Tonight I walked into a Chinese restaurant alone and was seated at a tiny table in the centre of the crowded room. The smaller tables were set out in pairs running the length of the long restaurant; the gap between my table and the couple next door was about four inches. Idly I eavesdropped on their conversation, noticing how he invariably talked and she invariably supplied back-up: Mmm-hmm, yep, I know what you mean. Oh, my. Well, that’s fascinating! Good for you.
When their meal was done and my meal had arrived the man picked up his unused chopsticks. He had eaten his dinner with spoon and fork and now wanted to know: Sind diese zum Mitnehmen? Are we supposed to take these home with us? His companion, who was older and had a wise, patient face though she had sat unmoved through his several recitations of what sounded like mind-numbing generalisations and prejudice (“they were obviously gay, or had spent time in prison, ha ha”) said, rather gently, “I think some people use them to eat with.” Some people like the woman at the next table, for example. He tipped the long paper bag to let the bright lacquered chopsticks slide into his hand. Playfully he mimed for her their various uses: scratching his scalp with a single chopstick, tucking it behind his ear like a newspaper man of the 1920s, trapping a long moustache under his nostrils by scrunching his upper lip. After that he bunched the two chopsticks together and slid them carefully back into their paper sachet and laid it back on the napkin on his untouched side plate.
I felt my face squinch into an expression of disgust. The woman was so startled she broke the fourth wall. “What?”
I said, spreading my hands, “Well – if you put those back into their case, they’re going to hand them on to the next customer.”
The man looked blank. “And?” he said.
I gasped a sort of soundless bark of laughter. “And, well you’ve just stuck them in your hair and put them behind your ear and… it’s not very nice, don’t you think?”
He was so mortified he stood up instantly and began fumbling for his coat. He must have been trembling because it took him a long time to work his arms into the sleeves. For many minutes he stood there patting his pockets, clapping himself up the chest and back down and round the backs of his hips with two spread hands. His companion didn’t move and none of us looked at each other. I got on with my dinner and some time later the man reappeared, smelling of tobacco smoke, and slid into his chair beside me as though no time at all had passed. He began once again describing the world to her and she consented, nodding, agreeing, supporting. He slid the chopsticks out from their paper case and set them side by side in front of him. When I got up to leave I said, Wiedersehen, and got a nod from the listening woman but no acknowledgement from the crumpled, authoritative man.