Always hold up the bowl when eating rice, but never when drinking soup. Never chew with your mouth open. The soup spoon must never touch the bowl. Fork in left hand, knife in right. When getting into a car, always enter butt-first and swing the legs over after. Always walk with perfect posture, and — “Don’t drag your feet!” These are my mother’s most abused words.
Although we are not wealthy, I was raised (read: constantly bo mbarded) with a strict code of conduct that has molded me into a pretentiously polite child. My mother lives by the motto: “It’s not where you are, it’s what you do.” And in my household, what Mama Xu says, you do.
My journey to “enlightenment” started during my childhood in China, when dinnertime was war. My cousin, five years older and twice as heavy, inhaled food faster than I could scream, “Don’t eat out of my bowl, fatso!” After yet another missed last piece of jellyfish salad, I finally perfected my chopstick-war techniques. Unfortunately, my triumphant military career was cut short: my mother, sick of dodging flying food daily, decided that my table manners needed a desperate makeover.
Under my mother’s command, I wasn’t allowed to take a bite before the eldest person at the table or the host. I might pick pieces only from the plate closest to me, and the second my chopstick touched food, I had to bring it to my bowl, which eliminated the chance of finding that perfectly browned piece of chicken. And if I wanted a dish across the table, I was strictly forbidden from, as she put it, “dragging my dirty sleeve over all the food.”
Her logic? “Bad table manners are impolite, and no child of mine will make a fool of herself. So stop playing with your food and do what I say.”
During her youth, my mother always had perfect manners. In all of her photographs, she stands perfectly dignified with her head held high, feet placed at an exact ninety-degree angleand her face glowing with confidence. She even owns an illustrated book of etiquette titled The Art of Womanhood.
Soon enough, my mother’s polite habits became embedded in me. Now I automatically lift my pinky when drinking tea, fold my napkin before dabbing my mouth and drink soup silently. The onomatopoeia “slurp,” “clink” and “nomnomnom” don’t exist at our table.
But along with the good qualities, I also have picked up my mother’s bad habit of nagging. I now am acutely aware of ubiquitous loud chewing, footdragging, spoon-clinking, back-hunching and every other sign of bad etiquette that drove my mother insane.
As a teenager, I’m the first to advocate for the “five-second-rule” and treat everything like finger food, but I simply cannot stand some bad eating habits. One summer, the daughter of our housemate was visiting from New York. Of course, since adults always assume all the children in the world must get along, I became her delegated companion. For the most part, we did fine. One small problem: she chewed with her mouth open.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Why can’t you chew with your mouth closed?” I asked casually, feigning indifference as I repressed the manner-obsessed perfectionist inside.
“Because it’s my body, and I can chew however I wish,” she replied annoyingly.
Today, I still have miniature spaz attacks at repetitive, disgustingly mushy eating noises, but I realize that mannerisms don’t necessarily reflect a person’s character.
Despite my occasionally uncontrollable urges to strangle anyone whose tongue smacks against the roof of his or her mouth during lunch, I have to thank my mom for teaching me proper table manners suitable for dining with the Queen of England.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2011 print edition of The Lowell.
Illustration by Monica Zhang.