family too so I’ve heard this “rule” before. But, varied as folklore should be, the version my parents told me was that sticking chopsticks (or anything similar in shape to incense) in my rice would invite spirits to feast on the rice, which is at once disrespectful and uncanny–you wouldn’t want spirits eating your rice at the same time you are eating it.

She mentioned another folk belief right after talking about the chopstick “rule”:

“Ok, I heard this from my mom. So another thing is, depending on how far you hold the chopsticks [she picks up her chopsticks], so depending on how far you grip the chopsticks, it depends– they say that…this is for girls, like if you hold it like here [she notions to the bottom of the chopsticks], you’re going to be married off to some guy who lives really close to you and like vice versa, like if you hold it like super far they it’s like ‘oh, you’re going to be married to like, you know, to a distant country or something like that’. Like it depends on how far you hold the chopsticks [she notions to the top of the chopsticks] , like around the tip.”

While I never heard of this belief before, maybe because I am male, this website (a sort of online journal) has a writer who brings up the same belief: thestar. This belief reveals a heavy emphasis on marriage in Chinese culture, which seems to be targeted at young women, that is passed from parent to children or in this case, mother to daughter. My informant elaborated that she heard this from her mother when she, herself, was caught holding the chopsticks near the tip. Her mother lamented that my informant was going to be married far away from home. From that background, we can see that marrying and residing far away from home carries a certain stigma-like quality to the extent where parents will warn their children that they will marry away from home (home as in the sense of city, town or country).

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