Vertical Chopsticks

Once at dinner, the informant arranged the table and served rice for everyone’s bowl. The informant’s father-in-law put chopsticks and spoons next to the bowls. As he gave the informant the chopsticks, he stuck the chopsticks vertically in the informant’s rice while everyone else’s chopsticks were next to the bowl. It is later revealed that sticking chopsticks vertically in another’s bowl is a curse, as the chopsticks and the rice look like burning incest sticks, which is something people do to dead people at their funerals and later visits to their tombs.

The informant did not have a very good relationship with her father-in-law, as he often suspected others of not liking him and telling people what to do even though he didn’t know much about things. However, they live together. Thus they would sometimes have small conflicts. The informant said she did not think much about why her father-in-law sticks the chopsticks in her bowl, but she swapped her bowl with her father-in-law’s. The informant described his face as “angry and surprised,” but he didn’t say anything and put the chopsticks down. Not until later did she realize it was a curse when a child stuck her chopsticks in her bowl, and the mother scolded her. The informant looked proud as she returned the bowl even though she didn’t know about the curse until later, and she was still angry about the curse even though she never knew why her father-in-law wanted to curse her.

This text includes elements of superstitions and family dynamics in Chinese culture. The act of sticking chopsticks vertically in someone’s rice bowl resembles the ritual of burning incense sticks for the dead ones. It’s a respectful thing to do to the dead but terrible to someone alive. Although China is not a religious country, the belief in superstitions and curses still exists in Chinese culture.
The problem of the family dynamics is also reflected in the text. As a culture that respects the elders and values family, many Chinese families live together with their elders. Usually, after the couple gets married, they would live with one side of their parents (or their parents would move to live with them.) The high price of housing also contributes to this phenomenon. As the two families stay together, conflicts arise. In this case, the woman lived with her husband’s parents. The young and the old generation are unfamiliar with each other, while the family power dynamics differ from the old times. Thus, conflict arises. In modern days, more and more families choose to live separately from their parents to avoid such conflict.