The Language of Humanity

Beijing, April 2007


We were seated at a large round dinner table with strangers, the only two Westerners in the restaurant. A couple of the locals at our table could speak a puff of English which floated across the table to us, cushioned in shyness.

The twelve place settings at our table each had a pair of polished wood chop sticks, a red cloth napkin, and a drinking glass. When the first course arrived, a bowl of noodles in broth, the group concentrated on eating and forgot about the foreign element. Until Ally picked up her chopsticks and tried to get hold of a noodle. The noodle glided over the smooth sticks and splashed back into her bowl of broth. She tried to grasp another one. It was no good, it slid down the stick and made a “plop” sound as it sunk into the broth.

A few of the diners were watching her now, and chuckled at her difficulties. There was nothing sinister, only amused smiles, and Ally laughed at herself. A waiter had noticed the noise we were making and came directly to our table bearing a fork which Ally happily accepted. There was a brief conversation in Mandarin between a couple diners and the waiter, who left and then quickly returned with eleven more forks, and handed one to each of us.

Not a single person declined when offered the fork. The ten Chinese diners at the table observed us eating with our forks for a moment before making their own attempts. It was comical, now, seeing how ridiculous they looked trying to control a fork. They were all so dexterous with chopsticks and yet be a total disaster with a fork, which most had likely never used before.

The entire table was laughing now at the dining catastrophe we had become. The music of laughter is universally understood and contagious, and once we started it was hard to stop. But between giggles, the Chinese diners persevered. Not one person abandoned his fork in favour of the chopsticks.

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