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Coupling

The Chopstick Test

Did my boyfriend and I have a future together? I might find the answer in his reaction to the slimy dumplings and whole fish placed in front of him

By Suzanne Sorensen
May 31, 2009
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It is a common Korean saying that how well a person eats is a true testament to his or her character. The better eater you are, the better person you are. A picky eater is a sign of a deeply disturbed and troubled individual. So to solidify our new relationship, I brought my boyfriend of a year to dinner at my Korean grandparents' house in Los Angeles. I must admit it was a grueling and somewhat cruel test. Good thing he knew how to use chopsticks.

Through narrow, discerning eyes, Halabuhgi (Korean for grandfather) inspected Toby, all 6-foot-3 of him with his mass of curly black hair, white skin, and prominent white man's nose. Toby shook Halabuhgi's small, sturdy hand. Cordial introductions were exchanged. We settled into the leather-seated chairs, Halabuhgi sitting first, then my aunt, cousins, and Halmoni (grandmother). They asked me in Korean about school, my future, and my marriage plans. I told them in English that college was tough as ever, my future was bleakly uncertain, and I wasn't getting married any time soon. They clicked their tongues at me while Toby sat uncharacteristically silent, nodding intently at whatever they said, even though it was in Korean, which he doesn't speak or understand. He attempted to interject several times, mostly unsuccessfully.

"Suzy should speak more Korean. I tell her to, but she never listens . . ."

They tipped their heads in a shallow nod.

I heard Halmoni and my aunt muttering in Korean: "He is so big and tall." "His skin isn't very clear." "Do you think he will eat Korean food?"

The Korean culture is inextricably intertwined with food. A common greeting is "Have you eaten yet?" Korean children are taught to dutifully gorge themselves with their grandmothers', aunts', and mothers' food. To refuse would be disrespectful.

Toby watched in hidden horror, I assumed, as the dishes were served. I patted his knee in encouragement beneath the table. There were bubbling stone pots of soon dubu, a chili-doused seafood stew; fried whole fishes; shiny, slimy, steamed dumplings; chewy and translucent rice noodles; and dishes and dishes of pungent, spicy pickled cabbage, kimchee. This was not the typical Super 88 takeout we ordered on Thursday nights.

"I'm scared of the eyes," Toby whispered to me as he poked the fish with a single chopstick.

"Don't make eye contact," I replied.

With a bowl of soon dubu in front of him, Toby covered the eyes of a prawn with an empty clamshell and slowly began to spoon some of the broth into his mouth, sipping while the relatives stuffed their cheeks and slurped loudly. Their questions in Korean continued: "Why is he eating like that?" "Can he not eat spicy food?"

"Yes, he can," I retorted with my mouth full.

Toby nodded in agreement. "I like it. It's very good."

"Why don't you try this?" I pushed a dish of a salted squid at him. It was half joke, half challenge. He eyed the slimy red heap of raw strips and reached out tentatively, quickly stabbed some with a chopstick, stuffed it in his mouth, and swallowed. Toby made sure to taste everything, even finishing half of an eye-wearing fried fish. My relatives watched furtively.

"Are you eating well?" Halmoni inquired in English. The table suddenly became silent.

Toby slowly lifted his large empty bowl in the air and turned it over in silent triumph. Halmoni burst into laughter and clapped her hands, while others chuckled along with her. Halabuhgi, nodding in agreement, continued to eat. Though my eyes were fixed on my own bowl, I was smiling.

It was a fleeting moment, but a momentous one. Toby desperately wanted to be accepted by my family; they, too, wanted acceptance. Toby gave them the greatest gift, that of respect: not with a bottle of nice wine or a coffee-table book, but by eating their food, in abundance, and with chopsticks. In turn, they accepted him. To me, a guy who is willing to eat kimchee and enjoy it shows me that, eventually, we may be able to share a fridge.

Suzanne Sorensen graduated from Boston University this spring with a degree in magazine journalism. She lives in Brookline. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

illustration by kim rosen

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