Philosophy Session with Chopsticks

Alex Chen
6 min readMar 25, 2024
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At my home in Toronto, I usually use a spoon or fork to eat, and I don’t often use chopsticks. But now that I’m in China for school, I use chopsticks every meal. The thing is, my technique is not proper. Actually, I didn’t even know there’s a “proper” technique. I just kind of figured out a way to use chopsticks on my own.

One time during a meal, a teacher saw me using chopsticks incorrectly, and he tried to teach me. At first, I wasn’t really interested because I felt like I can eat food fine using my own technique. But since this teacher seemed to care a lot about this, I decided to try to learn the proper way to make him happy.

Throughout the process, I gained a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of changing habits. He demonstrated the correct hand posture for holding chopsticks, which is to use the index and middle fingers to move the chopsticks, with the thumb and ring finger stationary. However, I’m used to using my thumb and index fingers to move the two chopsticks, and I don’t use my ring finger. I tried really hard to imitate the correct position, but my thumb would unconsciously move, and my ring finger got tired really fast. I tried for a whole hour, with him patiently trying to correct my posture every single time. Eventually, we had to go, and I still hadn’t figured it out.

The following day, we tried again for another forty minutes. I still couldn’t do it. Eventually, the teacher said, “It’s alright. You’re starting to get a feel for it. When you have time, you can practice it, but don’t feel stressed about it or delay your meals.”

Later, that teacher went on a work trip to another city. After a few days, I decided to give his method a try again. I was talking to my classmate saying, “I still don’t get how to hold chopsticks the proper way. Either my grip feels loose or my ring finger feels really sore.”

He said, “Oh that’s normal. When I first used chopsticks, I didn’t learn the proper way either. Then when my teacher corrected me, I spent a whole week trying to get used to it. You just need some time.”

I said, “No that’s not my problem. I still don’t have the correct posture and feeling towards chopsticks, so I can’t even practice.” I then proceeded to show him, and interestingly, it felt easier. He then guided me a little, and I was actually able to do it, although it still felt hard and unnatural. But now I have confidence that if I keep practicing, I’ll eventually get the hang of it.

From this experience, I gained more empathy towards people’s bad habits. Firstly, people oftentimes aren’t interested in changing their habits because they feel like it really isn’t a big deal to them, just like I really didn’t feel my incorrect way of holding chopsticks is a big deal. We can give suggestions out of care, but we shouldn’t force our values and opinions onto others.

Secondly, even if someone wants to change a habit, it really isn’t easy. After I made up my mind to learn the correct method to make my teacher happy, I tried really hard to learn it. But after an hour, I still couldn’t do it. I probably tried over a hundred times, but I still subconsciously use my old habit. Similarly, all habits are deeply ingrained, making them very hard to change. Thus, we need patience and persistence to change our habits. Maybe I was too tense and eager for quick results during the first couple of days with that teacher, so I didn’t have good results. But later with my classmate, I was relaxed, and I was suddenly able to get a feel for it. When we advise other people to change, but they still don’t, we need to be patient towards them and not assume that they are being annoying on purpose; it’s far more likely that they are doing that habit without any negative intentions.

Thirdly, when learning something new, it’s best to learn it correctly the first time. If we develop incorrect techniques or habits at the beginning, then it’ll be rather difficult to unlearn and relearn in the future.

My teacher told me a story about a piano player who studied under two famous teachers, both of whom studied under the same teacher. When his first teacher passed away, he went to study under the second teacher. The second teacher didn’t let him touch the piano for a whole year so that he could forget his old habits and start from a clean slate. Thus, my chopsticks teacher was very understanding towards me being unable to forget my old habit of holding chopsticks.

On a related note, one of my classmates asked me why I spent so long trying to learn a new method of holding the chopsticks if my current method already works. I said, “Because the teacher seemed to care a lot about this, I don’t want to annoy him every time he sees me holding the chopsticks incorrectly. Also, if I respect him and try to learn, he’ll be happy.”

My classmate replied, “Wow. If it were me, I’d just do me, because I have my own reasons, and they don’t understand my situation fully.”

I said, “Well, if I were you, I would either explain my situation to the teacher, which of course takes time. Or I would comply in front of them to make them happy. But I wouldn’t disobey them straight in front of their face.”

My classmate said, “Well, I would begrudgingly comply in front of them, but when they’re not looking, I’ll use my own way.”

I said, “Sure, that’s still very considerate of you. Something I’ve learned though is that relationships are key to happiness, so if I want a happy life, it’s more important to prioritize harmony than logic or matters. If I prioritize my own feelings and beliefs, that creates conflict, which ruins my peace of mind. So even though it might seem unnecessary or illogical for me to go through the hassle of learning a different way of using chopsticks, it actually is worth it if it means building a good relationship with that teacher.

Also, I want people to advise me on my problems. I learned from Emperor Tang’s role model: if I seem unhappy or unwilling to accept this teacher’s advice on learning how to hold chopsticks, then he might think I’m close-minded, and he might even tell other people. That means people will hesitate to advise me on my problems in the future, and that would be very unfortunate and even dangerous. So even though I kind of feel like learning a new method of holding chopsticks is unnecessary, I still persuaded myself to give it a serious try.”

My classmate said, “That is very true. It still feels really hard to do though.”

I replied, “Yep. I know how you feel. But anything worthwhile in life takes effort and hard work, and that’s what makes the gain so enjoyable and valuable. I still often fail to prioritize relationships over logic, but I just record that failure in my journal and remind myself to be more careful next time. As long as we persist, we’ll definitely overcome our weaknesses.”

In summary, this event was a good reminder to be empathetic and patient towards other people’s habits, to prioritize relationships over matters, and to be cautious about rejecting others’ advice.

Originally published at on March 24, 2024.



Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.