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No spoons allowed: Beijing is pressuring its 4-year-olds to eat only with chopsticks

Wooden chopsticks
A number of Beijing preschools have banished forks and spoons and are insisting that kids 4 and older eat with chopsticks — and only chopsticks.
(Getty Images)

When news surfaced last month that Panda Express was considering introducing a new half-fork, half-chopsticks plastic utensil known as the chork, reaction among American patrons of the Chinese fast-food chain was swift and largely enthusiastic: Finally, a common flatware for the both the deft and the less dexterous devotees of tangy orange chicken.

But the chork will find no fans among a number of Beijing preschools, where administrators have banished forks and spoons and are insisting that kids 4 and older eat with chopsticks — and only chopsticks. The rigid requirement has raised the hackles of some parents and stirred debate about parenting, educational guidelines and even cultural purity in the globalized 21st century.

The chork was a promotional tool for Panda Express’ General Tso’s chicken launch.
The chork was a promotional tool for Panda Express' General Tso's chicken launch.
(Panda Express )

Several mothers complained to the Beijing Morning Post this month that their children were coming home hungry because they were unable to eat enough at lunch because they weren’t proficient with chopsticks.

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“My daughter has been required to use chopsticks since she turned 4, but she was not good at it,” one mother, surnamed Xiao, told the paper. Her daughter, she said, was introverted and when she saw classmates being able to handle chopsticks, she felt peer pressure and became anxious. “These days, I’ll give her a good amount of food before school, so she can eat lighter at lunch at kindergarten and then I’ll give her more for dinner at home.”

Another mother, surnamed Sun, told the paper that she was now serving her child a meal immediately after school to make up for her small intake at lunch and was doing practice sessions with chopsticks at home.

The requirement has not just sprung out of blue. Guidelines from China’s Ministry of Education say that 3- and 4-year-olds should use spoons skillfully; 4- and 5-year-olds should be able to use chopsticks to some degree; and by 6, children should use chopsticks skillfully.

An administrator at Beijing’s Golden Apple Kindergarten, who declined to give her name, confirmed that her school was among those requiring chopsticks starting at age 4. “They are able to, and should, manage chopsticks at that age,” she said. “Learning to use chopsticks is also helpful to nurture kids’ hand-eye coordination.”

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Parents who have complained about the utensil regulations have come in for withering criticism online, with some commentators even questioning the very “Chineseness” of any youngster who is clumsy with chopsticks.

“How can you get anxious by using chopsticks?” one critic wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like micro-blogging service. “You are Chinese!” Said another: “If the kids don’t learn to use chopsticks now, they will lose face by not being able to use chopsticks to eat hot pot when they are grown-ups.” (Hot pot is a popular Chinese dish in which food is cooked communally in tabletop cooker — a sort of cheese-less fondue.)

Some child development specialists, though, said the schools’ lack of flexibility was cause for concern.

“The guideline is just a general goal for children, but it shouldn’t be cause to disrespect kids’ individual differences,” said Wang Ronghui, a childcare expert in Guangzhou.

“Hand development among kids can vary from one to another. I’ve seen the hands of some 4-year-olds being only as developed as some 2-year-olds,” she added. Too much pressure on the youngsters, Wang also suggested, could harm their mental health.

Though the fork and spoon are unlikely to ever drive the chopstick to extinction, preserving the primacy of the simple utensil seems to be getting more attention these days as China has become more globalized.

The issue surfaced last year on a reality show about parenting, “Dads Come Back.” The 3-year-old daughter of former Chinese gymnastics star Li Xiaopeng was criticized by viewers because she only used spoons to eat. (The girl’s mother, who is Chinese American, also was attacked for speaking English, not Mandarin, on the program.)

The Chinese government has even taken steps to strengthen the chopsticks’ status as an essential Chinese cultural symbol.

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In a public service TV commercial that aired before the Chinese New Year Gala in 2014, a little girl who appears to be about 4 is seen at a family dinner gathering struggling tearfully to use chopsticks to eat rice.  Her mother encourages her to keep trying and tells her gently, “We are Chinese, so we all use chopsticks.”

Wang, though, said parents need to evaluate their priorities.

“No cultural heritage is as important as children’s health,” she said. “Kids need to have enough food to eat.”  

Yang is a special correspondent.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @JulieMakLAT.

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