Left-handed eating taboos

One of the biggest thrills for me this past week, regarding the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, was not his closing of Guantanamo Bay (we hope that’s happening) or the restriction on lobbying in Washington (ditto) or national health care in the U.S (ditto), or the very fact that an African-American - heck, any non-white - individual was now the Leader Of The Free World. It was the discovery that President Obama is a lefty.

obamaislefthanded.jpg (Photo by scriptingnews)

Apparently this is not that unusual - five out of the seven previous U.S. Presidents have been left-handed (the rogue righties being Carter and Bush the Younger). As a lefty myself though, I felt a special kinship with the new President when I saw him signing a document in that typical crooked-wrist aiming-from-the-top way we have.

Something said in the comments for the previous Chopstick Etiquette post reminded me of the fact that, while I am a natural lefty and do things with my left hand most of the time, I use my chopsticks in my right hand. This is not a natural thing - when I was little, correcting the handedness of kids was a done thing, especially when it came to chopsticks. I still remember my grandfather (who was a rather imperious figure when he was healthy) complaining that my lefthanded chopstick use was 見苦しい (migurushii) - unpleasant to behold. The implication was that my mother wasn’t teaching me correct manners (躾 shitsuke, which means to discipline or teach manners). So now I do use my chopsticks in my right hand - indeed, I can’t use chopsticks in my natural left hand at all.

The Washington Post article also mentions that Mr. Obama “uses his right hand for certain tasks, including hand-to-mouth (eating a sandwich or pizza)”, connecting it with the fact that in Indonesia, where Mr. Obama spent some years while growing up, touching certain things with your left hand is still considered quite rude.

Nowadays, left-handed children are no longer routinely disciplined to use chopsticks in their right hands, but the idea that it’s somehow rude or migurushii to do so still persists to an extent. On this page from Yahoo! Japan, the person says that while s/he doesn’t think anything of left-handed chopstick users, her friend thinks it’s a sign that “the person was not brought up properly”.

One good thing that came out of my early other-handed training: I can knit ambidexterously, so I don’t have to flip my piece over. I can always look at the front while I’m knitting! Other than that though, I don’t see any good out of my forced training. I still can’t really use chopsticks correctly, whichever hand I use. Maybe I should try to practice some with my left hand.

Now, I wonder which hand President Obama uses for chopsticks…did his white mother or grandmother try to change him while he was growing up in Hawai’i?

What kind of left-handed prohibitions exist in your culture?

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Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I often wonder why my parents didn't correct my left-handedness. I write left-handed and use chopsticks and fork left-handed. (I also hold my chopsticks funny, much to my mom's chagrin.) However, I have a weird hybrid way of knitting (I hold the yarn in my left hand, but I also throw the yarn left-handed-- hard to explain), I crochet right-handed, and I bat and catch (badly) both ways.

I think because of my aikido training (having to attack and throw easily on both sides), I'm a little more balanced than I had been.

yoko | 24 January, 2009 - 21:00

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

We can eat with left hand if we are comfortable with it. There is nothing wrong in it. But before eating your hands should be washed. You are not a kid or a teenager to come under peer pressure just enjoy ur food. People will say many things but we should use our comman sense rather than nonsense to know what is wrong & what is right?

shitij | 9 April, 2010 - 18:51

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

There are lefties who write awkwardly, as Obama does -- dragging his forearm through the ink, and lefties who merely tilt the paper to the right and write "normally," as righties do, with the paper tilted to the left. A 5th-grade teacher of mine, a lefty, wrote on paper and blackboard as though she were a left-handed right-handed person.

My mother, a natural lefty, was made right-handed by the nuns in school. Nevertheless, she could write beautifully with either hand, just by tipping the paper left or right depending on which hand she was writing with. She was also ambidextrous and could even "mirror" write simultaneously with a pen in each hand.

Her handwork, however, was left-handed: ironing, knitting, sewing, etc. She would say, turn it around when you do it because this is how I have to do it. We didn't think she was odd, just more talented with her hands than we were.

So why do some lefties write in that awkward curled-over-the-top position???? Can you tell us? Do you do it writing Japanese characters also? Or just English cursive?

Sylvia S. | 24 January, 2009 - 22:54

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

The reason why lefties curl the hand over or tilt the paper is a matter of practicality. Writing, at least for European languages as well as Chinese-based languages like Japanese, is written left-to-right (in Japanese you either write vertically, or if horizontally from left to right, but more importantly kanji characters are always written in a top-left-right direction). If you are right handed, you can always see what you are writing, but if you're left handed and keep the paper straight, your hand goes over your writing and across the front of your body, which is very awkward! So to avoid smearing your writing, and to just be able to see what you are writing, you have to tilt the paper, your hand, your body/arm or all three. I like to tilt the paper whenever possible, but when I can't I will bend my wrist and sort of hold my hand up on my little finger. (I wonder how it is for right-to-left languages like Hebrew...)

(And actually my handwriting is not too bad either...it was good enough in the one year I was in an American elementary school, that the teacher let me off during 'writing class' so I could goof off and read a book! My Japanese handwriting is rather messy though. I blame this on the fact that during calligraphy class in Japanese school, the teacher didn't let me tilt the paper!)

maki | 25 January, 2009 - 06:34

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

Well, I'm right handed and I can't write properly if I'm not able to tilt my paper quite a bit to the left... when I have to write without tilting it I always write like Obama in that picture does, because for me, it's a really uncomfortable position for my wrist/hand.
On the other hand, when I write with my left one (I can write with both but usually use the right), I can write normally without tilting the paper - although I usually do tilt it.
Uhm, well, what I was wanting to say is... I guess it doesn't really matter with which hand you write if you curl your hand over or not, it's just a matter of comfortableness :D

Mona | 26 January, 2009 - 19:21

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

Jumping in VERY late to this discussion....

I'm also a lefty, and one of the 30% of lefties who just tilt the paper the other way instead of dragging my hand through the ink.

When I took Cognitive Psych in college, we learned that roughly 30% of the population are left-handed. I had always heard that if you were right-handed, you used your left brain hemisphere primarily and vice versa. Not so. Most lefties do NOT use their right brain hemisphere for language and processing, but use their left, just like right-handed people do.

30% of the left-handed population either uses their right brain hemisphere OR divides processing tasks evenly between the two hemispheres. And you can tell which they are by whether they tilt the paper or curl their hand around the text when they write.

Photopoppy | 14 September, 2009 - 06:53

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

I am right handed but as a child I would sometimes turn my paper upside down and write upside down, so if I were facing someone or say a mirror my writing would be facing that person/image and would be facing upright in that direction. Then I would take the paper and turn it to face me... the writing would be facing the right way....That is an awkward way to write I guess, but it worked for me and was easier to write that way while standing up. I could also hold the notebook against my chest and use that as a sort of writing desk writing from top to bottom of the page with the top of the page facing my head but the overall direction of the paper being flat, like if i were wearing a "sandwich" sign.... this was useful for if I went on a field trip and had to take notes. For both styles i would hold the paper/notebook at the bottom of the page with my left hand

anon. | 8 January, 2012 - 14:52

Re: Left-handed eating taboos -- and writing

In regards to writing. I turn my paper sideways to the right side in order to write correctly. I find it very uncomfortable to try and write with paper in the upright position.

anon. | 23 June, 2013 - 06:47

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

My mother's a lefty. Even though she went to Catholic school in the 60s, she somehow escaped the lefty persecution (probably because she had a lefty dad to advocate for her). She does do some things right-handed, though, like using scissors and playing guitar. I think that's because finding left-handed versions of such things can be tricky, or at least was when she was learning.

Funny story about my grandfather's handedness - when he was a baby, my great-grandmother took things out of the hand on her left side (which was my grandfather's RIGHT side) and put them in the hand on her right side (my grandfather's LEFT hand). Ha!

And on another funny note, I saw an article that was insinuating that Obama's comment, "I'm a lefty, deal with it" was referring to his politics, not his handedness. Um.

Dina | 25 January, 2009 - 01:30

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

That kind of Obama comment is silly indeed, since as the Washington Post article says, even President Reagan was a lefty (though converted), as well as Bush Senior, and John McCain is 'strongly lefty' while Barack Obama seems more balanced in that he uses his right hand for certain tasks! It's interesting what they said about strong-handedness (people who only use one hand or another for everything) implies inflexibility in thought. I've occasionally encountered people who think left-handedness is just 'weird'. Maybe they are the inflexible ones :)

maki | 25 January, 2009 - 06:26

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I grew up in Japan but I use my left hand to use chopsticks.

I had a shitsuke class in kindergarten, where we practiced moving dry beans from one bowl to the other using chopsticks (right-handed) and learned how to bow correctly.
Outside of that class I used my left hand anyway :-P

I think you still have to use your right hand for Sho-do/Ka-do/Sa-do(calligraphy/flower arrangement/tea ceremony), but nowadays it's more relaxed. Or maybe it's just my relaxed parents.

It is a problem, however, to eat with other people at a small table. I carefully chose a spot so my chopsticks don't collide with other people's.

aya | 25 January, 2009 - 01:41

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

That is also an issue in America ( I have that trouble all the time). Tough, it's usually elbows that collide in tight spaces.

Kat | 3 August, 2009 - 16:35

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I am also left-handed and I never did the weird curled-over-the-top position either! I have always written just like a righty but from the left, I used to try and correct my other left handed friends by making them turn their paper haha!

As for chopsticks... I use my left hand but always set them on my right side because a japanese friend told me that makes it seem less rude to him! My korean friends never seem to care but I don't know korean etiquette for such!

EnviousDuckie | 25 January, 2009 - 01:56

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I am also a lefty that mirrors a righty. I was taught to use chopsticks around 4 years of age at a Chinese restaurant. I've never gotten harsh looks for it and I never eat with chopsticks in my right hand. Although, as a Caucasian I must admit that I get a little offended when dining at a restaurant as an adult they automatically give me a fork. I have often wondered though, if the looks of surprise from the staff have been to see a white girl using chopsticks w/skill or because of the left handedness.

Debrah | 25 January, 2009 - 02:22

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I am a lefty who writes like a righty. I have good handwriting, by the way. In fact, the only things I do with my left hand are write and eat with either fork or chopsticks. Pretty much everything else I do right handed.

I have three kids, all right-handed. The oldest one, though is my mirror. He writes and uses utensils with his right hand but does everything else left handed, including sports.

My mom is left-handed, so growing up, I assumed that I learned to be both left- and right-handed from her. But, a few years ago I noticed she was using scissors in her left hand (I use my right) and I asked her why. She said she had always used her left hand for scissors. She even uses her left hand to hold a knife, whereas I use my right.

Have you ever noticed that at some checkout counters in the U.S., at the little pads where you have to sign your name if paying with a credit card, that it is often impossible to do if you are left handed? Sometimes I end up with little more than a scribble.

I have noticed over the years that many of my friends are left handed. I don't choose them that way...but it does seem that somehow we gravitate towards each other!

Jane | 25 January, 2009 - 13:57

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Yikes! I'm semi ambidextrous, so I do some things with my left and some with my right. I use a sharp knife in my left hand, which got me a chewing out from my manner-strict grandmother for a few years. I also do use chopsticks in my left hand, mostly out of convenience as I'm usually doing something else with my right when I eat my bentos XD

Aleria | 25 January, 2009 - 19:33

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Not an eating taboo or practice, but in kendo/kenjutsu, nobody is allowed to be left-handed. Everyone practices with the right hand forward on the hilt. My old karate sensei dropped out of kendo because of this -- interesting to me, because you can't tell he's a lefty from his karate practice (you're supposed to practice ambidextrously), but he just couldn't get the hang of "right-handed" kendo.

lil brown bat | 26 January, 2009 - 03:16

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I was DELIGHTED to see that Obama's a lefty!

I'm sooooooooo left-handed, and sometimes it drives me crazy.

But I'm also convinced, being as I am a minority within a minority (more males are left-handed than females), it's led to my creditivity. I only wish I could knit ambidextrously. Cool trick.

And I just want to point out that there is a REALLY good microbrewery: www.lefthandbrewing.com

Try some :-)

Atomic Mama | 26 January, 2009 - 07:39

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

my mom was born left handed but wasn't allowed to use her left hand to write or eat. so she's right handed in everything but brushing her teeth.
(we're from texas)

anon. | 26 January, 2009 - 20:31

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

From Wiki:

"However, left-handed people who speak Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hebrew or any other right to left language, do not have the same difficulties with writing. The right to left nature of these languages prevents left-handers from running their hand on the ink as happens with left to right languages. Still, due to these alphabets being developed for right-handed people, the characters are still often more easily matched to a right-handed profile. Japanese is possibly the most suited for left-handers as the writing structure for traditional Japanese is up to down and right to left, making it more difficult for right-handers as opposed to left-handers."

I thought it was up to down, left to right, though I guess it may be different in vertical writing? :S

My brother & father are both left-handed, and I've noticed that although my brother uses his left-hand for most things, he generally adapts for things that are normally right-handed, like using a computer mouse and playing a guitar, though he does have a much easier time playing a left-handed guitar even though he learned on a right-handed one.

Eve | 27 January, 2009 - 04:08

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I asked a Morrrocan lady I know who also teaches Arabic about the right-hand left-hand writing. She says it makes no difference with Arabic -- and in fact has a left-handed brother.

SBS | 5 February, 2009 - 07:42

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I believe the whole left-handed-being-uncultured/unsightly is fairly common in East Asian cultures (And in the past for Western cultures I suppose). My father was disciplined very harshly as a child; his father went to the extent of hitting him on the head with a pair of chopsticks on one occasion, snapping them in the process. Those were chopsticks were made of Ivory apparently! (Not illegal back in the day, plus it was Hong Kong)

Now my brother, taking after my father, is also left handed and uses his left hand for most tasks, such as chopsticks and switching knife and fork (always annoyed me when he set the table; if I could remember to switch the knife and fork just for him, couldn't he remember to have it the right way around for everyone else?), but certain other tasks such as mousing and sports he used his right hand.

Which brings up the question, do you mouse with your left or right hand? I've found most (not all) lefties mouse with their right hands.

KayDat | 27 January, 2009 - 19:06

Mouse

Actually, when I use a mouse I use my right hand. But when I'm using a trackpad (as I do all the time now since I do 90% of my work and so on on a Macbook Pro) I use my left hand, though I can use my right in a pinch.

maki | 5 February, 2009 - 20:49

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I never thought about it much until I started sharing/switching desktops with classmates. Almost every one of them would pause, confused, when they took over my space, because I use the mouse in my left hand (despite being right handed)! And then a lot of them eventually just change the location of the mouse in order to use their right hand.

I think it also has to do with habit and memory. Mouse usage requires no real fine motor skills so whether you are a lefty or a righty using whatever side probably has to do with what you were trained/started on.

anon. | 5 May, 2009 - 08:41

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I mouse with my left hand. I was forced to write with my right hand and have done most everything else left handed except write all my life. I'm now 53. I heard it confuses the brain to use both hands, so I am now writing left handed as well. It was very easy to switch to writing left handed. It took me about two weeks to start writing better with my left hand than I ever did with my right.

bigDcowgirl | 19 September, 2009 - 03:25

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

My left-handed Dad grew up in Ireland in the 50s/60s. Some teachers tried to make him write with his right hand, and he used to think that my brother's left-handedness would mark him out as effeminate.

On the other hand, he maintains that there is a line in the Bible that indicates that Moses was left-handed. So they're all in good company.

There was a study recently that found that societies with more left-handed people had higher homicide rates. But that could be a load of bunkum.

Squidhat | 27 January, 2009 - 23:49

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I broke my right wrist when I was younger, so I got very used to doing things left-handed. Even when I got my cast off, I continued to eat and write left-handed until my mom forced me to go back.

But oddly enough I still switch off quite a bit. People find it very odd when they see me painting and sculpting that I go back and forth between using my right and left hands (somethings just work better with my left hand, like getting texture into my paintings).

Stephanie | 29 January, 2009 - 19:22

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I too was sooo happy to find out that Obama was left-handed!

In the province of Québec, nuns taught in schools and the large presence of the Catholic church meant that anyone seen to be left-handed was forced to switch to their right-hand, due to the latin equivalent of dexter (right-hand) and sinister (left-hand). I'm not sure when this officially ended, but my grandmother related some dreadful stories of the nuns succeeding in making her switch. By the time I was in French grade school in Ottawa in the early 80s, teachers could only remark on my left-handedness (no curl-over-the-top writing though), though they could no longer do anything about it.
Still, I find myself becoming more ambidextrous as I get older. I use chopsticks in my left-hand, but mouse with my right-hand. That said, I can only write with my left, that is, both hand and foot!

Stéphanie_L | 30 January, 2009 - 08:21

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Hi!

This is my first comment on this blog, but I've been following Just Bento & Just Hungry for a long time!
First I gotta thank you for the Chopstick Etiquette post that revealed a lot of mysterious things about Japanese culture... Love it!

Today I think I could contribute to your great blog by sharing some information about my culture.
I'm Moroccan, and I can say that being left-handed in North Africa isn't easy at all! I'm right-handed but some friends and cousins are lefties.

Being a lefty is always considered as a defect, especially for eating! In fact, eating with your left hand is insulting, cause the left hand is reserved to dirty things, like washing intimate parts of the body before praying, you know, this special muslim ritual. And as food is a gift from God, touching it with your left hand is highly disrespectful.

As a consequence, even when children are "allowed" to be left-handed (in open-minded families), they still must eat with their right hand.

It's interesting to see that there are a few common traditionnal eating rules between East-Asian and North African cultures :)

moon | 30 January, 2009 - 22:23

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Born and raised in Malaysia, which is a predominantly Muslim country like Indonesia. I'm not Muslim, but to this day, whenever I have to hand an object or money over to another person, I always use my right hand. I also point with my right hand, and never with the the index finger, only the thumb. :)

shi | 1 February, 2009 - 01:21

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

'Correcting' left-handedness can actually cause severe problems for the person forced to use their right hand. Mental disorders, speech disorder, even dyslexia. Unfortunately even today many people still don't know about these cognitive and psychological consequences.
It made me really angry to hear (as a kid) that they were forcing a smaller boy I knew to use his right hand to write at school. I don't think that is done today anymore though. At least I hope it isn't!

anon. | 4 February, 2009 - 19:59

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Unfortunately it is, I moved into a small school, and met a nice boy there that was held back four years because his teacher was trying to correct his handedness, needless to say he is very slow and can't write well with either hand. He has difficulty reading, I'm not sure if its dyslexia or just that difficult for him. Eventually the school board stepped in and forced him into high school. This was just a public school in a small town.

anon. | 19 October, 2011 - 06:43

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I loved this post! I'm a lefty and am always happy to stumble upon another lefty. Like Shi, I was also born and raised in Malaysia and I am a Muslim. Growing up, nobody ever made a fuss about my left-handedness. But my mom always made sure that when I ate with my fingers, I use my right hand. Same as pointing and shaking hands. But when I eat with a spoon or chopsticks, I use the left and mom was fine with that.

When I was younger I thought there was something wrong with me as all my friends were right-handed. There were times where I tried to practice to write with my right hand to try and be 'normal'. It didn't work, I was still a lefty.

A few years back, I had a housemate who is a righty practice everyday to write with her left hand, so she could be like me. Coz she said leftys are cool! Now I'm glad I didn't force myself and was never forced to change what I was born with.

mimi | 18 February, 2009 - 20:15

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Reading the post and some of these comments, I am starting to realize how strange this personal story is. My grandmother is a retired ER nurse and would tell us horror stories to keep us from doing certain habits (the "don't chew on your hair" one sticks out *shutter*). One of these "lectures" was for us right-handed kids to learn how to use our left hand, this was in case we broke our dominate side and had to rely on our left for a few weeks. Leave it to a nurse to suggest that!

Course it never really took off with me and my siblings but I'm starting to think I should train up my left side, especially now that I'm starting martial arts. I can tell there is a definite difference in strength between my two arms, just from one being used more often than the other.

anon. | 11 March, 2009 - 06:47

Training your left hand to use chopsticks

My aunt used to eat a small can of baked beans with chopsticks, bean by bean, to train herself :) It could work for you, too, instead of buying those "chopstick etiquette bean" things (they look so adorable though)

Jai | 14 October, 2009 - 17:39

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I was born a lefty, but in England when I was around five or six years old, I was forced to become right handed in school. I have always wondered if that causes some damage, and I am in fact a bit dyslexic. Maybe it is connected then?

As an adult I am quite cross that this was done to me. I don't remember being given a reason for it, and my parents didn't do anything about it.

indigostar74 | 24 March, 2010 - 04:30

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

Lefties are smarter though! :p
I was born a leftie but now I do most things with my right hand. My mum made me use my right hand, I remember she said something like its easier to be a rightie and I will have ugly handwriting if I write with my left. However, I still do some things unconsiously with my left hand.

hungry | 7 July, 2010 - 12:52

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I'm a righty who mirrors a lefty, lol. Also, for some reason, when I write with my left hand, I mirror a righty... does that make me mixed-handed?

And no, I'm not that ambidextrous, I can just write with both hands. Mainly stick with my right hand, though.

Jessica | 5 January, 2011 - 01:49

Re: Left-handed eating taboos

I'm ambidextrous, and my mom, she's a "righty". I use quotes because she only writes with her right hand and does everything else left handed. I used to be more right-handed, but growing up learning how to do everything left handed, plus my love for doing everything left handed, I've since become quite left handed.

It saddens me to hear other countries do not like left handed people. It sort of make me laugh though, getting one's panties in a bunch just because someone uses one hand over the other? lol.

Peet | 18 June, 2011 - 18:55

Ambidexterous eatting.

When I was a child, I did everything left-handed though in this, I ended up writing like DaVinci - I would write perfectly mirrored until my mother trained me out of it. I still feel far more comfortable doing some things left handed - I carry things left-handed and eat with a knife and fork... ambidexterously. Truth me told, my mother still tells me off for switching my hands on a regular basis while eating dinner. Still, I do use chopsticks with my right hand, perhaps stemming from the fact that it was a foreign task to me when I learned, so I simply mimiced what everyone else did.

I admit, it's a bit of a relief to know that I'm not the only one who assigns different tasks to different hands. Does that still make us lefties? Or are we just a different kind of ambidexterous?

Juriri | 3 January, 2012 - 22:26

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