One of the first phrases I learned in Chinese was “Ni chi guo le ma?”
This question “Have you eaten?” is more a greeting than an inquiry into your food intake. Something like “how are you?” is in English. The cashier may be friendly but hardly interested in the details of your physical condition.
There are many explanations of this Chinese question. One I’ve heard is that when food was scarce friends truly wanted to know if you needed something to eat.
Whatever the reason, the words fit well in a culture where most social gatherings are centered on a meal. When I used to mail pictures home (yes, in envelopes with stamps) they were rarely of anything besides a meal. This is easily explained by the fact that the negatives had to be brought to class the next day so students could choose what copies needed to be made. The whole roll had to be taken that night. Thirty-six pictures of the meal, the restaurant, and various groupings of students. Understandably my father wondered if I really had a job in China or if I just ate out every night.
Over the years the countless meals in banquet halls, dorm rooms, tiny apartments, and parks have become a blur but some do stand out. A favorite form of questioning with my students has always been “what’s your favorite city in China?” Or food? Or restaurant, class, or student in China?” Of course this kind of question is nearly impossible to answer but it’s always fun to make an attempt. If asked for my most memorable meal I would be equally stymied but I would like to try by sharing the top four!
For several years I was assigned a young first-year English teacher to be my aide. We soon became quite close and she often came over to my place to chat, plan lessons, and, quite naturally, cook and eat. Over many meals and cups of tea I learned of her growing up in a small village in northern China. When she invited me to her home in the countryside I jumped at the chance.
I pleaded with her to make it clear to her family that I liked simple Chinese dishes and didn’t need expensive meat. Miraculously they agreed and I was part of one of the biggest dumpling-making parties I’ve ever seen. The whole neighborhood turned out to see their first foreigner outside of a TV screen. They were amazed at my ability to stuff vegetable filling into dumpling wrappers. Her dad kept her busy translating as he had countless questions about my father, his garden, and his allowing me to come across the world by myself. “That is probably what my daughter would be doing if she were you.” Watching our three-way (my colleague, her dad, and me) chat was as big a draw at the party as the food. I have often wondered about the conversations the neighbors had as they headed home.
My classes for teachers enjoyed an activity we called “dinners of four.” Three teachers each week would choose a restaurant and have dinner with me. The meal almost always began with the predictable English descriptions of the dishes and some quizzing of my Chinese food vocabulary. The conversations that followed were anything but expected. Grown men teared up remembering their babies sent to countryside grandmas while he and his wife pursued career choices. Emergency room doctors angrily spoke of children injured by drunk drivers. Groups critiqued the food and swapped stories of meager childhood meals. Not-so-routine questions were pondered. How did you learn right from wrong? Is God in dreams? Do you play a sport? What do you do on Sundays? All this from people who had hardly spoken in class!
One semester a group of male graduate students asked for an “American meal,” i.e. a hamburger. My teammate had been a short-order cook and gladly flipped burgers for several nights as small groups sat around the table. They requested a “foreign” experience and so it was! Salt and pepper shakers and ketchup on the table—no vinegar or soy sauce. Silverware and no chopsticks. Individual plates of food and no sharing. One night there was a big bottle of coke on the table because, well, that’s what McDonalds has with their hamburgers. I can’t remember if they went so far as to add ice.
Each night a different group assembled their burgers, following the host as he spread mustard and ketchup on the bun, cut it in half, and even picked it up with his hands. They were reminded that there was no one way to eat a hamburger but most groups just followed along.
The last night’s group seemed to find the entire experience awkward. Knives were slipping as they cut the buns, ketchup was squirting all over, and valiant attempts to hold the burger were failing. We soon realized they had taken “following-the-host” to a new level. My teammate was left-handed.
I have had the challenge of being in China during several tumultuous political events. Conducting my foreign self in a respectful and safe manner is no small feat. During one such time my city team and I waited and wondered when we would be sent home. It was nearing the end of the school year and I had already received several invitations for farewell meals. The day finally came when we were given a leaving date and invited to an awkward but official farewell banquet—arranged all in one day with no phones or internet. And for the same night as a very good friend’s invitation.
As I knocked on the door of her humble home I could smell what was happening in her kitchen! She opened the door and she knew. “You have to leave China, right?” I nodded and she pulled me in. Every inch of her kitchen was covered with preparations. We both stood there not speaking. I told her I had been invited to a school banquet in an hour. She shook her head and picked up a pan and threw it across the room. Was she angry with me, her government, our helplessness, the change in plans? I’ll never know. We both knew I couldn’t miss the official meal but I had no doubt which one I wanted to eat. “Let’s eat” I said and we sat down to a feast I remember to this day.
A meal is always so much more than the food.
Image credit: J via Flickr.
Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom. All have been both her students and teachers. View Full Bio