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This installment of our Life in China series kicks off a discussion about food culture. Before we get started, bear in mind that we’re looking at things through our American lenses, and we know that naturally we carry our own cultural biases with us as we live and work in China. China remains a foreign country to us, even as it becomes home for the foreseeable future, and we find it interesting to observe how it is different from our permanent home on the other side of the globe. Here is one of the many cultural observations we’ve made since arriving some eight months ago. To be clear, we don’t mean to belittle Chinese food culture, so if at first it comes off that way, just read further for the bigger picture.
The Culture of Food
In common with people around the globe, Chinese people are huge lovers of food. Just like Italians love Italian food, Chinese folks love Chinese food. My students here practically drool when they discuss anything related to Chinese cuisine.
Since Chinese food is a big deal to lots of folks, last week we wrote about our five favorite dishes we’ve come across here in Shenzhen. While I was writing that post, a phrase I heard shortly after arriving in Shenzhen came to mind. “Chinese people will eat anything,” my colleague informed me. I laughed then, not realizing quite how true it was. In fact, his statement is horrifyingly true.
What do they eat?
Now if you’re a Chinese person you’ll see I’m not being critical of your culture in a moment, even if it sounds that way at first. Here’s the thing, though: it’s heart-rending to see vendors selling live turtles hung up by their shells upside down, or live crabs tied up in bundles and unable to move in the supermarket. When we periodically see live chickens being sold on the street, too, their necks snapped on the spot for the paying customer, that’s jarring, as is seeing freshly slaughtered animals (often with fur still attached) hanging next to the sidewalk. We’re not used to seeing this in our home country. What’s more, the parts and pieces which are consumed are astonishingly different from the States. The first time I saw someone gnawing the meager flesh off a chicken foot and spitting out the toenails, I just about puked. And yes, thanks very much, I have a strong stomach. Now is eating a chicken foot really more disgusting than eating a chicken wing? Probably not, but I’m not accustomed to witnessing it.
Now, aside from turtles, what is it that Chinese people eat that a typical American doesn’t? Well, read on. We took a stroll through the storied Dong Men area last weekend. That place is noted for its market. We strolled a number of alleys and side roads which serve as a fresh fish market, where there are tanks full of gigantic crabs and shellfish, eels, regular fish, toads, and the like. Nearby, there is a food street snaking beneath a multistory high-rise, and it is a dark and somewhat dingy, but colorfully illuminated and very crowded warren of stalls, where many of these sea creatures meet their end. You name the sea creature, it was on the grill. Our little boy piped up, “There’s a sea horse!” and sure enough, there were skewered sea horses sold at a booth which also hawked deep fried insects, spiders, and snakes.
Hardly anything is ever baked. Many things are steamed
Almost a buffet
Perhaps because of this, Guangdong (the province Shenzhen is located in, and which was formerly known to us English speakers by the Anglo-ized “Canton”) has a reputation among Chinese people for being a region where people will eat anything, and which brings to mind the comment my coworker made early on.
Here’s where we get to the point. Jenia and I both agree that people here in China don’t try to hide the truth of what they eat like Americans often do. So the cultural observation is twofold: first, Americans like us tend to be pretty soft-hearted toward animals, even those destined for the slaughter. Second, Chinese people tend to be extremely calloused in their attitude toward animals. So there you have it. See, it’s not a criticism of Chinese culture, but an observation about it and my own culture, too.
But what about non-odd food?
There’s plenty of that, of course. There are lots of vegetables, rice, all kinds of noodles. There are steamed buns, both filled and not. I think the Chinese make the best green beans I’ve ever had in my life. Curiously, what we often consider a Chinese staple – the spring rolls – don’t seem to be all that common in this part of the country.
Baking is not very common and not every appliance store sells ovens. Things are usually steamed, pan-fried, or deep-fried. Fresh vegetables don’t often make an appearance but there is a wonderful fresh cucumber salad many restaurants offer.
The culture of eating out
The Chinese seem to eat out A LOT (which isn’t much of a surprise, considering the size of their kitchens). Our normally quiet neighborhood becomes abuzz with activity after dusk when all the restaurants are full, customers sitting both inside and outside. Meals are a group affair. Many places have big round tables with a huge “lazy Susan” in the middle. A lot of food is ordered and shared; sometimes it continues to cook on the table.
The table is often set with tableware sealed in plastic, a teapot with boiling tea is brought to the table and one proceeds to rinse his or her cup, spoon, bowl, and chopsticks with the tea. Napkins are not a given and can often be charged for. If you ask for water, you will most likely get some very warm water in a cup or a carafe. The only times we encountered serving spoons, they came with rice (steamed or fried). You may, however, receive a pair of plastic gloves with your order: eating with your hands is a no-no (you should see people freak out when they see our kids holding buns in their hands) so the locals wear plastic gloves when eating meat off the bone or pizza. We just wash our hands.
Interestingly enough, our daughter (2.5) is never presented with her own cup here. We think it may have to do with the fact that the local children are often not eating by themselves at that age. We see many children as old as 3 drinking from baby bottles (with nipples) and sippy cups and being fed by their parents and grandparents. Some people seem genuinely fascinated by the fact that our kids are very independent at the table.
Many restaurants bring the bill to the table immediately after you order and check things off the list as they bring out the food. At first, our knee jerk reaction was to try and pay as soon as the bill is there but that is not necessary. It’s worth mentioning that whoever initiated the dinner out typically covers the bill. In our experience, whenever we’ve eaten out with Chinese families, they always insisted on paying and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
We really like how Chinese people make everyday dinners into gatherings. They don’t seem to need a special occasion to gather around a big table and enjoy a meal with family and friends and that’s something we would like to emulate. It probably helps that eating out here can be very inexpensive.
If you’ve been to China, have your observations been similar? Please let us know in the comments.
Head over to Life in China series to read about our other experiences of being expats in China.
For further reading on the subject of food and eating out in China, check out this extensive article from Lonely Planet.
Our next installment of Life in China will also discuss an interesting aspect of Chinese culture as we’ve encountered it. Stay tuned!