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The Lessons I Learned from Chopsticks

by Nick Madden | Harvard University

F Posted in: College, Travel, Voices P Posted on: September 2, 2011
Nick Madden Nick Madden

Traveling to China was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. Like so many other college students, I wanted to do something exciting with the summer after my freshman year. Through a program at my school, I was able to find this amazing opportunity to explore a country full of culture and history. I had never been out of the United States before and so I decided that the program presented to me was a great chance to travel and see the world.

The purpose of this trip was to teach a seminar to Chinese high school students on a topic of my choosing. Roughly twenty-five students from Harvard, including myself, were able to design our own, unique “mini-classes” and teach them to some of the best and brightest high school students in China. The program was ten days long and was held in Beijing at one of the top high schools in the nation.  That was basically the entirety of the knowledge that I had before getting onto the fourteen-hour flight to Beijing International Airport. I had no idea what to expect.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in for an exciting two weeks. I spoke no Chinese, which I wasn’t too worried about originally; I figured that my skills in charades would more than suffice for the differing languages. On the first day I realized that it is pretty difficult to act out the question “What time does the train leave for the Great Wall?”, or probably more common, “Where am I and do you know anyone that speaks English?”

I spent my first few days picking out all of the differences between the U.S. and Beijing, so much so that I was missing the beauty of the culture around me.  I was constantly entertaining questions in my head like “Is the sky always this smoggy?”, “Why don’t they have toilet paper in any public bathrooms?”, and “Why does McDonald’s cost so much?” There were no limits to my ignorance.

My perspective changed because of chopsticks.

I love food more than most things in life. I cannot put my love for food into words. Just know that when I had to eat my first plate of rice with chopsticks I almost cried. At first I thought to myself, ‘Why would anyone use these things? They don’t work and a fork is much more efficient.  I don’t understand this culture.”

This was my train of thought until I accepted my fate. I realized that I might as well learn how to use chopsticks or I would die of starvation. That was when I was able to discover the worth of chopsticks.

Chopsticks, first and foremost, teach you patience, which cannot be learned from eating as fast as you can with a fork or picking up a hamburger and stuffing it in your face. I learned this lesson very quickly. Chopsticks also make it take longer to eat rice and other carbohydrates, keeping people thin and in shape. I began to notice that although there are not many workout gyms in China the people are in far better cardio shape and very few people were overweight.

From a practical standpoint, chopsticks make sense. With the massive population in China, it makes sense that chopsticks are used to eat; they are easy to make and easy to wash. They are also simple and practical, which showed me much about the culture that I was immersed in. The Chinese seem to value simplicity and honesty. The kids I taught were blatantly honest. They would tell me if I looked tired, but they also would tell me how much they enjoyed certain lectures. That kind of honesty is rare, especially when looking at high school students in America.

It was after I realized the beauty in chopsticks that I really began to open up to the Chinese culture. I began to appreciate the simple artwork, the calligraphy, the traditional Chinese dance, the delicate paper cutouts and the bright watercolor paintings. Everything from the underground malls to the forbidden city took on a new meaning for me.

I could go on about my two weeks in China and everything that I did and saw there, but that is not the point of this piece. The point is that sometimes it takes something little to help you find the importance in a totally foreign culture. That little thing for me were the chopsticks.

So that was my trip to China.  As I talk to my friends back at school, I hear about great stories from other parts of the globe: India, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, South Korea, and so on. I want to open up the conversation and hear about your stories from summer. Where did you travel? What did you do? And what were the little things that ended up playing a significant role in your discovery of a new culture.

Nick Madden Nick Madden Nick Madden is NGJ's Marketing Director and a student at Harvard University.

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