I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with a multicultural group of people who are not Asians although one person had lived in mainland China.
"Why don't the Japanese use knives?" asked one of the older women, which took me by surprise, as I tackled the cheese blintze, tuna salad and a quinoa dish using my knife and fork the European way.
I was tongue-tied, not knowing what to say. I momentarily put my knife down wondering if I should continue or just use the fork or eat the American way.
"If you go to Japanese restaurants, there are no knives," said the woman.
I still didn't know what to say. I had never met a Japanese in Japan who didn't know how to use a knife nor entered a Japanese restaurant in Japan that didn't have table knives, unless it was a restaurant that specialized in traditional cuisines like sushi, tempura, unagi, tonkatsu, sukiyaki, shabushabu and the like, for which knives are unnecessary. Japanese dishes are generally served in bite-size pieces to faciliate the usage of chopsticks but it didn't occur to me at the time that this would have been the best answer to the woman's out-of-the-blue question.
"What do they use to eat?" said someone, to fill the silence.
"They had forks and spoons with an Indian elephant design, but no knives," said the woman.
It suddenly dawned on me that this woman was describing her dining experience in an Asian restaurant in the U.S. that caters to mostly non-Asian customers.
"Are you sure they were Japanese?" I asked, feeling somewhat exasperated.
"Well, I can't really tell. They could have been Chinese or any other Asian," said the woman and suddenly became quet.
"I have to ask for chopsticks at most Asian restaurants," I said, remembering a popular Chinese buffet-style restaurant in Texas that I used to frequent. Owned by a Chinese cook and managed by his wife who spoke English with a slight foreign accent, this restaurant tended to run out quickly of the few throwaway chopsticks available at the selfserve table. I was hoping that answering thus may suffice to point out that I really don't have a good reason to be paying attention to the availability of knives at Asian restaurants in the U.S. or anywhere.
"I have to ask for chopsticks, too," said the woman who had lived in China for a while and remembered the Chinese people she had met there with great affection.
"I don't know how to use chopsticks," said the woman who had started the conversation.
The woman who had lived in China said that she and her husband had once ordered a whole fish at a restaurant there and had to ask for a knife because they didn't know how to use the chopsticks to take it apart into smaller serving portions.
Later, I was thinking about how not only the food items and the culturally-specific table manners but the (in)appropriateness and the (un)availability of utensils, condiments or other items associated with eating one's meals could create unexpected frustrations in people.
If I were a cartoonist, I would probably be drawing two people eating at a table with big thought bubbles, one person with round eyes thinking, "How do they expect me to eat without a knife? Don't they know that this is America?" and the other one with almond-shaped eyes thinking, "How do they expect me to eat without chopsticks? Don't Asian-Americans know better than to serve Asian food with a fork?"
I could also draw a Chinese restaurant owner with a thought bubble standing behind the cash register and thinking, "Let the guests have chopsticks only if they ask for them; otherwise, they might use them inappropriately and offend the sensibilities of my Asian customers."
I might also draw Confucius inside a picture frame hanging on the wall of the restaurant, with a thought bubble saying, "No knives allowed at tables."