Chopsticks Made in the USA – Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

To many of us, the idea of using two sticks with one hand to pick up a piece of chicken or vegetable from a plate or bowl and putting that same piece of chicken or vegetable into our mouth without dropping it is beyond one’s imagination. However, this is what one out of every five people in the world does at mealtime on a daily basis. These people with such dexterity with chopsticks live in what we call “chopsticks nations” such as China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Globally, not all Asians use chopsticks as their eating utensils. For example, Asian Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Tibetans, Mongolians, Filipinos, and Indonesians generally do not use chopsticks, unless they learn to use them. Others such as Thais, Cambodians, and Laotians only use chopsticks when eating noodles. Finally, some second or third generations of Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese in the United States or other countries may not know how to handle a pair of chopsticks because they never learn how to.

If they don’t use chopsticks, do they use knives and forks?  It depends. Asian Indians mostly eat with the right hand and never with the left hand because the left hands are considered as unclean. If utensils are used at all, they are generally forks and spoons, but not knives. Do pay attention that when Asian Indians eat with utensils, they hold their utensils with the right hand and again, never with the left hand.

Despite the strong Chinese influence in the Philippines from commerce since the 1500s, a majority of Filipinos do not eat with chopsticks.  This, in part, is because of its over three hundred years of Spanish rule. The common table cutleries are spoons and forks, although the Filipinos of Chinese ancestry may retain the tradition of eating with chopsticks. Similar to the Philippines, Indonesia also has a very strong European influence because of its 400 years of Dutch rule. Hence most Indonesians do not eat with chopsticks. Being the world’s largest Muslim nation, neither do its people eat with the left hand.  Again, the common eating utensils are spoons and forks. Consequently, only those that are of Chinese ancestry use chopsticks.

Finally, Thais, Laotians, and Cambodians only use chopsticks when eating noodles. Otherwise depends on what they eat, they use forks, spoons or even their hands. For example, Thais and Cambodians may use their hands to eat khao lam (sticky rice) or skuon spiders (deep fried tarantula) respectively. Interestingly, these disposable wooden chopsticks used by over one billion people in the world are no longer manufactured in the world’s largest consumer of chopsticks—China.

Since 1997 when the Chinese government issued a moratorium on domestic tree-cutting, China has sought out chopsticks from its next door timber-rich neighbor, Russia.  But when Russia raised its timber export duties from 5% to 25% in 2007, China was forced to look somewhere else. That was when Jae Lee—a Korean-American citizen—saw the opportunity and started Georgia Chopsticks in Americus, Georgia where poplar trees and sweet gum trees were not only abundant, but with the perfect hardiness for chopsticks.

Since it opened its door in April 2011, Georgia Chopsticks is now producing two million pairs of chopsticks a day and shipping every single one of them outside of the country. With a current workforce of 102 employees, Lee is expecting to open five more factories in the country and hire an additional 800 employees.  He also plans to expand his wooden products to include toothpicks and tongue depressors. Now, that is real economic development!

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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