Bundle of Sticks

Earlier this month my girlfriend and I decided to have a mini barbecue on my balcony. I had gotten her a small grill for Christmas, but we hadn’t used it yet because it had been a bit too chilly. When the day finally came, I was the one with the free time that afternoon to buy the food, so I found myself in the supermarket shopping for grillable victuals.

I was pleased to find that the supermarket had plenty of ready-to-grill items. There were various marinated meats, and some already on a stick or in full-on kabob form with onions and peppers and everything (yes, I’m lazy when it comes to preparing food).

Realizing that not all the food came pre-kabobbled, I started looking around for little skewers. There were none to be found anywhere. Then I noticed that the girls behind the meat counter had little wooden skewers. I asked them where I could buy them. They appeared kind of flustered, looked all around, then replied, “you can’t buy them.”

“You don’t sell those?” I asked, wanting to make sure.

“Here,” one of the girls said, reaching into a bag of the little wooden sticks behind the counter, “just take these.”

“You just want to give them to me?” I asked. “Shouldn’t I pay for them?”

“Nah, just take ’em,” she said, starting to look around for a rubber band for the skewers.

“OK…” I replied, not sure what else to do. The girls were scrambling for a rubber band or something to hold the little bundle together. Then the second girl had an epiphany. In one swoop, she took an elastic ponytail holder out of her hair and slipped it onto the bundle of sticks. Smiling, she proffered the newly bound bundle of sticks to me.

I took it, smiling back and thanking them.

When I got home I discovered that I had already bought a bag of skewers back when I first bought the grill.

The bundle of sticks held together with a ponytail holder remained in my pocket for a few days. I would forget about it until I put my jacket on and shoved my hands in its pockets. I wasn’t about to use them, but somehow just throwing them away didn’t seem right.

It’s little incidents like this that stick in my memory.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I got the glue. It’s arts and crafts time! I think we should fashion them into a replica frontier log cabin.

  2. John,

    Email me your current address, and I will send a couple of packages of the skewers to you. And the ironic part is that all the skewers here (Arizona) are made in China. Go figure that out.

  3. ‘Tis the perfect prop to tell your children, if any, the old Chinese story of “bundle of chopsticks will not break.”

  4. You’re making me REALLY hungry for chuar (´®)!

  5. That’s funny John.

    Just goes to show how accomodating and willing people are to help here when you know how to ask for it.

    If you’re not going to use them to skew the meat, you could always use them to fuel the fire 😉

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: May 19, 2005 at 11:51 am

    Interesting, but I wonder if you had been Chinese, would they have gone out of their way to help you, esp. giving you the hair band? I seriously doubt it. That’s the flip side of being laowai: preferential treatment.

  7. I got a handful of disposable chopsticks once, in much the same way.

    Da Xiangchang: interesting question. I suppose John’s ethnicity might have had something to do with it, especially the hair band, but on the other hand I think that lots of Chinese help fellow Chinese too. It’s strange though, I think the way Chinese seem to think about these kinds of small favours is different to Australians. I think when Australians do a favour for a stranger they are consciously aware that they are being kind, but I get the impression that Chinese just do it because it has to be done: “He needs skewers, I have skewers, I will give him some skewers”.

  8. Da Xiangchang Says: May 19, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Maybe I’m a cynic, but “kind” is the LAST word I think of when thinking about the Chinese. Sneaky, conformist, studious, or even smart–but KIND?!! I mean, they’re often kind to foreigners, but are they kind to themselves? Cuz that’s the only meter in order to measure kindness.

    However, I think I overstated my initial case. There could be any number of reasons why the girl gave her hair band to John (forget the skewers; the key is the hair band, dammit). Ethnicity and foreignness could be part of it, or it could be the girl might find John cute. If a hot Chinese guy–and I ain’t saying John is hot!–asked for skewers, the girl would probably give him her hair band too along with an invitation to meet her at People’s Square Sunday afternoon. BUT if you removed the foreignness, the ethnicity, and the reasonably decent looks–I’m retching as I write this–I seriously doubt the girl would’ve given John her hair band. Cuz, once again, the Chinese generall are NOT kind.

  9. This is a good little story. I like the whole hair band around the sticks thing, but what did these girls look like? That’s important because the Miss Universe pageant is coming up and because right now, I’m pretty bored and usually a good way to keep me interested in blogs are pics of girls. Just a thought. Spring seems to do that to me here. That’s all. Thank you.

  10. Da Xiangchang,

    Yes, I do think that they were especially nice to me because I’m a foreigner. (Or maybe because I was a foreigner that speaks Chinese?)

  11. BUT if you removed the foreignness, the ethnicity, and the reasonably decent looks¡ªI¡¯m retching as I write this¡ªI seriously doubt the girl would¡¯ve given John her hair band. Cuz, once again, the Chinese generall are NOT kind.

    Da Xiangchang,

    How about old age and the appearence of helplessness.

    I don’t know where you come from in this one. A central believe/philosophy among Chinese, religious or nonreligious, is »ýµÂÐÐÉÆ (ji1-de2-xing2-shan4) and this translates to ÓëÈËΪÉÆ (yu3-ren2-wei2-shan4) in interpersonal (and international) relations. The former belief actually is the most strongly upheld among Chinese compared to any other ethnicity, IMHO. The latter behavioral standard actually is PARTLY to blame for some the well known diplomatic failures in Chinese history because kindness on the part of some recent Chinese governments were taken as sign of weakness, or of naivety, by some aggressive western countries.

  12. Of course, you’d counter that was “kindness to foreignness.”

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: May 20, 2005 at 8:49 am


    Well, in theory the Chinese are supposed to be kind just like in theory North Korea should be democratic (cuz it’s called Democratic People’s Republic), and in theory Islam is a religion of peace. But in ACTUALITY, it’s a very different story. And I base my opinion on observing behavior, not musing on philosophy beliefs. And I don’t believe the Chinese generally are kind to each other. I’ve seen commonplace behavior in China that I almost never see in America. For example, young people rarely get up from their seats when an old person gets on the bus; in America, this would almost NEVER happen. Another example: Chinese jump lines all the time, with complete disregard for people who’d been waiting. And if there is one Chinese tradition that I DO see in everyday China, it’s this: obsequiousness toward people you consider above you (say, pink foreigners) and contempt for people below you (consider the contempt so many Chinese have for blacks, even an accomplished one like Condi Rice). This is generally what’s considered “kindness” in China. Of course, I’m overstating my case again cuz most Chinese are not thugs but just normal people–but normal people do NOT give hair bands to people they don’t know.

    Another thing: you’re the first person to put forth that China’s past “diplomatic failures” were due to kindness (!). Arrogance and shortsightedness, yes–but kindness?!! Can you give me a couple of examples?

  14. Great story.

  15. i was going to make the same suggestion as gordon — to use them as kindling. another consideration would be to just WASH them (gasp! unheard of!) so you can use them.

    i think that an important consideration in defining kindness is awareness. if it just doesn’t occur to you, or you are oblivious, while you may fail to exercise a kindness, that does not make you UNkind. true, awareness is also part of duty, etc. and i do agree w/ todd in his observation that “it needs to be done, so i’ll do it,” but that shows an awareness of the situation. prejudice, or social behaviors (obsequiousness and bigotry) are ugly, but they do not preclude kindness. in a country that leans so heavily on duty and tradition, you cannot outright fault someone for (hopefully blindly, in this case) behaving as they were taught. that would be prejudiced, would it not?
    dx, what DO you admire about the chinese people? i usually only get to read your objections.

  16. You should return the hair tie to the young lady who selflessly gave it to you.

  17. Da Xiangchang Says: May 21, 2005 at 4:57 am


    Good points. I’m not saying the Chinese are less kind than most other nationalities. I just find it naive when people go, “Oh, they’re so kind!” when talking about the Chinese–or whatever other nationality. It’s a bit condescending too, like, Look at the kind little Orientals! Maybe I’m reading too much into things. Haha.

    I’ll be honest, outside some of their looks (cuz Chinese broads are really hot), the one thing I truly admire is the Chinese study habits. I love how the Chinese value education. This is part of Chinese tradition; after all, they invented the concept of examinations for entry into the government, schools, etc. The Chinese come from a very literate, intellectual society, and with this background, I’m sure the Chinese would one day be in the foreground of great nations. I mean, a lot of other nationalities don’t see education as something important, are indeed ANTI-intellectual, and as a consequence, they’re totally lagging and will continue to lag for a LONG time (Mexico, sub-Saharan Africa, etc.). Another thing I admire is the Chinese work ethic–they generally work pretty damn hard. So those are 2 things. But I don’t admire, say, their creativity, their kindness, or their independence because frankly, I don’t think they possess these qualities more than other nationalities. And I’m Chinese myself. Besides, why ask me my opinion of the Chinese? Who gives a crap about my opinion? I’m just a pee-on–like everyone else here. Haha.

  18. Da Xiangchang Says: May 21, 2005 at 5:03 am

    I meant, “the FOREFRONT of great nations” and not “foreground.” The Chinese are not in a play.

  19. Richard Says: May 21, 2005 at 8:22 am

    Hmm. I wouldn’t paint with such a broad brush and say that sub-Saharan Africa is anti-intellectual the way that I would say that a broad swath of the American backcountry is anti-intellectual (I really don’t know enough about Africa to say anything, but I haven’t ever sensed anti-intellectualism from Africans–plus, with the mass chaos and shitty poltical/economic systems they’re afflicted with, they could be very intellectual as a people and still not get anywhere).

    As per the Chinese, yes, those are very old concepts, and sometimes, Chinese people (especially the older generation) like to help out strangers, but Communist totalitarianism (and now materialism) has eroded that tradition in mainland China.

  20. dx,
    thanks for your reply. i guess a lot of it is relative, just as “hotness” is largely relative (i say “largely” rather than completely b/c there are obviously some fairly universal ‘norms’ in regards to beauty).

    living in the western hemisphere, where the eastern hemisphere is often nearly forgotten, i tend to hear more generalizations about the american continents and europe. “the french are snobs,” “italians are great lovers,” “the irish love americans” (how’s that one for biased!), “southerners (u.s.) are ignorant” or “northerners are uptight,” etc. the funny thing is, other than california, it seems like the east coast pretty much forgets about the west coast of the u.s. — particularly the pacific northwest.
    i’ve meandered pretty far off topic by now, but it’s interesting that i hear more generalizations about other countries than about a specific third of my own nation. anyhow…
    relevence of coffee to human interaction: discuss.

  21. If China is such an intellectual, education-valuing civilisation then why were most of the population illiterate before the communists came to power? There are some villages in the area where I am that don’t particularly value education (although admittedly I would think they are a minority).

    Is there a difference between valuing education in itself, and valuing it as a way to get ahead in life? I think that’s how a lot of people see education: “If I can get into university, I can get a good job”.

  22. Da Xiangchang Says: May 24, 2005 at 3:32 pm


    Almost NOBODY values “education in itself.” But I don’t see why that’s a problem because the important thing is you’re learning. Who gives a crap about the motivation behind it?

    Your skepticism about Chinese valuing education is founded on a very faulty argument. I mean, your argument can be made about any country in the world: just pick a time when the country was crappy, apply your formula, and voila, you have your proof. Like, “Italy isn’t an intellectual civilization because half its population couldn’t read in [checking the stats] 1911!

    No, China is an intellectual, education-valuing culture because of 2 reasons:

    1) It has a long tradition of intellectual pursuits (architecture, art, painting, literature, philosophy, etc.).
    2) Its people, if given the opportunity, almost ALWAYS succeed academically. For example, Chinese Americans, with very few exceptions, go to college; it’s like ingrained into their heads that they cannot NOT go to college. And it cuts across class lines–poor Chinese FOBS, rich Chinese kids, etc. Here’s an interesting (if dated) article on this phenomenon.

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