The Chopstick Moves You Should Avoid Because They're Related To Death

It's a treat to dine out abroad, but many cultures have interesting nuances about what's considered proper, and what isn't. In the U.S., the things you could be admonished for are the most flagrant, like loud belching or badly soiling your napkin, but in many Asian cultures, even positioning your chopsticks the wrong way mid-meal signals that you're at best, unacquainted, and at worst uninterested, in the customs of the local culture. For example, position your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice in many parts of Asia, and you've offended both the living and the dead. 


In Japan, Shinto, and Buddhist rituals for the dead call for a bowl of rice to be presented as an offering with chopsticks standing upright, representative of incense burned at funerals, so you want to avoid resting them this way if you're feasting at a Japanese restaurant. Chinese customs dictate that you shouldn't cross your chopsticks across your bowl in an "X" pattern because that's a symbol of death. It's also impolite to do this in Japanese custom, as it means you are unsatisfied with your meal. One association with death seems like that would be all, but there are a few other chopstick blunders that have a connection to the afterlife. 

More chopsticks faux pas to be aware of

The passing of food with chopsticks is also looked down on because of its connection to funerals in many Asian areas. Cremating those who have passed is common in many Eastern regions. And after cremation, people in attendance sort through the ashes and pick the remaining bones up with chopsticks, passing them to one another until the remains are out of doors. Because of this connection to funeral rites, passing cuisine with chopsticks is rarely done in most Asian countries.


Another action to be wary of is using chopsticks of differing lengths. In China, there's a phrase that translates to "three long, two short," which references the lengths of wood required to build a coffin. Using chopsticks of different lengths is considered bad luck because of this association. Another technique to steer clear of is impaling food with a single chopstick; while it may seem like an easy way to snag that tender piece of braised pork belly, the technique is frowned upon.

Best etiquette with chopsticks

Though they're not associated with death, several other practices should be avoided when using chopsticks out of sheer impropriety. Rubbing chopsticks together can be seen as impolite because it suggests you don't trust that the restaurant has given you quality utensils. Also, tempting as it may be for children and the highly caffeinated, drumming on anything with your stick set is considered rude. Simply struggling with chopsticks isn't considered improper as long as you observe typical polite dining practices, and it's perfectly acceptable to ask for a fork or spoon if you're having (or expect to have) difficulty. 


Most of these chopstick no-nos aren't things that will cause any kind of great offense to anyone in Asian restaurants in the U.S. (besides perhaps drumming on the table); these rules are more diligently observed in various Asian countries. That said, it's never a bad idea to brush up on restaurant etiquette and treat your chopsticks and the establishment that gave them to you with the respect they deserve.