Sticky taxes

 

China has gone green. Last week, the Finance Ministry in Beijing introduced its much-discussed 5% tax on the ubiquitous bamboo and wooden chopsticks that use up nearly two million cubic metres of timber per year- nearly 25 million trees for an annual production of an estimated 45 billion (yes, billion!) chopsticks, according to the BBC website. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that a forest area the size of San Marino is razed each year to produce the chopsticks given by restaurants and cafes and placed in lunchboxes.

 

For Chinaís environmentalists, this is good news. Schoolchildren, too, have written to Chinese officials trying to get disposable wooden sticks banned, and campaigns by Chinese students have persuaded some school cafeterias to replace chopsticks with spoons, although, apparently, the Chinese government was, until recently, promoting the use of disposable sticks in a bid to reduce the spread of diseases that can be caught by sharing eating utensils.

 

In Taiwan, where there is no such law yet, numerous restaurants have started providing incentives, such as vouchers or a free bowl of soup, to diners who bring their own sticks.    

 

Chopsticks have had a bad rep in recent years. After suggestions that the chemicals used in manufacturing the disposable sticks can cause all kinds of nasty things (they wonít, although the sulphur compounds used to treat the bamboo or wood wonít do you any good), some more recent reports have suggested that long-term chopstick use can cause joint stiffness and aggravate arthritis.

 

I like chopsticks. I like they way the feel in my hand, although I rub the ones they give in restaurants together before using them to get rid of any splinters. A chopstick splinter is a very painful thing to have. But I like the way Iím allowed to hold the bowl in my hand at a Chinese restaurant and shovel the food in my mouth without anyone staring. I also like the fact that people in Cyprus look on admiringly when I use sticks because they have not yet mastered how to use them (then again perhaps they are staring at my food-shovelling behaviour after all).

 

My Taiwanese friend, always the spoilsport on such matters, has told me that I do not know how to use sticks properly. Indeed, I am, he says, so clueless that toddlers can use chopsticks better than I can. He says I hold them the wrong way and I donít keep them steady enough, but I donít care. If people donít like the way I eat, they can look the other way.

 

I have also been told that I cannot hold a fork correctly and that nobody holds a pen or pencil like I do, but my excuse is that I am ambidextrous- I am almost equally adept at using my left hand as I am my right, but sadly Iím not particularly adept at using either. Life is too short to debate on how to eat properly, anyway- why canít they just leave the food in the pot and hand me the ladle?

 

But the truth is you donít need a ladle, or even a knife or fork. You can eat nearly anything solid with chopsticks, so long as itís been chopped up into little pieces (the Chinese use spoons for soup, as we do). But here are some of the few foods you cannot successfully eat with chopsticks-

 

         Oysters

         Mashed potatoes

         Scrambled eggs

         Olives

 

Anyway, Chinese traditionalists eschew having knives and forks on the table (and ladles, sadly), just as so many chop suey eating Westerners insist that their waiter bring them a plate and a fork. In truth, most of us probably struggled the first time we picked up the sticks at a Chinese restaurant and thought ďGunpowder, paper, the Great Wall, five thousand years of civilization; youíd think theyíd invent a forkĒ. But the Chinese were using with chopsticks a thousand years before we Europeans stopped eating with our hands. And I suspect chopsticks, in some shape or form, will be in use for many, many years more.

 

Just as long as they donít run out of trees first.

 

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