Me, Myself and Somaye #5: Cutlery

mmsbanner2Me, Myself and Somaye chronicles the experiences of an international student coming directly from Iran, who had never been to another country, started college a few years later than average, and was raised in a culture diametrically opposed to most of the trends and behaviours practiced in the Netherlands and at University College Utrecht. Funky banner inspiration courtesy of De La Soul.

By Somaye Dehban (’07)

– There are some people in Iran that eat with their hands!

– Excuse me?! We use a spoon and fork when we eat. We don’t use a knife but we don’t eat with our hands either!

It was among the first of many times that I felt insulted in my class by the way the teacher had referred to my country and culture, somewhere in 2006. It was an anthropology class, where you are supposed to learn about “people” and their “culture”, and I did not want my classmates to think that I was from a culture where eating with your hands is the norm; I didn’t want them to think that I didn’t know how to eat like them, the civilized ones! Nobody in my family eats with their hands; it was actually quite looked-down upon and we were forbidden to use our hands, as it was not correct table manner. We were even clearly instructed on how to hold a spoon and fork: not holding the handle of the fork or spoon with a clenched fist –as it gives the impression that you are ‘hungry’ and therefore poor– but to use our fingers to hold the handle and rest the end of the handle on the part of the hand between our thumb and index finger –cause it would indicate that you are always well-fed and therefore rich– and even sometimes holding up your pinky a little bit was a sign of good table manners. We hardly ever used a knife at the table since the type of food we ate never needed to be cut at the table. But that is no reason to think we eat with our hands, right?

So why did she say that in Iran some people eat with their hands? I can’t recall how the conversation ended or even the exact context this example was presented in, but I do remember that it was about eating habits and rituals. Nonetheless, this was not the ritual I grew up with and this was not my habit. But how can I distinguish myself from this example? The example that puts me in the category of ‘those who eat with their hands’. Would my classmates start watching me when I am eating in the Dining Hall?
And why would that matter? Why was being categorized as “someone who eats with her hands” such a big deal, affecting my trust towards my teacher and making me worry about my classmates watching me eat? Does it have to do with the hierarchy of cultures, which culture ranks higher or is the better culture? The culture of the ones being “observed” versus the culture of the ones “observing”?

And of course this was not what I thought at the moment my teacher said that there are some people in Iran who eat with their hands, but this was how I felt when my teacher gave that example. I felt that the culture of the “observer” is the higher and better culture, and at that moment I knew that I was not part of the “observer” group; I was part of the “observed” in this context. I read the text books that were written from a “we” perspective, but who is “we”? We, the West. And where was I from? The ‘other’ side. And when they present an example of “the other”, it wouldn’t be about them. It would be about me, the observed.

I still don’t use knives that often, and I prefer a spoon over a fork. But now I can agree with my teacher that there are some people in Iran who eat with their hands, and it is indeed a ritual and habit. Actually, I do recall my grandmother, most of the time, eating with her hands and saying: “the food tastes different [better] when you eat with your hands”, but now I am not offended or ashamed of admitting it. The context is different now, and my understanding of the culture is too. I am still from the other side, but I am not solely the observed one. I observe ‘me’ and I observe ‘you’. Not that this necessarily gives any (dis)advantageous position to either of us.