Midway through most of the meals I ate on my honeymoon in Sri Lanka, a smile and a pile of napkins started coming my way. I would swipe at my face, realizing that it once again looked like someone gave a drunken toddler one of those finger-paint-with-curry sets.
Other brides count down the weeks before their wedding by practicing dance steps, reciting their vows, or fretting about décor. Something else occupied my mind: eating with my right hand. Immediately after the ceremony, my new husband and I were jetting off to Sri Lanka. (“Why Sri Lanka?” people ask. The answer: it’s as far from Seattle as you can go on Alaska Airlines miles.) The tiny island nation off the southeast coast of India has sprawling, sandy beaches where you can stroll into the bathwater-warm Indian Ocean. It’s also one of those places, I gathered from online resources and television shows, where the polite way to eat is with the first three fingers of your right hand, up to the second knuckle.
“Uh-oh,” I thought, upon learning this. My right hand has the approximate coordination of a baboon using one of those spring-loaded garbage-picker-upper tools. Having been raised in a city where Asians are the largest minority group, I can use chopsticks like Mr. Miyagi, but having to scoop up rice and curry with my fingers seemed to be a daunting task.
My head filled with nightmare scenarios of accidentally using my left hand in front of locals, of the whispered giggles, of a sage-looking elder storming off in disgust at my using the “bathroom” hand to touch the food. I imagined myself picking up the rice, grain by individual grain, dunking it in the curry, and bringing my infinitesimal meal to my mouth.
I try to abide by local culture when I travel: I do my best to meet locals, and to learn from them, rather than offend or appall them. For months before we departed, I sat on my left hand while eating with my far less-dexterous one: whether pizza or dhal, it all went in from the right—except for the large amount that landed on my lap.
It’s not that I am normally a neat eater—the remnants of my last two meals can generally be found on my shirt at any given time. It’s just that eating with my right hand made it seventeen times worse. Luckily, Sri Lanka is an exceedingly friendly place.
Sure, the locals I dined with usually ate with their right hands—except when Christopher needed to tear the coconut bread called rotti with both hands. And maybe the old guy we asked directions for in the mountains outside Ella was only using up to the second knuckle, but he was definitely covered in rice down to his wrist.
For the most part, when my pale face graced a table, the local hostess would offer a fork, but she was clearly pleased when I turned it down or ignored it in favor of dining in local style. Pleased, yes, but also amused, watching me aim rice and curry into mouth, as if it were one of those carnival games that are rigged so the ball is larger than the opening. It was at this moment, generally, that those aforementioned napkins would come my way, accompanied by an appreciative smile.
I would smile back and doggedly accept the napkin. At first, it felt like a sign of defeat, like I’d lost the battle of fitting in. But I’m a white Jewish girl with a voice that carries like a megaphone, I’m unlikely to fit in too well anywhere outside a Long Island mall. The napkin wasn’t a sign of defeat, I came to realize through a conversation made up entirely of looks and hand motions (our language barrier too great to overcome). It was a sign of silent mutual admiration: me of the food, she of my futile but enthusiastic attempts to respect local culture.
While we couldn’t understand each other, the same thing was making us both happy: that I thought Sri Lankan food was delicious and wanted to get as much of it as I could from the plate into my mouth. I need not have worried. Rules are made for being broken, and food is made for being enjoyed—however it gets from plate to mouth.