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Column: What's really cooking?

"Ni chifanle ma?"(That's Mandarin for "Have you eaten yet?") If you happen to be in China when someone asks you that question, don't answer it as you would if you were in Duluth. It is just a common greeting in the same vein as "How are you?" No ...

Arlene Anderson
Arlene Anderson

"Ni chifanle ma?"(That's Mandarin for "Have you eaten yet?")

If you happen to be in China when someone asks you that question, don't answer it as you would if you were in Duluth. It is just a common greeting in the same vein as "How are you?" No one really wants to know how you are or if you have eaten; they just want to get the conversation started.

"Talk doesn't cook rice," a popular Chinese proverb points out. A culture's history and mindset are often manifested in its culinary habits. You can learn a lot by experiencing a culture's mealtime routines. Take it from me, dining in Minnesota and mealtime in China are very different affairs.

When out for dinner with friends in Duluth, each of us orders a meal of our choosing without much regard to what others order. When the meals arrive, they are served to each individual as ordered. It is a clear example of individualism -- an American comfort zone.

Not so in China. You order your food in collaboration with everyone else. You need to check to see if others like what you are ordering and agree together on complementary items. When the food arrives, it is placed in the center of the table and everyone shares each dish. The Chinese thrive in a context of collectivism.

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As the meal commences, you may be assisted with choosing the best morsels and getting them to your plate. When I first experienced this, I thought perhaps this was because I somehow looked very pitiful or helpless with my chopsticks. After all, I am new around here. (But was I really that bad?) After asking around, I've come to realize that this helping behavior is a form of hospitality. People are showing they care about you when they

assist.

After several weeks of such shared meals, a key insight dawned upon me: While in China, I need to selectively choose my friends by what they like to eat. This important situation calls for a proactive approach.

(You may think I'm kidding, but consider this recent event: Passing by a display counter of duck tongues, pig stomachs, and other delicacies, my Chinese companion exclaimed excitedly, "Oh, I just can't resist these!" I assured her I had the self control to pass them up.) When the menu includes items like "drunken pig knuckles" and "1,000-year-old eggs" you need to have confidence in the sensitivity and kindness of your table mates.

Across the globe, of course, sharing nourishment and conversation strengthens relationships and a sense of community among those gathered at the table. Some of my happiest childhood memories center around doing the dishes together, telling stories and laughing during the final stage of our family's evening meal.

Maybe what Oscar Wilde said is true: "After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one's relatives." Cheers to the upcoming holidays. May you cook up a generous helping of love and connection around your table, wherever it may be.

Arlene J. Anderson is a native Duluthian turned explorer and teacher in Zhuhai, China.

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