Comrades Around a Communal Table

By Catherine Ayscue

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Photo by Lisa Setyon

A narrow alley branches off from Beijing’s South Gong and Drum Hutong, a preserved traditional Chinese neighborhood in the Hou Hai district. Yan Ming and his neighbors squat on low stools around a makeshift table crowded with dishes, bantering and enjoying each other’s company. The men have been neighbors along this alley for thirty-odd years. Today, each has cooked a dish to bring to their potluck lunch.

“It’s socialism—we eat together!” jokes Yan. His buddies burst into laughter.

Food has always been important to the Chinese—some time ago, “Have you eaten?” was used as a way of greeting, a way to ask, “How are you?” Now the phrase has mostly fallen out of use, but food maintains its significance in the culture.

By contrast, in America, eating has inarguably fallen from a time for family bonding to mere obligation.

Even in the starving-college-student demographic, food’s importance is unrelated to socializing and sharing. As a semester nears its end, students all over the United States dream of devouring food from anywhere off campus.

This isn’t to say Chinese students don’t also look forward to eating at home—but more significantly, they look forward to eating a meal with their family.

Ge Fei, a student at the Communication University of China, says her family’s meals “can last as long as French people[’s]! …They can eat for several hours. During dinner we are always laughing.”

“Food is the top priority of the Chinese people,” says Fu Yu, another student. Going home for the summer and eating with the whole family “is probably the most precious time for Chinese young people, something they look forward to,” she adds.

Fu Yu’s mother cooks every meal for the family, with at least two or three courses, and they all sit at the table to talk and eat together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Chinese eat more communally than Americans not only in their use of meals for bonding, but in their very style of eating.

In America, meals are served in individual portions; to pick off of someone else’s plate or eat directly from a serving dish would be extremely rude. In China, serving dishes sit in the middle of the table, sometimes on a lazy susan, to be picked from freely with chopsticks a few bites at a time. Place settings consist of much smaller plates (what Americans would consider a salad plate), a bowl for soup or rice, a teacup, and a glass for another drink.

Each meal has a sense of togetherness—whether it’s through truly sharing the food by eating it together, bite by bite, or through laughing as someone attempts to pick up noodles with their chopsticks. Western attitudes toward food tend to be physically and emotionally sterile in comparison.

Fu Yu says she and her friends do still use the old greeting, asking each other if they’ve eaten as a way of asking how they’ve been. At restaurants, they order several dishes to share with each other while they talk and catch up. Meals are intimate—food is shared, their lives are shared.

The men of Gong and Drum Hutong say that eating together is a social affair that enhances their friendship. They have gotten together like this every day for years.

The Chinese government has plans to develop the neighborhood, and in a few years the neighbors will be moved from Hou Hai to unknown modern high-rise buildings. They may not be able to see each other or enjoy such meals with their new neighbors.

“We live for today, eat for today, drink for today!” says Yan. “That’s why we’re here.”

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