Most of you don’t realize this, but there is a sacred bond between chopsticks. and their owners. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “I’ve used plenty of chop sticks, at plenty of restaurants, and that’s just not true.” Pah! You’ve only had imitation chopsticks, the disposable kind made of balsa wood, or some other cheap and mass produced substance—oversized toothpicks! Those are cousin to the Mojito umbrella, or the wooden spits you cook s’mores with. No. If you think there is anything common about chopsticks, you have never held a real chopstick once in your life, let alone a genuine pair of sister-sticks.
Let me tell you how I found my chopsticks, or should I say, how they found me…
It was at the bustling Sunday night market in old Chiang Mai. I was browsing the colorful wares, navigating the riotous crowds, and generally basking in the intoxicating cocktail of smells, sounds and outlandish sights. But as is usually the case, I was seeking something off the beaten path. Something drew me to a dreary side street, dimly lit by the orange glow of a gas lantern. It led me along a long and winding path, flanked by darkened stoops, thresholds to all manner of less travelled shops offering untold eccentricities and secret delights.
I couldn’t tell you why, but stopped at a little doorway fashioned from the gnarled bark of some dark and exotic tree. No sign, no window, no nothing. Stepping inside, my eyes took a second to adjust to the low light, and the air was heavy with spicy incense, catching in my throat and filling my nostrils. Behind the polished wooden counter, made of the same darkened wood as the door, a squat, elderly shop keeper raised his bushy white brows and greeted me warmly. “Sawadee-Krab” he said in a wispy voice like dry leaves. Him being my elder, I bowed with my hands in a steeple—a gesture of respect referred to as the “Wai” in these parts.
It was hard to tell what this merchant was even selling here. Behind him were stacks of rectangular little boxes, reaching all the way to the ceiling, all the way around the room—boxes and boxes. The man shuffled out from behind the counter, and began examining me, speaking softly to himself in what I can only assume was Thai. He covered one of his eyes, and then the other, and then, with crooked fingers, so deft I barely registered what happened, he plucked a single hair from my head. Sniffing the strand, the old man nodded decisively and turned away.
I stood befuddled, more than a little apprehensive about what might be going on. The little man was now climbing a stepping ladder and muttering to himself. He poked around purposefully, and seemed to find what he was seeking: a little box, the size of a shoebox, dusty and well-worn. He returned to where I stood and offered it to me. I was perplexed, but I’d come this far, why turn back? I accepted the box, and upon opening it, I saw the most beautiful pair of chopsticks I’d ever laid eyes on: gnarled oak, marbled finish, with a light brown stripes carved into the handles. The shop keep urged me to hold them. When I did, I felt the strangest sensation, a wave of belonging, of kinship, of unmistakable purpose. Little sparks of red, yellow, orange, and blue flew from the tips. I knew in that instance that these chop sticks were mine, and I was theirs. My revelry interrupted by a tug on my sleeve. The shop keeper looked up at me with a grave and meaningful stared—a thousand miles of wisdom in those ancient eyes. Beckoning me to come closer, he whispered:
“With these chopsticks you will do great and terrible things.”