It’s Not All About The Food

When someone mentions Chinese culture, what are some things that comes into your mind? Maybe you will think about Chinese folk music, Chinese martial arts (Kungfu), or even Chinese religion of Daoism. Yet the odds of these coming into your mind first, even added together, is not as great as that of Chinese food. Well, that is not surprising, as Chinese food is the most common and most frequent aspect of Chinese culture that common citizens would come into contact with. After all, can anyone say that they let a day gone by without passing a few Chinese restaurants if they went outside that day? Naturally, when people think about Chinese food culture, they would think about different delicious dishes like dim sums, fried rice, dumplings, Peking duck, and even the not so authentic dish of General Tso’s Chicken. However, the problem in the world’s recognition of the Chinese’s culture in eating is exactly in over focusing attention to the food. There is no denying that there are many stories behinds these dishes, but there are even more interesting facts in the act of dining itself. The importance of the act of dining, the role that dining plays in Chinese people’s lives, and the rules in the act of dining are all reflective of many difference characteristics in some common values held by the Chinese people.
Chinese Love To Spend On Food

It’s important for us to first establish a understanding of the importance that dining has in Chinese culture. The most obvious indication of the value that Chinese people place on dining is probably the amount of money that they are willing to spend on it. Despite the fact that China became the second highest country in terms of GDP, its huge population pulls that number down. In the year 2011 the average income per person in China was only 7994.7RMB, but they spent an average of 1158RMB for dining. Such support from the people allowed the restaurant business in China to gain an income of over 2 trillion RMB. Just imagine how important dining is to the Chinese for them to be spending almost 14.5% of their income on it. In comparison, an average American made around $39791 in 2010, but spent only $2505 on dining out, 6.3% of their income, less than half of the Chinese proportion of income spent on dining out. Of course, we can’t simply look at the proportions spent, but it does provide a good idea of the Chinese’s fondness of dining. The more convincing facts can be found by talking to restaurant workers here in the United States. According to Carol, a manager at Good Kitchen Seafood Restaurant in Flushing, some old Chinese customers can spend over $20,000 in the restaurant per year. It appears the Chinese habit of dining out amplified after getting to the United States. Asides from the amount of money spent on it, dining also presents its importance in the life of Chinese people in some easily missed places.


Friends and family dining together

Dining in Chinese Language

From how I see it, the importance of a thing in people’s lives can be determined from its degree of prevalence in their lives. The Chinese people has made dining ever so prevalent in their lives by increasing its presence in language, something that almost everyone uses every day. The Chinese character “吃[chī]” means to eat, but combined with other words it could convey very different meanings. When they express that they are popular people, the Chinese say “吃香[chī xiāng]”, with a literal translation of “eating fragrance”. When they are forced to admit defeat, the Chinese people say “吃瘪[chī biě]”, with a literal translation of “eating flat”. When they are in a critical condition, they Chinese people describe it as “吃紧[chī jǐn]”, with a literal translation of “eating tight”. Eating is a fundamental aspect of Chinese culture. Looking at these slangs that the Chinese use commonly every day, one can see the Chinese’s trend to consider what they eat as a reflection of their situation. These words reflect the deep root of the culture of eating in China, and how it already spread to all aspects of the Chinese life. The culture is no longer solely about food, but encompasses Chinese’s lives as a whole.

The Dining Situation
Like we mentioned before, Chinese people are willing to spend a significant amount of money on dining. However, the Chinese people are not willing to do so simply because they enjoy good food and drink. Some Chinese people would rather that the host of a meal just give them the money to the meal than actually inviting them to eat. Dining in Chinese is called “饭局[fàn jú]”, with a literal translation of “rice situation” (the character “局” can mean multiple things, here it means “situation”). The “饭” part of this combination of characters simply means the meal, but the focus of “饭局” is actually on the “局”. Often while dining, the Chinese’s people primary goal is not to fill their stomach, but to resolve the “situation”. Eating is not the goal, but rather a means to achieve the goal outside the dining table. When one wish to achieve his means but require help from a person with distant relationships, there is a common procedure for the Chinese to follow. First, the person needing assistance would find a person who knows both sides as a bridge, and ask both the bridge person and the help provider to dine out. Once in the restaurant, the help needing one and the help providing one would be introduced by the middleman and quickly become acquaintances due to the warm, friendly atmosphere over the dining table. This atmosphere over the table can carry the deal to success, but if the exchange fails then another function kick in. After a few cups of alcohol, the two person could smoothly let the awkward atmosphere over the failure of the deal pass away. No one would feel their self esteem is hurt, and the relationship is preserved. The Chinese people see great importance in their relationship with others. Such trend fostered their habit to do all sorts of interaction, most notably business deals and requests for favors, in a peaceful environment. That way, even if the interaction did not achieve the predetermined goal, the relationship between the parties can remain unharmed. On the other hand, “饭局” can also be held for purposes other than a cushion for relationship downfalls, such as the establishment of a social circle. In situations like this, there are no conspicuous interchange of interests, but with this circle established, it’ll be easier in the future shall assistance from others are needed. What’s more important in the ability of “饭局” to establish social circles is the fulfillment of the Chinese’s need of group support. As a country deeply affected by Communism, China has always taught its citizens the power of the group. As a result, the Chinese people don’t feel safe when they are alone, they have a need to be part of something bigger than themselves. Dining out provided such means, it brings the Chinese people together and has the ability to provide a feeling of security in numbers that the Chinese needed. In turn, if a Chinese person doesn’t dining with others once in a while, he would feel the insecurity of being abandoned by the society. Another manager from Good Kitchen Seafood Restaurant, who prefers to be anonymous, told us that Chinese customers to eat for all varieties of reason. They can come for normal reasons such as birthday, wedding, schoolmate reunion, and holiday celebration; they also come for exotic reasons such as baby aging a month, and sometimes no reason at all. No wonder returning customers can spend so much money there, and you really can see how Chinese rely on dining to consolidate their social network. The Chinese people likes to eat, but what’s more important is what they gain when they eat.


Another picture of friends and family dining together

Why Dining?
To this point you should have realized the social gathering nature of dining in Chinese culture. The question is why are the Chinese people so fond of this particular method of social gathering? After all, methods such as going to the movies, listening to music carnivals, or playing at a amusement park all seem to be more interesting than eating dinner together. It might be true that other methods of social gathering could be effective as well, but dining has its own unique advantages as a method of social gathering unmatched by others. You might say that you prefer going to the movies, while others might say they want to go play a game of tennis or enjoy a play of opera. The people’s hobbies are so differentiated that not one particular activity can satisfy everybody, but dining is different. Everyone needs to eat, it is a rigid requirement shared by everybody, so it’s easy to use dining to gather people together. On the other hand, dining is also advantageous in that it’s a method that could be used repetitively. Take the example of tennis, you may play enthusiastically for one day, but what about the second, the third, the fourth day; you will be so tired and bored of it if you keep on doing the same activity. However, as a circular demand, dining has no such problem. You eat the first day, and you can and still need to eat the second day, the third day, and every single day moving on in your life. Seeing the advantage that dining has, it’s no wonder that it became the social interaction method of choice.

Noticeable Differences In Culture At The Table
Asides from the action of dining itself, the utensil that Chinese people use to commit the action holds a certain amount of culture in itself. When speaking about utensils used at a Chinese dinner table, chopsticks are almost definitely the first thing that pops into one’s mind. Originating and still flourishing in China, chopsticks shows a major difference in history between eastern and western nations. In history, pastoralism has been the predominant way of life in the west, making meat the main dish subbed by grain products. Knifes became the utensil of choice for the reason of convenience in dealing with meat and mobility required in a nomadic life brought about by pastoralism. The fork was added later to improve elegance during dining, avoiding use of hand or sticking the knife into one’s mouth. On the other hand, China has been a predominantly agricultural nation, with the main food being rice and wheat product subbed with vegetables and small amount of animal products. Chopsticks was born of a need to avoid touch hot food, and flourished in Eastern Asia due to its fit with the type of food in the area. Although many Asian countries has adopted the chopstick from China, each modified it to fit their own needs. Japan’s chopsticks are often pointy due to their occasional need to stick, like a harpoon raw fish fillets, and Korean chopsticks are often made of metal due to their fond of barbeque that would make a mess of wooden chopstick. It is rather amazing how much a simple dining utensil can tell us about a culture.
Asides from the utensils themselves, the way that a common utensil is used can also tell stories about distinctions between cultures. Notice how in a western restaurant, each person gets his own plate of food, while in a Chinese restaurant, everyone picks food from the dishes on a rotating table. If you asked Mr. Dong from Bayside why do the Chinese people do so, he would reply with two answers. First, doing so allow each person to get to taste a variety of food, unlike when each person gets his own plate of food, what you get on the plate is all you have. Another reason he gave me is the eating this way makes the atmosphere more lively, allowing the people to get familiar very quickly. Like we discussed before, the Chinese devote great effort in constructing relationship with others and value the power of the group more than the more individualistic and independent western world. It’s no wonder that the Chinese people are more comfortable with everyone getting food from the same plates. However, that is not to say that the Chinese in New York are completely unaffected by western culture in this matter. According to Mr. Dong, in some occasions when he goes to dine with friends in Chinese restaurants he would find waiters dividing up the food into individual plates before bringing them to the table. No matter if that due to a development of health awareness, like Mr. Dong suggested to me, or simply adopting the habits of the land, the Chinese way of dining has been affected by western culture.
Rules At The Table
Like most cultures, the Chinese have their own rules regarding what to do on the dinner table, how things are done and what shouldn’t be done. From the big picture there are guide lines for sitting at the dining table. The host of the event, who should have arrived first, would be sitting closest to the door so he can show guests to their seats and introduce them to one another. Where the guest sits depends on his or her statues in the group of invited guests. Again, according to Mr. Dong, the most important guest would be sitting at the seat across, and most distant, from the entrance. The Chinese have a tendency to give the highest ranking individual the most control over the situation. By sitting at that position of the round table, that guest can see everything that is happening in the room, giving him control. In China there is a four character word “以左为尊[yǐ zuǒ wéi zūn]”, translating to “taking left as premier”. The Chinese hold a common belief that the higher power should be on the left, such idea is also reflective in other words like “男左女右[nán zuǒ nǚ yòu]”, meaning “men left women right”, that reflects the idea of male superiority. Such rule also works on the dinner table as the second most important guest is sat to the left of the first, the third important to the right of the first, and continuous left, right, left, right until everyone is sat. Can’t say that’s the easiest thing to remember, but it is rather interesting.
On the other hand, rules at the table also apply to small things, like what you shouldn’t do with you utensils. Asides from basic table manners such as not searching through the dishes with chopsticks and apologizing to the ones next to you if you dropped your chopsticks, the Chinese have some somewhat strange rules to follow about chopsticks. During an interview with Mrs. Chen from Bayside, she revealed two things that you shouldn’t do with chopsticks. One being that the chopsticks must be parallel and equal in position while placed down. By placing one chopstick further ahead of another, one is referring to the Chinese four character word “三长两短[sān chánɡ liǎnɡ duǎn]”, literally translating to “three long two short”. It means death, as the word symbolize a coffin with its lid taken off, with three long boards and two short boards at both ends, ready to hold a dead body. Whoever the chopsticks are pointing to in this fashion is cursed to die, which, needless to say, is a great offense. The other more commonly known rule is not to stab the chopsticks into a bowl of rice and hand it to someone. This is called “当面上香[dàngmiànshàngxiāng]”, translating to “giving the incense to your face”. As some of you might know, the Chinese believe that incense is what spirits eat. Therefore giving a person a bowl of rice with chopsticks stuck into it is also cursing the person to die. Next time you go to a foreign restaurant to eat dinner, it’s best to learn about some “not to do’s” beforehand. After all, you don’t know who you might offend unintentionally.


Example of bad dining eqtiuette – making the chopsticks stand upright in a bowl of rice


Another example of bad dining eqtiuette – setting the chopsticks down at unequal lengths

Isn’t it interesting to find strange facts in so much everyday things that you usually take for granted? Everything we talked about still holds true today, perhaps you will start noticing some of these facts the next time you walk into a Chinese restaurant. In term of the rules at the table, some Chinese people here in New York are not overly concerned with them anymore, but it’s always nice to show respect in minor details. Well, see you again.

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