I was raised to eat in the Western manner, and I continue to do so in my own home, even when I eat Filipino food, except when certain dishes are on the table. Kare-kare, menudo, adobo, for example, can be eaten using a knife and fork, but it seems an additional effort that detracts from efficient and enjoyable eating, since using a spoon and fork to eat these dishes is so much more sensible. Crispy pata, on the other hand, involves a multicultural use of implements: a knife is more efficient for slicing my favorite part (the skin) but a spoon and fork are essential for the accompanying rice.
Outside the home, I adapt. If I am eating Western food, I use Western implements, because it is equally inefficient to use a spoon and fork to eat most Western dishes: the texture, consistency, and so forth of the dishes, even when accompanied by rice, makes the use of a knife and fork more sensible. When eating Chinese, Japanese, or Korean food, I’ve learned to manage to use chopsticks, and three different kinds at that: the Chinese prefer ivory (or nowadays, plastic) chopsticks that are the most difficult to use; the Japanese prefer wooden chopsticks; the Koreans, stainless steel ones and a spoon. Regardless of the cuisine, if one is with people who prefer a particular set of implements (or none at all) over another, one uses what is given you, and does not make a fuss, particularly in someone else’s home, in which one is a guest.
It is perhaps old-fashioned of me to believe that one eats as one’s companions eat, as the food one is eating should be eaten by those who habitually eat that food, and according to the norms of the place in which one is eating. I was raised believing this is a sign of culture, and culture is about respecting the norms of those one has decided to associate with, whether as a tourist, a visitor to their home, or a patron of their restaurant, which is also a vehicle and repository for the civilization that created a particular kind of cuisine. This always requires the effort of learning, and not a little comedy (generation after generation of Filipinos have funny stories about the challenges and mysteries of finger-bowls during formal dinner overseas, mostly involving a curious compulsion to pick them up and drink their contents).
An anonymous commenter has left a couple of links to news articles that are something of a cause caelaebre among Filipinos all over the world. The case involves a Filipino child in Canada. The case, to my mind, can be broken up into several parts, which leaves no one blameless but also goes to show how expectations have (and should) change concerning how cultures meet and overlap.
The child, apparently, insists on eating with a spoon and fork in school, in which the dominant culture is a Western one. The child was reprimanded, and punished by being isolated from other students during mealtimes. The child’s parents were concerned, and according to the press accounts, were told by a school official that the child ate “like a pig.” That’s what the parents say; the school itself has countered by claiming the child was a messy eater and it was the child’s hard-headedness, and tendency to make a mess (and allegedly, make a fuss) that merited punishment. Filipinos all over the world have taken up the incident as a case of bigotry, cultural imperialism, and even persecution, and ruffled feelings of national pride are being made as a result.
It could have all been avoided, of course, if both sides did the following:
1. The child ate according to his culture at home, and was taught to respect the culture of his new country by eating as the others do, in school;
2. The school, operating in a country that proclaims its multicultural nature as a virtue, had talked to the parents first, instead of punishing the child and then talking to the parents, only to castigate them for something that should not be considered a fault: teaching their child their culture;
3. Had the school official been a person of genuine culture and learning, he would never have said what he did to the parents concerning their child; the school should never have excused, much less defended what the official said;
4. The claim the child was a messy eater, and fussy to one extent or another, is a measurable and provable claim, and attending to that problem is not a matter of culture, but of discipline, in which both school and parents could surely have found common ground.
So now there’s a mess, and I don’t have sympathy for the school, and am happy for the child that his parents raised hell. Whether as a result the child will go through life thinking he can make a mess and eating any way he pleases, is another thing but irrelevant to the larger public. No parent should have to hear their child insulted by anyone, particularly school officials; no Filipino family should have to endure their culture being slighted, particularly since we tend to be a very reasonable, and accommodating people, if only we are engaged in dialogue first.
Personally, I don’t see how eating much of Western food with a spoon and fork makes for either enjoyable or efficient eating. But that’s me. Which is why I also personally find the furious counter-argument made by many Filipinos -“but the Chinese eat with chopsticks!”- slightly devoid of sense. Chinese food is eminently designed to be eaten with chopsticks, but try eating Western food with chopsticks and it would be an exercise in culinary futility. The Chinese, except perhaps at a state banquet, are pragmatic enough to permit (what they might view as barbaric Westerners and non-Chinese) foreigners to eat with Western implements at Chinese restaurants; Western restaurants as a rule don’t even have chopsticks to provide Chinese, Japanese, or Korean clients who, as a matter of culture, avidly learn how to enjoy foreign food on its own terms. We should be as pragmatic, I think, and if you want to indulge in cultural chauvinism as so many cultures do, then you are welcome to do so in your own home, where your culture or variation thereof is king.