Food & Life: cross-cultural eating and living
Sleep, sex, and our desire for food are controlled by the same part of the brain: When you lack one, you are wired to compensate with others.
"Food." My mind is immediately enlightened. Many ideas burst out with excitement.
Years ago, upon a return trip to Chengdu, I could not find certain foods I had tasted the year prior. "Oh, it's because duck tongue is no longer popular. This year, we are into eating goose intestine," people explained.
Chinese cuisines in China keep up with changing times, culture, and modernity. But outside of China, Chinese restaurants remain unchanged for generations. Partly, it's because the Chinese overseas are nostalgic, and they prefer old ways of cooking to bring back memories.
But there's a more practical reason: Chinese cuisine was exported as early as the late 19th century. At that time, opening restaurants was a way for these immigrants—many of whom came from Guangdong and Fujian provinces with no skills or education—to simply make a living. None were trained as professional chefs. That's why you'll never find "chop suey" (a term derived from the Cantonese for "mixed vegetables") anywhere in China. But thanks to this exotic-looking invention, many hardworking Chinese were able to survive and proliferate despite a lack of updated menus.
How excited I was upon my first arrival in America, seeing so many different types of cuisines from different countries! With such a diversity of cultures co-existing, I thought it must be a very interesting place to be, offering tremendous freedom to choose!
Yet I made the conscious decision to continue eating my own country's food on a near-daily basis as a way to remind myself of my heritage.
Nowadays, in the meat sections of American supermarkets, you see more and more organs and body parts of animals due to the ever-growing number of immigrants. One day, I saw a package with two peculiar pieces of meat inside. I couldn't figure out what it was from the label. Out of curiosity, I asked an employee. "It's pig testicles," he said.
"What!? Who would eat them?" I asked. The guy shrugged his shoulders and walked away. While I was still in shock, an African American man walked by and grabbed them on his way to the cashier.
Food, for sure, gives you a taste of culture, reflecting history and people. "Spicy girls," for instance, is a phrase often used to describe Sichuan's women. The phrase has a triple meaning: the spicy characteristic of our Sichuan cuisine; Sichuan girls' renowned appearance; and their work ethic, which is said to match that of their beauty.
Food not only reflects a culture's past; it also reflects how people view their lives. French and Italians view their culinary culture as an art, an expression of joy. They take time to select quality materials, pay attention to their cooking, and really enjoy the food. When they are dealing with people, they are also the same way: taking time to know a person.
To me, Americans view food as medicine. In an international supermarket, if you see people checking labels for a product's nutrition information, most likely, they're American. American celebrities regularly announce their newest diet discoveries. It seems to have become an eternal topic on the TV alongside news of "the war on terrorism."
But does all this education, research, and advertising stop our poor eating habits? One image pops into mind—an image I've observed at every office and clinic I've worked at: My American colleagues coming back to grab more candy or chocolate from the desk, always guiltily saying to themselves (just loud enough to be heard), "Oh, I know, I know, I shouldn't do it."
From time to time, I hear Chinese women saying the same thing: "How I wish to eat it, but I can't put more into my 'fat' body." And then they truly don't touch the food.
What would I do? More like an American, or a Chinese? I guess it would depend on how good the food is.
Food is often associated with many happy memories. It reaches deep in our emotions. Growing up in a busy Chinese family, dinnertime was always sacred as it might be the only time we spent as a whole family each day. My mom is an excellent Sichuan-style cook. Every Saturday, dinner was the time for the entire family to get together at Grandma's house—the happiest moment of the week. Cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents ... so much fun, such good food. I learned so much growing up just from listening to the adults talk.
As I never ate alone before I started to live on my own, the loneliness and the silence during meal time when I first went to the U.S. were unbearable. For years, I ate out almost every lunch and dinner, just to be among people—even if they were strangers—until I got so sick just from the smell of restaurant products miles away.
God, I miss my grandma's cooking! "Why didn't we ever write down Grandma's recipes?" I used to say to myself. But now, I understand: It's not only about the food. It's the taste of a happy family. Even if I did write down Grandma's recipes, the Saturday-night dinners wouldn't be the same.
Have you ever asked yourself: How do you usually serve food? And eat food? Do you give the best to your guests, to your loved ones, or to yourself? Do you eat the best food first or save the best for last? The answers may reveal how you relate to others, and your attitude toward life.
It doesn't matter if you're a Chinese farmer bent over in the field, facing sun and rain day after day, or a fisher on the Dutch coast catching king crabs on dangerous stormy nights: "谁知盘中餐,粒粒皆辛苦*" (Do you know on a plate of rice/Every grain is yielded by toil?). I am not religious, but I am very touched every time I see my religious friends give thanks for the food before eating. What a great attitude to have for something we could easily take for granted!
Food is a universal language shared across the boundaries of nationality. It brings us closer. If "above all nations is humanity," then, I would say "Behind humanity, there has to be food."
Food goes beyond ingredients: it brings our culture, history, people, memories, and attitude toward life in general back to us, and mixes them all in a compact visual form. Life is beautiful anyway. With good food, it is even better.
*Shéi zhī pánzhōngcān, lìlì jiē xīnkǔ is a line from Tang Dynasty poet Li Shen's (李绅) "Empathy for the Farmer" ("悯农").
This article by Ping Wu was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 8 ("eat+drink").