By Ben Liu
Today, people win prizes for scoring the most goals, making the best films, and writing the best Nonfiction memoirs.
Nothing seems to hark back to my elementary school days in Europe, where we once had to pick dry lima beans out of a bowl as fast as we could… with chopsticks.
As the only regular chopstick user participating in the event, I thought I was going to win the contest, hands down.
I was in third grade. I lived in Luxembourg, a pebble of a European country; Belgium sat on top of it. On the map, Luxembourg seemed like every other country’s pet hamster.
I attended the American International School of Luxembourg. Virtually every brew of European attended the school. It had the front of an American school, true. But the Swedish and Danish were well-established there, as were the Japanese. Some of my classmates came from Finland, Pakistan and Norway. Any kid who went to AISL would say that “there was a lotta different people.” The school also had a diverse staff. My French teacher was local. There was also Ms. Gosvig, the Danish woman who taught my third-grade class. She was tan, lean, and taut, and had passionate eyes with crow’s feet at their sides. Her curly, dirt-orange hair gave Ms. Gosvig the romantic Euro look, while the plastic-framed glasses that sat atop her nose gave her the omnipotent teacher look.
My childhood lays much to rest now, and as I’ll say of these days even 20 years from now, I don’t remember much.
The little things, however, stick to you forever. Ms. Gosvig had concocted a competition of her own. The students, with the exception of a few individuals, would race to see who could use chopsticks to pick up as many lima beans as they could. In a limited time, the contestant would have to transfer beans from one bowl to another. This is why I loved Ms. Gosvig—thinking up these activities takes time, and one teacher alone has to ply the land for ideas.
I don’t remember much of the actual competition, which is to say, I don’t remember the important part. But there are still the interesting pre-game speculations and post-game implications. All I can see of the actual bean-picking contest is a bowl. A wooden bowl sits in front of me, and in the bowl sits a colony of arid beans. I have a pair of chopsticks in my hand. The three Japanese judges sit abreast behind a table, looking esoterically authoritative, like pharmacists.
They couldn’t compete because they knew how to use chopsticks.
A classmate in front of me has a stopwatch. The classmate calls, “Go,” and I start. The classmate calls, “Time,” and I stop.
I remember seeing Christian Goodbody and her other British friend—both of whom I hated—perform terribly with the chopsticks. I got an emotional high from seeing these fish out of water squirm around, looking as if they had no business picking beans out of a bowl with chopsticks.
I think I did pretty well. I picked up the chopsticks by employing a natural, unforced grip. My eyes fell under a trance and darting from bowl to bowl as I transferred the beans. I had good bean-picking pace. With eyebrows pricked up, people exclaimed, “Ooh,” and “Aah.” It was a hockey game, and I was the only one with skates.
In the end, I picked up a hell of a lot more beans than my classmates. I was smiling carelessly after my medal run, while the others struggled to come close. The smirk plastered on my face said, “If there’s one thing I’m better at than all of you, it’s this. For sure.”
“Who is this kid?” they could’ve been asking. “Why did we let him play the game?” By all appearances, I looked completely Asian. But, I had an American accent, a trait which, I guess, made them overlook the black hair and slit eyes. Seeing the speed at which I transferred beans made them realize their mistake; they had fallen prey to the notion that I was chopstick illiterate.
Ricardo took his turn with the chopsticks. As expected, he wasn’t great, but he had that unerring, unrelenting tenacity that only boys our age could have. He hustled, and was happy with it. His score came closest to mine—decent for a Swedish guy.
Although I was the clear winner, I could see trouble on the horizon. Classmates started arguing over technicalities… about how “He’s Asian,” and how “He already knows how to use chopsticks.” I didn’t put up much of a fight; technically, they were right. I should have been one of the judges. I wasn’t ignorant about what was happening, because I remember how my upturned, dimpled cheeks started to sag, and how my smiling teeth started to slip back beneath my lips for cover.
This was all a big surprise to Ms. Gosvig, who was oblivious to the idea that I could ever be disqualified. To be just, she decided to hold a vote. “Raise your hand if you think Benji should/shouldn’t get the prize…”
Cindy Freeland, my third-grade crush, voted in favor of my winning the prize, as did a few other friends. But the rest of the class—the majority—doused that hope when they raised their hands against me. Up until that point, I had never come under the glare of so many beady little eyes.
When confronted with trying situations such as these, I usually play mum. I wasn’t quite there; I was more like a third-person onlooker observing a dramatic scene, holding my breath back. I was the small, worm’s-eye child looking up at an argument between two parents who didn’t know I was there.
I remember Cindy’s face. Her sad eyes were resigned to the hopelessness that I would inevitably lose the vote, and, judging from her frown, I thought for a second that I was going to be held back in school.
In the midst of all these raised hands against me, Ms. Gosvig turned to me, looking for some way to bail me out.
“And what about you?” she asked. “What do you think of all this?”
At least she was on my side. I was a little relieved, but we were still two against a dozen. I can get through this, I thought. The Teacher’s on my side; she’ll vouch. Suddenly, it didn’t seem very cool to be a Chopstick King. All I wanted now was to keep in good standing with the class. It wasn’t the end of the world if a teacher hated me; I still had my friends. It seemed like more of a bummer for your peers to hate you. I wanted to say, “Let’s forget the whole thing. Friends… we’re all friends, right? There’s no bad feelings here. No conflict…”
I sat, stock-still, thinking this would pass quickly if I became a statue, but my eyes betrayed my fear. They darted around the tribunal circle, petitioning classmates, championing my innocence.
It was my natural inclination not to take a side on a vote that directly involved me, so I didn’t raise my hand. But this had changed from a vote, to a trial, to a conviction, to a death sentence in the matter of minutes. With a noose around my neck, Warden Gosvig was holding my third-grade life in her hands, asking if I had any last words.
“Look at him,” she said, half scorning and half pitying, “he can’t even speak for himself.”
I was sitting one moment, ready to accept my prize and be crowned king. The next moment, a class tribunal circled around me—everybody’s eyes trying to penetrate my cryptic face and read my mind. I think they were half-hoping for me to gush with tears... to satiate their want of some excitement, some drama, or some “action” in the classroom.
“I’m sorry I have to do this to you,” Ms. Gosvig said in a tone that relayed the same message as Cindy’s expression; her face seemed to say, “You poor, poor bastard.”
Ms. Gosvig walked over and snatched the poster board, a colored sheet sitting right in front of me, festooned with candy bars and congratulatory words. It was so close that I could have torn a plastic wrapper apart with my teeth and treated my classmates to a round of candy bars. But nothing happened, and a premature end came to that episode— one of those taken-for-granted, but mildly sad things you accepted, like summer ending.
New events came and went in the classroom. I don’t remember ever resenting Ms. Gosvig for taking the prize away from me, and I didn’t hate my classmates for voting against me. I wasn’t mad at Ricardo for taking my place at the top. He got the poster with all the candy bars taped to it. I remember seeing the smile on his face: the smile of one who had just won a competition over picking beans out of a bowl… with chopsticks.