THE CHOPSTICK SET • by Simon Yates

The small, brown package that had arrived for my wife contained two bamboo cutlery sets which she was now inspecting at the dining table.

In each set was a pair of chopsticks, lacquered and contoured pleasantly to the hand. The other items were clumsy in comparison: a short, blunt wedge-like knife; a thick fork whose spikey tines formed a rough-hewn trident; and a thick, flat spoon whose bowl was a shallow indentation like a light thumbprint in clay.

“It’s all bamboo. It even has a bamboo straw,” my wife beams.

“Bamboo straws are not unusual these days,” I shrugged. “You can buy them at Daiso*.”

“This isn’t just one straw. This is a whole set for 300 yen.”

I hadn’t meant to imply straws were 100 yen each. In fact, 100 yen would get you a pack of ten bamboo straws. Daiso’s chopsticks were also made from bamboo pulp and, until recently, 100 yen could get you a pack of 50 loose chopsticks. Now, as inflation continued to bite, that number had dropped to 35 per pack – something I’d noted with chagrin while scrambling to gather inexpensive craft supplies for a Kids English science lesson a couple of weeks before.

I tried to recall whether Daiso also sold bamboo knives, forks and spoons. If you could get, say, a pack of 5 each of knives, forks and spoons at 100 yen a pack, that’s 300 yen, plus 100 yen each for 10 straws and 35 chopsticks. You could make five sets like the ones she’d ordered, for 100 yen less than she’d paid in total for two, and still have five straws and 30 chopsticks to spare.

Something shifted in my wife’s expression, and it snapped me back from my silent mental arithmetic. Her slightly furrowed brow and lowered gaze suggested my incomprehension had been taken as derision. She must have enjoyed a little spark of excitement in finding these chic items online at a great price and ordering them. She’d likely waited in anticipation, imagining being able to send her family off with an added touch of class to our already lovingly made bento lunch boxes. Every day, we would admire the beauty and practicality of the utensils and remember her gesture of affection.

I try to backpedal.

“It’s very nice, very stylish,” I offer. “The finish on the chopsticks looks nice…”

Both sentences end with a quizzical rising intonation, and my forced and awkward compliment is suitably waved away.

My son walks over now, eighteen years old and home for the summer for the final time before university.

“Isn’t it cute?” she asks.

“Oh. Very cute. Only 300 yen? Wow.”

I admire the easy warmth with which he provides the reaction she is hoping for. He is his mother’s son when he chooses, despite four estranged years of high school life in the UK, and his simple affirmation allows them to share a moment.

My wife pulls out two drawstring bags from the package. These are evidently a part of the sets that I had not been shown yet. The bags are unbleached linen, on each of which are three large yellow woodblock prints of grains of rice. These are genuinely attractive and would have gone some way to mitigating the already modest price tag even if the utensils had only been Daiso quality. I try to take the opportunity to express some admiration, but it is clear that my wife will assume sarcastic intent in anything she hears from me on the subject now.

She clucks dismissively and gathers away the items from the table.

[*a popular chain of hundred yen stores, like dollar stores]

Simon Yates is a writer, musician, teacher and translator originally from the UK and based in Kobe, Japan. Not be confused with the cricketer, mountain climber or tour cyclist of the same name.

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