I have a confession to make.
Up until 2015, I had no idea how to use chopsticks.
A few years ago, pho hit Seattle. And it hit hard. It was like a hundred pho restaurants popped up over night.
It made sense though. If you’re an aspiring pho restaurant owner, there really is no better place to open up shop than Seattle. With it’s year-round cold, rainy days, a big bowl of soup is the most soul-warming thing on earth.
When I started grad school at the University of Washington in 2013, I didn’t want to pay to park on campus, so I looked for street parking just outside of the main gates. I got lucky and was able to nab a close spot, which happened to be right in front of a pho restaurant.
I had about an hour to kill before class started, so I went in. A few minutes later they brought out my big bowl of pho, plate of sprouts, and chopsticks.
I looked around the table and when the waiter asked if I needed anything else, I embarrassingly asked “Do you have any forks?”
He let out a small chuckle and pointed to a table at the front that had a tray of forks. I walked up and grabbed one then returned to my seat and devoured my soup.
I ate at that restaurant before every class for the next two years. But every time I ordered my pho, I would look around and see everyone else eating with their chopsticks, and felt like I was doing the walk of shame up to the front to grab a fork. However, I still thought it was far less embarrassing than it would be for everyone to watch me trying to figure out how to eat with chopsticks only to have the noodles keep slipping off and missing my mouth every time I went for a bite.
About a month after I graduated with my master’s degree, I decided to take off to travel the world and become a travel blogger. I was so excited for all of the amazing adventures and experiences I was about to have; the last thing on my mind was eating utensils.
I was on my way to Thailand, but had a layover in Tokyo. I slept through majority of the flight and happened to miss both meal times, so when I got to Tokyo I was starving. I went to the first restaurant I saw, and having no idea what anything was, stuck with what I knew – ramen noodle soup.
They brought out my ramen and set down my chopsticks. Oh shit. I immediately realized that fumbling my way around chopsticks in Seattle would have been far less embarrassing than trying to figure out how to use them in front of people who have only ever used chopsticks as an eating utensil. It would be like watching someone in America trying to figure out how to use a fork for the first time and continuously failing. That person must be a complete moron. Who can’t figure out a fork? I would scoff.
As I sat there staring at my soup and chopsticks, my mind ran wild with panic.
Oh my God. I am that moron. What do I do? Maybe I can get it to go…oh my God, but I’m so hungry, I can’t wait. Ok, just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy their every move. Shit, that person just caught me staring at them. Watch someone else. Ok, this finger goes here, this finger goes there, and pinch them together. Got it. Alright let’s do this fast – get your face close to the bowl, grab as many noodles as you can and quickly shove them in your mouth before they can fall.
I struggled through that first meal of eating with chopsticks, but I got through it. After that, I knew I had a long road of chopstick usage ahead of me as I headed to Southeast Asia for a few months, and started to brainstorm ways I could avoid eating in public. But ultimately, I decided I would take a different approach.
Instead of drawing attention to myself by stalking everyone around me, making quick sudden movements, and showing obvious signs of distress, I would take it slow and figure it out on my own.
At my next meal, I walked into the restaurant calmly and confidently, sat down, ordered, and pulled out a book to keep my attention off the people burning holes through me with their eyes. Then when my food came, I kept my focus on the chopsticks and slowly adjusted my grip and pinching techniques until I found what worked. I smiled and proudly lifted my head to look around the restaurant half-expecting a slow clap or standing ovation of some kind. But no one was paying attention. Regardless, all it took was one time for me to nail it and I never feared eating in public again.
I tell you this story, not to explain how I learned to use chopsticks, but to explain my first big lesson as a digital nomad.
Being a digital nomad opens you up to all kinds of amazing cultures, places, people, and experiences that are vastly different from your own way of living. It can be nerve racking and humiliating to be the outsider, to draw attention to yourself when you have no idea what you’re doing, to feel completely and utterly lost, and to have no “safety net”. But it’s these experiences that will teach you the most and help you grow.
This was my very first day as a digital nomad, and it taught me to be self-sufficient, patient, focused on the task-at-hand and not on my fear of being judged by others, to embrace living outside my comfort zone rather than retreat back inside at the first sign of trouble, and that the people around me in the world don’t actually care what I’m doing. They’re too busy living in their own little bubble to notice or give a crap about what’s going on in mine.
Just like the people in that restaurant didn’t notice or care that I didn’t know how to use chopsticks or that I was teaching myself a valuable life skill right then and there. That moment was a huge success for me, but had absolutely no impact on them. This brought me to another important realization – in the grand scheme of things, I’m not all that significant. In my bubble – yes, but to the rest of the world – no.
No one else in the world is living my life, experiencing the things I do, feeling my emotions, or listening to my thoughts. Only I can do those things. Everyone else is too preoccupied with their own lives, experiences, feelings, and thoughts to be concerned with mine. So I needed to stop thinking the whole world revolved around me, that everyone was watching me and waiting for me to make an ass out of myself, or that my every move would have some long-lasting impact on those around me.
This epiphany gave me a profound sense of freedom. The freedom to make choices for no one but myself; the freedom to choose my own priorities and values; the freedom to let go of expectations and live life by my own rules; the freedom to put my own happiness first without guilt; and freedom from the fear of judgment and rejection.
Moral of the story: Don’t fear the chopsticks, embrace them.