TEFL can help you with your future career
You may be doing your TEFL course and teaching abroad as a ‘gap year’ before starting a career which you studied for at university. Many people will ask you ‘why do you want to teach English abroad? Aside from a so-called year off, how will it benefit you?’
Well, this is what you can tell them:
You’ll gain confidence
So many parts of this experience will help you to gain confidence – from travelling alone abroad to a new place, to experiencing new cultures, to doing something new, to learning to speak in front of people.
Your communication skills will improve
Techniques learnt on the course and practiced in the classroom thereafter, will improve your general communication skills. You will be far more aware of whether or not you have been understood, and will adjust the way you speak and listen to people in general. You will also become more confident speaking to large groups of people, as well as on a one-to-one basis.
Your time management skills will improve
You’ll become the master of checklists! There’s nothing like leaving behind your materials and wasting all your hard work and effort to make you more organised! Carefully planning your lessons according to a time schedule will also be great practice for time management.
You’ll become more aware of other cultures
As you’ve moved to another country, and are teaching students who are not from your culture, you will become acutely aware of the differences between cultures, and the pitfalls of dealing with people from other cultures. These include misunderstandings, doing things in different ways, and knowing that what is acceptable in one culture, may not be so in another culture. In the corporate workplace one day, this will be a valuable asset to have, particularly jobs where you’ll be dealing with international clients.
You will make friends for life – after meeting people you would never have met back home. These could be your fellow classmates on the TEFL course, your fellow teachers while teaching, or neighbours and other locals, as well as your students. Having an international network of friends and past colleagues can also advance your career in ways you may never know – as you never know where the future may take you.
You’ll mature and grow as a person
All the challenges and hardships of living abroad will give you a tough skin and mature you in ways that staying at home in a familiar environment won’t do. Moving out of your parental home is testing enough for many young adults – but doing so in a different country really challenges!
Well there you have it. There are many more reasons to sail away from familiar shores, but these reasons are ones that you can proudly mention in interviews and cover letters. So what are you waiting for? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a detailed info pack.
All in good spirits -- Understanding the Thai culture of spirit houses
You'll see them everywhere. Ornate and colourful doll-size houses on stilts strategically positioned outside every home, business, school and in public areas. Other than making great photo opportunities for tourists, what is behind these impressive little structures that resemble miniature temples?
Spirits reside everywhere in Thailand, and Thai people go out of their way to keep them happy. Animism, or spirit worship is probably the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism arrived in South East Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship. Today many of the beliefs are knitted with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai people.
One of these practices is the use of 'San Phra Phum', or spirit houses. The purpose of the spirit house is to provide an appealing shelter for the spirits who inhabit the area where the house or business is built. Permission needs to be granted by the spirits before a new building breaks ground. The spirit house is constructed first, to entice the spirits to rather dwell in their own home and not in the house or shop. There are guardian spirits of the house, the garden and the land as well as ones that guard specifically over rice paddy, bodies of water, and military forts. You may notice that Thais always step OVER the threshold when entering a house – never on it. The reason – they don't want to disturb the guardian spirit of gates and stairwells that resides there.
The construction of a spirit house can be simple, resembling a basic Thai bungalow home, or as intricate as a palace. They can be constructed of wood, concrete or brick, and roadside shops with hundreds of colourful houses for sale are a common sight. Construction itself is a specialised field, and only an expert spirit house builder would be considered. Not only is the building thereof his responsibility, but he also needs to be familiar with all the necessary rituals involved so that the spirit invited will find it an acceptable earthly abode.
San Phra Phum are often decorated with little figurines of people and animals, incense holders and vases for flowers, and some even contain furniture. One will often see figures of an elderly man and woman - they are the caretakers of the spirit house, who will always be there to look after the house. Anything that people need in life, spirits need too. So, symbolically, statuettes of horses and elephants provide transportation, and tiny ceramic or wooden dancers entertain the spirits, while figurines of pets provide companionship.
The position of a spirit house is very important, and many a well-meaning expat has unknowingly placed one incorrectly, upsetting the neighbourhood in the process. Important to remember – should you ever need to erect a spirit house, is that it should never lie where the shadow of the building will fall on it.
One can regularly see Thais presenting offerings to the spirits. Fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and cold drink, keep the spirits' hunger and thirst at bay. Candles and incense, fresh flowers in the vases and garlands keep the house looking good which are sometimes strung with fairy lights at night for 24-hour visual appeal. Resorts in particular often boast elaborate spirit houses and generous offerings.
Spirit houses can be seen at dangerous curves in the road or places of frequent accidents. This is done in order to keep the spirits happy, and ask for the protection of all that use the road. A good example of this is on Samui’s ring-road just past Chaweng Noi, on the way to Lamai where a large, impressive spirit house overlooks the bend. Locals driving past hoot three times to acknowledge the spirits.
Because spirit houses need to be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Old spirit houses cannot merely be dumped. The spirits are coaxed into the new house, and the old one is laid to rest in communal ‘burial grounds’ for old spirit houses, usually a location well known to be rich in spirit activity. On Samui, a road known as the Ghost Road is the local spot to offload broken spirit houses. It is a rather eerie sight to drive along this road, which is a back road to the airport, and see hundreds of discarded spirit houses. They are regularly removed by the owner of the property, but somehow the pile grows higher again.
One will often find colourful strips of cloth tied around large trees in forests or gardens. It is believed that spirits reside in old trees. Offerings are placed at the foot of the tree or in lower branches, and the bright ribbons are a symbol for others not to cut down the tree. At Namuang one waterfall, a large tree's base boasts offerings that include a rather generously proportioned bra, as well as other clothing items and shoes. Banana groves are the favoured haunting grounds of female spirits, so one often sees san phra phum along the road nearby.
Longtail boats are decorated with the same bright cloth and ribbon. Keeping the spirits of the sea happy will ensure a safe journey, and bring in a bountiful catch. In the same way, cars, trucks and taxis display garlands of flowers to protect the occupants of the vehicle on the journey. Most cars and taxis are also adorned with 'yan' – religious symbols painted usually on the ceiling of the car, by a monk to protect it and its passengers. Yan painting can also be found on the doors of houses to keep unwanted or ghostly visitors outside.
To be on the safe side, you may want to bear the following in mind: If you make jokes while eating, a ghost will steal your rice. In case you were planning to ... you should know that you will see a ghost if you bend down and look between your legs. Watch those yoga poses then...
Spirit houses may be fascinating. They may be beautiful to photograph. However, please remember that to others they are a place of worship, so show respect when taking pictures. Don’t put your feet on any religious figure such as a Buddha or spirit house. Don’t touch or re-arrange items in the house to suit your photo, and don’t take photos when people are praying.
© Rosanne Turner
You ordered a WHAT?1
The language barrier can often pose a problem when ordering in restaurants. We share a few funny moments and give some tips on getting your point across.
Ordering in a restaurant in Thailand can sometimes be hit and miss. And while staff in tourist areas will have some knowledge of English, there are still often errors due to miscommunication. Before we get in to how you can avoid some of these common pitfalls when ordering, let’s look at a few examples of what we mean. Of course we’ve had many of our own experiences and have learnt by trial and error, but to get a broader spectrum, we posed the question of ‘what went wrong’ to several expats on the island. Here are a few replies, listed anonymously to protect the businesses concerned:
One mistake that kept popping up is asking for a glass of white wine, and being brought the WiFi password. Go on, say it out loud. See? It’s an easy mistake to make. Sometimes the reverse happens too and you’ll end up having a few drinks when all you wanted to do was answer your emails, as you feel too bad to send back that glass of wine. One local lady ordered a glass of Bailey’s Liqueur and got brought a bay leaf on a plate – wonder what the waiter thought she wanted that for?
Another drinks related episode – one of our visitors asked for a single espresso, and got given a Singha beer instead. And as one expat described, “I ordered a Cuba Libre in one bar, and got told ‘no have’, so I ordered a rum and coke instead – and got one.” Right, so here’s the first tip:
Unless the establishment has the quirky name of the drink on their menu, where you can literally point and order, stick to calling it what it actually is, as the case above points out. So, rather than ordering a ‘Screwdriver’, order a vodka and orange juice. You may just find the barman running down to the maintenance room… and in much the same way, it’s probably best not to ask for your scotch ‘on the rocks’, but rather with ice.
Sometimes, you have to wonder what the poor waiter must think of you, when you discover the miscommunication. Another expat recalls asking a bartender if he could make ‘Jaegerbombs’, and he promptly came back with the phone number of the local drug dealer. Oh dear. Yet another embarrassing story is that of regular visitors to the island. They asked at a local café where they could try a Thai barbecue… only to be told that the temple was ‘burning a monk’ the next day, so they should go down there. Not quite what they had in mind.
Menus themselves are often cause for confusion. Some are obvious spelling errors, easy enough to decipher, and you’ll commonly see ‘snakes’ instead of shakes, and ‘French fried’ instead of fries. And then there’s the tongue in cheek faux pas, ‘orgasmic’ vegetables instead of, you guessed it, organic.
Don’t be alarmed if you read ‘horse shit crap’ on the menu. It’s meant to read as ‘horse shoe crab’. Again, fried crap in curry sauce is more delicious than it sounds. And on a breakfast menu we once saw 'cockroaches' instead of coco pops listed under the cereals, the manage wondered why they weren't too popular with the children!
But other times, you just have to wonder what on earth is meant with menu items such as ‘Fried pork with pour the page’, or ‘Fried pork with the cotton that stops’. Evidently, Google translate has missed the mark with these.
Another tip would be to learn a few food names of your favourite dishes or ingredients. Just as important would be the names of items that you’re allergic to or can’t eat, such as peanuts or seafood. For the vegetarians, say ‘gin jae’ and you’ll be fine. Many restaurants now put pictures next to the menu items, which help a lot. And to avoid mispronunciation, it’s often better to point at the menu when ordering. Sometimes, the item is written in Thai underneath, making it easier for the waiter to get it right.
When placing your order, a couple of things will help to actually get what you ordered. So remembering the barman with the screwdriver and rocks, the same applies to food. Don’t use idioms such as ‘sunny side up’ or ‘easy over’ when talking about eggs, or ‘blue’ when you want your steak only seared. Remember too that the waiter is dealing with customers of many nationalities, so your ‘ketchup’ may be another’s ‘tomato sauce’, or ‘chips’ may be ‘French fries’.
When placing your order, speak slowly and clearly. Focus on clearly enunciating and slowing down, but without sounding like a stretched tape. Speak naturally, but without connecting your words, even if you’re pressured for time. Don’t rush through your communication, as doing so often takes more time, as misunderstanding can result and you’ll ultimately have to invest additional time in clearing up the confusion – or just accepting what got delivered to your table. Point to the item listed on the menu, to back up what you’re saying.
Be patient. Cross-cultural communication takes more time and you can’t expect
communication to occur with the same speed and ease as when you’re communicating with someone from your own culture. Relax, enjoy the view, and remember to say, ‘mai pen rai’, when things go wrong. For those not in the know, this is a common Thai phrase that basically translates to ‘no worries’, while at the same time, accepting the situation for what it is. Another important point – be careful not to sound patronising – not understanding another language does not mean the person is of lower intelligence. And speaking louder is no solution, yet common to witness.
So take note of the tips above, but if the wrong dish arrives, sometimes it’s better to just accept it. You never know, you may have just accidentally discovered your new favourite dish! The universe works in mysterious ways…
Dealing with Culture Shock
Culture Shock – a much used term for those who travel. But what does it mean exactly?
Culture shock is what you experience after leaving the familiarities of your home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Even those who are open-minded and well-travelled are not immune to culture shock. Symptoms include homesickness, anger, loneliness and boredom. Everyone will experience culture shock to some extend, but there are ways to deal with it and minimize the effects.
Firstly, understand what you are going through and why you feel insecure or anxious. You are faced with a different climate, unfamiliar with your surroundings, as well as people with different values, attitudes, lifestyles, and political and religious beliefs, and oftentimes, you can’t even understand them due to language barriers! Understanding why you feel the way you do will help you to overcome the feeling.
Once you understand, the next step is to accept and adapt to your new culture. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong, so learn to do things the way the locals do, and accept that it’s the way it’s done in your new home.
Learn as much as possible about your destination before leaving home. Be open-mined and it will be easier to understand the differences and see things from a different perspective. If you know why people do things the way they do them, it’s easy to accept the differences.
Having a positive attitude can make all the difference. This goes with anything in life, but is especially true when travelling and interacting with new people in new surroundings.
Stay in touch with those back home. But… if you spend all your time connecting with family and friends back home, you’ll just keep feeling homesick and won’t feel up to making new friends. Rather spend your time exploring and meeting new people, and then you have something to tell loved ones back home.
Don’t compare your home culture to your new culture! Noticing the differences is normal, and can be fun, but see the differences as just that – different and exciting, not inferior to home. Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about your new location and culture.
Keep yourself busy. Particularly enjoy the things you can’t do at home. Try new foods, swim in the sea, explore, make new friends, take full advantage of the time abroad, rather than being afraid and hiding in your hotel room. Don’t have regrets later by saying ‘if only I had done this or seen that…’
Laugh at yourself! If you get lost, just see it as a way to see a new place that you didn’t expect to see. Surrounding yourself with positive people can make all the difference. Don’t get sucked into the inevitable groups of ‘grumpy old expats’ who should have gone back home long ago, and now love trashing their new home.
There are different phases of culture shock, and knowing which you are going through will also help you to overcome it.
The Honeymoon Phase: This is a fun time, when all is great, exciting, and new. You embrace the differences, go out of your way to try the weird and wonderful food and relish meeting exotic new people. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.
The Honeymoon is Over Phase: During this phase, you start observing differences, however slight, and not always in a good way. You’ve had enough of the food, and miss home comforts and tastes. The local attitudes annoy you, and things are just so much better at home. During this phase, you may feel sad, irritable, angry or anxious. You miss holidays from home such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, and feel sad when you miss out on events such as birthday celebrations back home.
The Negotiation Phase: Now you decide if you will give in to negativity or power on past it to make the most of your experience. If you're successful, you regain your sense of perspective, balance, and humour, and move on to the next phase.
The All's Well, or Everything is OK Phase: You start feeling more at home with the differences in the new culture. After a while, you may feel as if the culture isn't in fact new, but that you belong here now, or you may not exactly feel part of the culture, but you’re comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. You don’t necessarily have to be in love with the new country (as in the honeymoon phase), but you can navigate it without unwarranted anxiety, negativity, and criticism.
The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: This happens to most who have lived abroad a while. Once you’ve become accustomed to the way things are done in a different country, you can go through the same series of culture shock phases when you return home.
Culture shock can present itself at any time, and it’s often the small things we feel the most – like navigating a grocery store with unfamiliar products in currencies we are not familiar with. Working abroad has its own challenges, as aside from day-to-day cultural differences, there are also the differences in the work place. For example, if you are typically organised and punctual, you may struggle to adapt working to a culture with a more relaxed working environment. Or, if you’re a woman, you may find it difficult to adapt in a country where there is gender inequality.
It’s most important to be patient – in time, things that once were strange will be the norm. Be kind to yourself, and don’t place high expectations on yourself until you have adjusted to your new life. While moving to a new country is daunting in many ways, it can be equally rewarding, and by not giving it a try, you’ll always have regrets.
You’ve completed your TEFL course and now have a few interviews lined up, either in person or via Skype. There’ll be others competing for the same job, so how do you ensure you are the one to be hired?
We spoke to Charlie Honisz from Teachers4Thailand, a reputable agency and one we love to work with as the teachers are always taken care of. This is what he has to say:
“Before the interview, we’ll look over your CV/resumé and ensure you have all the qualifications required: native English speaker, or non native speaker with a high TOEIC score, a bachelor’s degree (needed to get the work permit), and a TEFL certificate from a reputable TEFL/TESOL school, one which offers observed teacher pracs, and really prepares the trainees for the real world of teaching.
Your CV is your first chance to make an impression, and here, clear and simple is best. We want to see a photo of you. We want to see your qualifications and any work experience you have and we want to find out a little bit more about you. We will also scan it for any errors, so do check it before sending it out. Samui TEFL has a great template to use, and it’s easy for us to navigate.
Looks are important. By that we mean: do you look professional and presentable and are you dressed appropriately? Are you neat and tidy? Teaching is a highly respected profession, and you need to dress accordingly.
During the interview we’ll be looking out for a positive attitude, this is very important. We want someone who is willing to listen to job offers, and open to all options – someone not totally closed off to not having things 100% their way. I do understand that people will have reasons for wanting certain places, and wanting to teach certain ages, but if you’re not even willing to hear someone out, it sends the wrong impression about being a team player. Schools can be chaotic, and prone to changes. So you need to be the type of person who is willing to adapt.
Also, be open to teaching different subjects. I’m not saying teaching maths, or science to high-level students (unless you’re qualified to do so), but homeroom teachers are a very large percentage of teachers in Thailand, meaning you’ll be teaching other subjects aside from English.
A lot of time is invested in hiring a new teacher, both by the agency and the school, so someone prepared to see out a full year contract will take preference.
As for tips:
And some additional advice from us at Samui TEFL:
As a traveller around Southeast Asia, you should be aware and sensitive to the different religions and customs.
No matter the religion, food plays an integral part in the beliefs as well as ceremonies and rituals.
Since Eve handed Adam the apple and doomed the human race for eternity, food has played a strong role in religious beliefs. Some of us are more religious than others – some follow strict orthodox practices determined by their religion, and others loosely observe the ‘rules’ dictated by the religion that they were born in to. For many, dietary habits are derived from religious laws, and all over the world many people choose to eat or avoid certain foods according to their religious beliefs. When a country’s people are predominantly from one religion, it can be difficult to eat a food frowned upon by that following – for example, it might not be so easy to get a big juicy beef steak in India, where the main religion is Hinduism, and the cow is considered sacred. Likewise, a bacon sandwich in Jerusalem might not be so easy to find…
Most religions involve practices of both fasting and feasting – with fasting showing restraint and feasting being a time of celebration, thanksgiving and coming together as a community. While some practices involving food may seem obscure to those not of the faith (such as consuming wine and communion wafers representing the blood and body of Jesus), with a little research, you’ll find a reason for the practice, often going back millennia. Food choice is due to different reasons, with religion being one of the strongest principles on which diets are based. Sacred places such as altars and shrines and sacred times such as feast and fasting days, as well as symbolism and myth (what foods represent or the stories they recall) are all part of religious rituals linked to food.
So let’s look at the basic principles involving food and the most common religions, starting with Buddhism, the prevailing religion of Thailand. Many believe that all Buddhists are vegetarian, but strictly speaking, that’s not true – just think of all the pork consumed here in Thailand! Buddha was not a vegetarian, and he didn’t prohibit eating meat. Roughly speaking amongst the two major Buddhist traditions, the Mahayanists are vegetarian and the Theravadins (the form practiced here in Thailand) are not. Buddhism considers living beings to be sacred; a belief that has translated into widely practiced vegetarianism and veganism.
Violence towards animals is considered to translate into human aggression; hence most Buddhists will keep to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence or harmlessness) and avoid all foods related to processes where harm was done. Hence, some Buddhists avoid meat and dairy products while others avoid only meat. Monks of this religion fast in the afternoon and rely on ‘alms’ or donations of food as they, along with Buddhist nuns, are not allowed to cultivate, store or cook their own food. The birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha are the three most commonly recognised festivals for feasting, resting from work, or fasting. Buddhist monks fast completely on certain days of the moon, and they routinely avoid eating any solid foods after the noon hour.
You’ll see spirit houses throughout Thailand, and strictly speaking, they have nothing to do with Buddhism. Animism, or spirit worship, is probably the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism arrived in South East Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship. Today many of the beliefs are knitted with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai people, and you’ll often see locals keeping the spirits happy with food offerings placed at the spirit houses. Fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and cold drink, keep the spirits' hunger and thirst at bay.
Christianity is the religion predominant in Western cultures, and food regulations differ from one Christian denomination or group to another, with some groups not observing any restrictions at all. Catholics and orthodox Christians fast on certain religious days such as Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) or during Lent (the 40 days before Jesus arose from the dead). In earlier centuries, meat and dairy products were avoided during a substantial portion of the year, but today it often just means eating fish instead of meat on a Friday. The ritual of consuming bread and wine (Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is regularly celebrated but its symbolic or actual meaning in relation to the body and blood of Jesus Christ depends on the denomination. While most Western children happily enjoy their chocolate Easter eggs, few realise that the egg represents new lift – symbolic of Jesus rising from the dead and allowing Christians to be born again, free of their sins.
Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions in the world and, although meat was not originally prohibited, many Hindus today regard vegetarianism as a way to maintain the respect observed for life. Hinduism is characterised by the avoidance of the killing of any animal, the cleansing of those involved in food preparation, which is a reflection on previously existing caste-restricted practices, and the symbolism of certain foods. The cow is sacred to Hindus, and therefore no beef is consumed. Other products from the cow, however, such as milk, yoghurt, and butter are considered innately pure and are thought to promote purity of the mind, spirit, and body. Many devout Hindus fast on the eighteen major Hindu holidays, as well as on numerous personal days, such as birthdays, and anniversaries of deaths and marriages. They also fast on Sundays and on days associated with various positions of the moon and the planets.
Islam is the faith practiced by some of Thailand’s neighbouring countries, including Malaysia, so you’ll find small Muslim communities within Thailand. The main food practices in Islam involve specific ritual slaughtering procedures for animals of consumption (haram practices), fasting during the month of Ramadan, the avoidance of pork and of intoxicating liquor. Foods are categorised as halal (those than may be eaten) and haram (those that should be avoided), as are other aspects of life. Most foods are halal while the list of haram foods includes pork, alcohol and any products that may contain emulsifiers made from animal fats (such as gelatines and margarines). Bread and bread products fermented by yeast may contain traces of alcohol and in some cases may be considered haram. Moderation in all things, including eating and dietary habits, are an integral part of Islam. Fasting on these religious occasions includes abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset. In Turkey and other predominantly-Muslim countries, iftar – the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast – has gone from being a humble affair based around dates, soup and some freshly baked bread to something much more elaborate (at least for those who can afford it).
Another of the more well known faiths is Judaism, and in this religion foods are divided into kosher (allowed) or trefa (forbidden). Characteristics of kosher foods include animals that have a completely split hoof and chew cud (such as cows, goats and sheep), while kosher fish must have fins and scales. In general, all plant foods are considered kosher, and a specific slaughtering process must be followed for meat to be considered kosher. Animals such as pigs and rabbits as well as creatures of the sea, such as lobster, shrimp, and clams, may not be eaten. Meat and dairy products must not be prepared, stored or eaten together and certain fasting days are observed (especially Yom Kippur). During the celebration of Passover, food helps to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
There seems to be a growing Rastafarian movement on the island – some just following for the great Reggae music, and others taking the religious aspect into practice too. Most Rastafarians are vegetarian or vegan. Foods that may be consumed by people practicing this religion are called ital, with these foods being characterised by having no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, so are considered pure or natural. Rastafarians also avoid the consumption of alcohol and in some cases also tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks as it’s considered that these foods confuse the soul.
On an island with a diverse community of locals and expats, it’s good to know the basic principles regarding religions and their food rules, so as not to offend at a social gathering. And there’s no harm in joining in with religious feasts of friends of other religions, such as at Christmas time, or the breaking of the Ramadan fast, when food is plentiful. And we’ll forgive you for tucking into that delicious Easter egg – even if you don’t celebrate Easter.
Does the thought of using chopsticks in public bring on a cold sweat? Here’s the lowdown on their history, how to use them as well as chopsticks etiquette.
Bill Bryson, author of humorous travelogues, wrote, “And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” – an excerpt from Notes from a Small Island.
Most Westerners feel the same way as Mr Bryson about eating with chopsticks, yet for Asians, their use is second nature, and from a young age, they can master the art of using these simple, yet infuriating utensils. To them, knives at the table are taboo, and in contrast to the Western writer’s statement above, ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote, "The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table." Now few will agree with his out-dated theory that men should stay away from the kitchen, and in fact, most of Samui’s top chefs are men. But many Asians do believe that knives should not be used at the table – granted, a thick fillet steak is not a regular dish on the Asian menu, and most meals are already served bite-sized. Confucius equated knives with acts of aggression, which went against his non-violent teachings, and some experts credit his influence with the widespread adoption of chopsticks throughout China.
So let’s look at the history of chopsticks. While the precise origin of chopsticks is unknown, they were definitely in use by the Shang dynasty (1766 BC - 1122 BC). Their increasing popularity since that time may actually be linked to Chinese cooking methods - before stir-frying the food is cut into tiny pieces, making them easy to manipulate with a chopstick.
For Westerners, the majority of which are fork-using eaters, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the fork has only recently become common cutlery at the dinner table. True, the Byzantines used forks in the 10th century, and Catherine de M'edici introduced this pronged utensil to the French court in the early 1500s. But in the USA, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that people felt the need for more than a knife and spoon. By contrast, chopsticks have been the utensils of choice throughout all of China since the Han dynasty (approximately 200 BC to 200 AD).
Most foodies will agree that Chinese food just tastes better when eaten with chopsticks – in much the same way that pizza or hamburgers really should be eaten with the hands. Not sure how to handle your ‘Kuai zi’? (The word "chop" is pidgin English for kuai, which means quick or speedy, as in chop chop). Here’re a few tips to get you using them like a pro:
If possible, use wood or bamboo chopsticks when you’re a novice, as plastic chopsticks are more slippery and harder to hold. Always grip the chopsticks in the middle, making sure that the ends are even and do not cross. Pick up a chopstick and hold it so that it's resting comfortably between the tip of your fourth finger (the ring finger) and the hollow gap between your thumb and index finger. Keep the fourth finger straight. This will be the bottom chopstick. Now pick up the other chopstick and place it on top, firmly between the tips of your thumb, index and middle fingers. The index and middle fingers should be curled.
When eating, always keep the bottom chopstick stationary and use the top chopstick to move and pick up food. To pick up food, straighten your index and middle fingers as much as needed to move the top chopstick outward. Grab the food, and then bring the chopsticks together by curling your index and middle fingers. The basic idea is to use the chopstick as a pivot, with the thumb being the axle. Lift the food up to your mouth, leaning over if necessary. (It’s not rude to lean over your plate as it is in the West). For food that contains bones (such as chicken), hold the food with the chopsticks and eat around the bone. Children often find it easier to hold chopsticks nearer the bottom instead of in the middle.
No matter where you happen to be enjoying Asian food in the world, knowing how to use chopsticks correctly will come in handy, and a little practice will stop you feeling like a clumsy idiot. But knowing how to use them is one thing. Being a real pro means that you also understand chopsticks etiquette and the dos and don’ts of using them.
Despite the temptation to play with them, remember that chopsticks are eating utensils, just as a knife and fork. You would never play drums on the table with two spoons (well, you shouldn’t), point at someone with a fork, or leave a knife standing up stuck into a steak, so treat your chopsticks the same.
When taking a break, place your chopsticks neatly to the right of your plate, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and without pointing them in anyone's immediate direction. Putting chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you are finished and the staff may whisk it away before you can enjoy that bite you were saving for last!
Chopsticks may seem extremely impractical for eating certain foods. However, there are polite ways to overcome this issue. In many Asian countries a spoon will accompany dishes that are difficult to manage with only chopsticks. And lifting a bowl to face-level and pushing rice into your mouth is both acceptable and perfectly normal in all parts of Asia with the exception of Korea. Alternatively, chopsticks can be held side by side to shovel rice from your plate. While considered impolite in the West, slurping soup and noodles, even noisily, is perfectly acceptable in Asia. It’s also quite fine to drink directly from your soup bowl.
Large chunks of food can be torn or cut apart on your plate using chopsticks, but it’s bad manners to impale a big piece of food as a way to transfer it to your mouth If no serving utensils are provided at a communal meal, turn your chopsticks around to use the clean ends when transferring food from communal dishes onto your own plate.
A few more no-nos when using chopsticks include the following:
Don’t tap your chopsticks together in the air or on a bowl to make noises (yet slurping is fine?). Don’t leave them standing vertically in a bowl, and don’t use them to gesture or point at other people or dishes, in much the same way as you wouldn’t use your knife to point at somebody. Don’t hold chopsticks in a clenched fist as you would a weapon and don’t suck sauce off the end of your sticks.
Remember not to pass food to other people using your chopsticks, as doing so resembles the practice of passing cremated bones at a funeral. Rather, put the piece of food you want to share directly onto the other person’s place (with the other end).
And if you really want to be adept at chopsticks etiquette, then here are some more tips to consider:
Particularly when eating in Japan, allow elders or senior members at the table to lift their chopsticks first. Don't pick through dishes (either communal or on your own plate) for morsels of meat or vegetables that happen to be your favourite. Also, avoid crossing your chopsticks, as it symbolises death in some cultures. If disposable chopsticks were used, place them back inside of the paper wrapper at the end of your meal and leave them to the right of your plate. Koreans use spoons to eat soups and even rice. But always put your chopsticks to the right side of your spoon when resting on the table … as the reverse is done at memorial dinners for deceased loved ones, so you could easily offend without realising it.
Now while wooden chopsticks are easier to use, as they are less slippery than the plastic or metal varieties, there’s a factor to consider when using them. Demand for disposable chopsticks far surpasses the ability to make them from wood scrap or off-cut wood. This means that an estimated 20 million mature trees are logged each year just to supply China alone with billions of throwaway chopsticks. Plastic and metal chopsticks are far more sustainable – or if you want to use wood, let them be reusable ones. And that’s not even considering the vast quantity of paper or polystyrene takeaway containers that accompany these disposable chopsticks. Quite something to consider, isn’t it?
Samui TEFL Blog