Eating With My Hand

Sara at A Little of That Too, as a student of psychology, has been working on a Gori Racial Identity Development Model. Although the exercise is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think a lot can also ring true in this potential model.

So far her development stages include 1) “Pre-Partnership” (aka “normal”), 2) “Courting South Asia” (aka “omg my eyes are opened to this AMAZING culture!!”), and 3) “Re-immersion” (aka “oh yeah, I used to like that”), with several more steps to follow.

She was looking for some stories, which made me think of something—

When I first started dating P a lot of things were new. Language, food, music, clothing, religion, holidays, points of view. Some of these I embraced right away—curries, spices, cooking—others not so much: have I mentioned my Nepali skills are still pathetic?

One thing that I embraced relatively quickly was eating with my hand– or I should clarify, eating wet foods like curry, rice, daal, etc, with my hand (I guess you can call this phase 2—courting South Asia).

The first summer we were together I was living in an apartment with 3 Nepali guys. We would take turns making dinner, and eat together at the table each night. Not long after moving in one of our Nepali friends took away my fork and insisted that I eat with my hands. “The food tastes much better this way!” he insisted (something I’ve heard again and again). At first it was mostly a joke—pick on C and see if she could eat without making a mess, but eventually it was more about feeling comfortable eating that way, and learning the way that they did it. It wasn’t long before they didn’t have to take the fork away; it was my decision not to use it.

School started and I was back to my old ways of eating at the university cafeteria, but when we would cook in the International House kitchen late at night, I could pull out my “yeah, I’m a white girl, but I can eat with my hand just like you” skill, which felt particularly satisfying when sharing food with other non-Nepalis, like I was “in the club” because I knew the “better way,” the “more authentic way” of eating this type of food. It was the same type of pride I still feel when I get compliments on my momo wrapping skills.

The second summer we were back in an apartment—3 Nepali guys and I, sharing the cooking duties and eating with our hands. That spring P’s dad had come for his graduation and he stayed with us a few nights at the apartment before traveling to visit other relatives. When we all sat together to eat, P’s dad asked one of the boys to get me a spoon, but P explained that I knew how to eat with my hand—again a source of pride, my skill had been unexpected. This would come back to haunt me my first night in Nepal, when nerves made me eat so slowly with my hand that I was demoted to a spoon.

Not such a flattering picture of P, eating daal-bhat with his hand at a Phakding guest house during our Solukhumbu trek in 2009

The semester after that summer I studied in India, and felt like a rockstar when I was able to show off my hand eating skills the first few days we were in Delhi to my American colleagues. They wanted me to show them “the right way” to do it so that they would also look competent and “in the know” when staying with local families and eating dinner. In a silly way it made me feel more “cultured” and more prepared, like I had an extra “in” with South Asia.

At some point after I returned from the trip and after being demoted to a spoon in Nepal, I just stopped doing it. I don’t remember when, or why, it just lost its appeal. I didn’t like that the turmeric tinged my finger nails yellow and that my hands would smell more strongly of onions and garlic even after washing them. It was like all of a sudden I didn’t have to prove that part of my “in-ness” with people any more, and it allowed me to “see” that I didn’t really want to eat with  my hands all the time. Where I once enthusiastically dug in fingers first at home with P, I now grab a fork or spoon.

It’s not that I stopped eating with my hands entirely—I’m still a voracious momo eater with my hands, but I just don’t feel I have to anymore. Even in Nepal, I often ate with a spoon during our visit in 2009, unless I was visiting another family’s house, in which “American eating with her hand” was a surprise revelation.  So I guess that means I’ve transitioned in this regard to phase 3—Re-Integration to my fork using world.

9 responses to “Eating With My Hand

  1. yes me too eat momo with hand but lazy to wash hands after dinner so use forks or spoons or knives to eat

  2. I think stage four is going back and forth without really thinking about which is the “better” or more authentic way of doing it. I feel that way about dressing in Bangladesh. I tried to integrate, was applauded for it, then regressed, and now try not to think about it but just go with whatever feels good in the morning. Are there going to be more stages? :)

    • I’m sure there is at least one more, perhaps two. We will have to stay tuned to her blog (A Little of That Too) for more info…

  3. I had this same experience! I too used to eat with my hands as a way to sort of prove my ability to mesh with the Pakistanis, and as a way to gain some credibility in my own life. Over the years confidence and other factors have made me fell less like I have to do that, so the spoon’s back in my hand for most meals :)

  4. :) Great exploration into stage 2.
    I grew up eating rice with my hands, resisting my parents’ efforts to cultivate my knife and fork skills and make me fit for the outside world. The irony is that now when I go to Nepal a lot of my family use cutlery. Guess I’ll have to whip out those eating-with-my-hand skills to impress people here instead!

  5. I feel the same way about eating with my hands. I can do it if I have to, but I would prefer not to given the choice. I just don’t like having stuff on my hands. Still, one night at a friend’s house her in the US, her FIL, a major-league lecture uncle/ass, felt the need to lecture me about how much better it is to eat with your hands. Ugh. Very awkward.

  6. I’m of Nepali origin. Born and grew up in Nepal till I was 12. Never ate with my hands. My grandfather (dad’s side, only member of my large, extended family to use his hands to eat) used to try and get me to do it but I kept insisting that if god allowed mankind to grow an advanced enough brain and design a spoon, then god meant for us to use spoons. Your story is cute though! pretty amazing that you learned how to use your hands and eat!

  7. My personal guidelines for this have now evolved into: if eating at a table, I use a spoon/fork (I find it awkward to hold my elbow up to eat with my hand), if seated on the floor, I use my hand (usually in a village situation anyhow, and resting the elbow on the knee… if I try to use a spoon I always feel like I should grab the plate and hold it up closer to table level which seems impolite due to the left-hand action). I, too, have outgrown the showing-off phase but will defend myself if accused of not having any :)

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