I had a Chinese history professor who used to say Western culture is sin culture, while Chinese culture is starvation culture. As a student should—I’d nod sagely—pretend to understand the implications, and carry-on with my day. Even living in Taiwan was not quite enough to really understand how food underpins Chinese culture. I understood some things; but I never totally got it until I started living with a Taiwanese family.
Famine has hit parts of China near annually since written records began. The last widespread famine—the Great Famine in the aftermath of the Great Leap—happened around sixty years ago. Hunger is not an artifact of some distant place or time, but a painful shared memory. Even today, with the flooding, there are credible concerns of famine. Uncertainty over food assures it’s uppermost in people’s thoughts and a central social concern.
The obsession with food is immediately noticeable in Chinese language. Now it is pretty common for people to greet each other with 你好嗎 (how are you), but this is an import from European languages. A more orthodox Chinese greeting is 你吃飽了沒 (have you eaten). Asking about food, or your state of hunger, is the traditional way of greeting someone and starting a conversation. The whole hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-you conversation is a piece of modernity, conventionally in Chinese, upon meeting you’d express concern over the person’s stomach.
I believe ethnically Chinese people generally spend more time fantasizing and talking about food. It seems more central to daily thinking than in the West. The quantity of conversations where people wax lyrical about a previous meal, or verbalize anticipation of the next meal is amazing. A twenty-first century expression of starvation culture is the Asian habit of producing in-depth photo essays of meals. Will future-you really want to see past-you’s Three Cup Chicken? The first time I traveled to Taiwan I enquired at a banquet about table manners and was told almost anything goes. No niggling little rules should slow or inhibit the full-throated enjoyment of a meal. The Taiwanese are the desperately horny teenage boys of food and cuisine. These conversations happen among Westerners, but don’t hold the same rabid fascination.
One place these differences become obvious is when comparing Taiwanese and Western social gatherings. In the West, drinks only parties are pretty common. “Come on over for a few”. There is no such thing as a food-free party here. My wife and I host many get-togethers. Recently, for the first time, I hosted a soirée for some foreign friends and provided only light store-bought snacks. That simply isn’t done. My wife kept trying to cook. Usually we cook for a day or two before a party. I wouldn’t let her, knowing my friends would be happy with a couple forties. As I was laying out the “spread” she kept saying, “this is so weird, this is so weird, this is so weird,” and avoided the party. My friends, long-termers with some Taiwanese thinking, understood that type of party and it was successful, with much less muss, fuss, stress, and cooking.
With food being so central to Chinese culture it is not surprising that it’s an expression of love and affection. There is an endless circle of rotating food underpinning Taiwanese life. We buy groceries for ourselves, and then proportion some out to the in-laws. They in turn send us foodstuffs. Thus ensuring each household has food they never wanted and now have to use. That’s love. Does it give a familial feeling of warmth and nurturing? Sure. Is it annoying? Damn straight. Food needs to constantly be schlepped back and forth. The circle of food-giving, and the creation of that close-knit feeling, sometimes extends to close friends.
Food is a sign of affection. When dating if you go for dinner and your date gently places a choice morsel in your bowl with their chopsticks that’s a good sign. I’m not saying you’re getting lucky, but you’re in the right ZIP Code. It’s an expression of caring. If you’re invited to eat with a Taiwanese friend’s family often your friend will slip a bite of food into your bowl, not serving you, but sharing. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but they’re acknowledging you as some type of friend to their family. If you’re feeling like a cultural explorer, try putting a little food into your friend’s bowl and watch the family’s reaction. It’s interesting stuff.
College-aged me vaguely understood, but I didn’t see the multivariate ways China’s history of starvation influenced Chinese culture.