Mouthful of mannerless

“Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more housholds than infidelity.” – Aunt Alicia, Gigi

It was buka puasa (breaking fast) time. The room was relatively quiet, with people concentrating on their food after having fasted from the crack of dawn, while I concentrated on mine because I am generally a hungry/greedy person.

And then I heard it. I stopped eating and turned my head slightly to discern where it was coming from: the table right behind me. I turned back to my food and tried to ignore the loud, incessant slurping and gulping that I assumed was the consumption of some soba or udon, apparently with great relish. I clicked in irritation, and Afham, who has long since been able to sense when I’m about to be openly sneering or derisive of what I call ‘street urchin etiquette’, quietly warned, “Stop it, baby. Just eat.”

But naturally, I couldn’t ‘stop it’, and as the slurping got louder, I turned around, reached out, and knocked the chopsticks out of what I finally saw was quite a portly woman.

OK, fine, so I didn’t knock the chopsticks out of her hand, but it was definitely something I would dearly have loved to do. Or flip the bowl into her multiple-chinned face.

From the time my brother and I were young, our mother and grandmother made it their life missions to ensure that we ate like normal human beings. My brother, being a boy, was naturally more difficult to teach, but they tried their best, and to his credit, so did he. But with me, they were unrelenting: elbows in, shoulders up, face out of the bowl, fork in the left, spoon in the right, and absolutely no slurping, chomping or chewing audibly. “Men don’t want ladies who eat like street urchins,” my grandmother occasionally said, and she took great pleasure in switching up the names from ‘street urchins’ to ‘uneducated people’ to ‘pigs’.

That was my mother’s favorite: “Don’t eat like a pig!”

Despite the drilling, and the pain of etiquette school my mother sent me to when I was twelve, I did what they said, because I knew I didn’t want strangers looking at me and wondering, be it from my way of dressing or walking or my table manners, which slum I crawled out from. So I kept my elbows in and my teeth firmly clamped together, which resulted in me becoming a slow eater, but better slow than slovenly, I figured.

So it amazes me today that there are women who do not realize the importance of dining etiquette, or just manners in general, and are perfectly happy to slurp and spit their way through life. Even more disturbing is that many of these women are middle-class, educated women, whose own parents should have known and taught them better. The most baffling of all is that they genuinely don’t think they are doing anything wrong, even after it is pointed out to them more than once, and because it usually comes from someone close and comfortable enough to call them out on their behavior, the common response would be “But I’m just here with you!”

I was once asked by a friend if I would go into business with her, to open a ‘child enrichment/development center’. She wanted to teach music, art, English, speech and drama, and etiquette to children, and she wanted me to help her with the latter three. I was more than happy to teach children these things, which I consider are essential to their development — until I realized that, perhaps, I would have to teach her first. I would have to teach her not to lean her elbows on the table, not to talk with her mouth full or while stuffing potato chips into her mouth, not to smack her lips, and not to talk mid-yawn.

Yes, she would try to speak while she yawned, which I think is unspeakably rude and a waste of time because when one tries to speak while yawning, one is completely incoherent anyway. But when I tried to call her out on it, she predictably said, “Haiya it’s just you what!”

I really, genuinely always did think that it was ingrained in a parent to teach their child how to behave. I thought table manners came hand in hand with learning to walk and talk like a normal human being. How they managed to forget — or ignore — the importance of making sure their offspring did not grow up eating as though they were fresh out of a jungle is utterly beyond me. It only reinforces my belief that people who are thinking of having children should be mandated to take physical, mental, emotional and behavioral tests to ensure that they are in any way fit to be parents at all.

Apparently, I already know one who will fail.

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