After our marriage, my husband (who is Australian) and I have both had to compromise on a large number of issues. I hear you say, "But isn't marriage all about compromises?" Yes, it is. However, a cross-cultural marriage demands more than what I would call a normal dose of compromises. I could give dozens of examples of underlying differences between us, differences that have their roots not in our individuality, but the disparity of our cultures. One prominent area where both of us have had to understand and accept each other's culture is eating.
I was brought up learning to eat with my right hand fingers. In my opinion, food always tastes better eaten with fingers. (I heard a good explanation for it the other day. As we all know, smell contributes to taste-that is why food does not taste half as nice as normal when one has a cold. Likewise, touching the food introduces yet another sensation to the experience and complements the pleasure derived from it.) My husband, R, has had to acquire the art of eating with fingers. The initial attempts resulted in his shovelling food into his mouth in the most unattractive fashion. He has slowly learned to manipulate his digits to be able to effectively transfer nutrients from the plate into his oral cavity in a more graceful manner. It no longer gives me an eye-ache watching him eat.
The most difficult chapter in the book of Nepali table or rather, floor etiquette (mindful of the fact that most Nepalis sit cross-legged on the floor at meal-time) for R to grasp was the idea of "jutho". I explained that the closest English translation of the word would be "to soil" but jutho carries a bigger load of meaning than its English counterpart, in a sense. I had never appreciated how complex the concept is in its entirety. It is easy enough to understand that you do not touch anything with the hand you have been eating with because everything that comes in contact with the jutho hand automatically becomes jutho and remains so until washed. If you have been using cutlery instead of fingers, the same rule applies except that then, the fingers are considered clean and the cutlery jutho. The practice of observing jutho requires a tremendous amount of commitment. R tries very hard to play by the jutho rules but once in a while, I still catch him tasting food from a saucepan with a stirring spoon! I have learnt to not go hysterical over it.
I myself have also had to undergo a fair amount of education in Western table etiquette as observed in my British mother-in-law's dining room. In Nepal, I knew how to manage my right hand to hold a spoon or a fork whilst eating untraditional foods such as noodles. However, the complication of using the full range of "kuire" cutlery was beyond me. R has patiently taught me almost all that I needed to know, however he did skip the bit about politely abstaining from drinking if people are toasting you. This piece of information would have saved me a lot of embarrassment at my wedding reception where I ended up toasting myself. I now know what to do in the unlikely event of being toasted again.
Challenge number one to be tackled was working out exactly what shaped and sized piece of apparatus to use at what stage of the meal. The rule of using cutlery on the outermost position of the setting as one goes through the different courses has been like a magic mantra. Then there was the challenge of using the implements in an apt fashion.
Fork on the left hand and knife on the other (unless you are left-handed, in which case it's the other way around. You can never win!). Fingers at precise positions (one centimetre up or down has you branded as uncouth). The cutting technique (lest the elbows fly too far away from the body and poke the neighbours). The consuming of hot soup without a trace of a slurp technique (tip the contents of spoons sometimes the size of elephant ears into one's cakehole). The eating with the left hand technique (especially difficult when you start getting an attack of ethanol-related tremor). And the culmination of it all, the "eat the pea balanced on the back of the fork technique" (a fine balance, indeed).
Americans are thought of as a rather uncultured lot (to make a broad generalisation) , but now I think that their "cut the steak into pieces first, then eat with a fork held in the right hand" philosophy makes far better sense than the at-times-absurd table manners observed by finicky Brits.
Now let us take the social side of the eating game. Personally, more than the logistical challenge of mastering how to eat what, I mind not being allowed to replenish my body unbridled and unhindered, no matter how famished the physical state. One has to watch the size of one's morsels (dainty mouthfuls please!) and worst of all, make polite conversation with "the family friend from Perth no-one has seen for 20 years" in whose honour the dinner party has been hosted. For god's sake, can't small talk wait until the business of eating is over and done with? Why interrupt the prayer to Anna Devta (the god of food) with idle chatter?
One intriguing post-dining etiquette (explanation would be highly appreciated) is the bit about not stacking dirty plates on the table. What useful purpose does it serve except to make extra work for people? Many a time have I felt like an idiot making countless journeys between the dining table and the kitchen sink, carrying only two plates at a time.
The subtleties of "fraffly propa" British table etiquette might never be conquered by a mere mortal like me. I still make many mistakes in the dining room, but hey, I have a good excuse. I am a foreigner!