The Joy of Sharing | 有饭同享
By Aileen Huang BK’17
Aileen Huang explores the Chinese way of sharing food in and how adapting to ways of eating can define cross-cultural experiences.
In the spring of 2015, I traveled to Shanghai as a part of Yale’s Building Bridges program, a small detour on our way to the Chinese countryside to teach English to disadvantaged children. Most Yalies in the group had never been to China before, much less seen Chinese food — real Chinese food, not the great sham that is orange chicken and chop suey. The real problem for our group, however, was not Chinese food itself, but how to share the dishes. Being of Chinese ethnicity, I found myself struggling to understand why some my friends weren’t receptive to Chinese dining customs.
When we sat down in a restaurant to our first hot meal in China, I was surprised to find that only half of my group was open-minded enough to share Chinese food family-style — the way it’s meant to be consumed. The other half insisted on ordering one dish per person. The sharing group ordered a beautiful plate of luxurious squirrel-style fish — a dish in which the fish is deep-fried and a sweet and sour sauce is poured over it. In contrast, one of the girls who decided to order individually decided that she only craved a plate of beef. She gestured at a picture of sizzling beef on the menu, portioned for at least three people, to a bemusedChinese waiter. When the plate of beef was served to her, she picked at it incessantly while staring enviously at our group that shared dishes the Chinese way.
Another guy balked at the sight of any meat on the dinner table, regardless of what it was. He claimed that he couldn’t trust the meat in China, and ordered a plate of stir-fried rice instead. While the group that decided to share was gorging on fresh, sweet braised clams, soup dumplings, and red-cooked pork belly, he prodded at his own stir-fried rice. Sometime after the meal, when we had returned to our hotel, I saw him clutching a greasy burger from McDonald’s.
I, of course, felt disappointed by those who weren’t willing to open themselves up to a different dining experience. Chinese food was not created to be eaten individually, but rather to be shared with friends and family. A protein like sizzling beef is intended to be counterbalanced masterfully with a plate of stir-fried water spinach and a hot bowl of rice. And all of these things must be shared, with the same love with which Chinese mothers cook these dishes.
Dining customs are an indicator of the values native to a particular culture. Sharing food family-style is an embodiment of communalism. A typical meal begins with a conversation around the table about each family member’s day, and ends with competing with one’s siblings for the last shreds of julienned bamboo shoots. On the other hand, eating food in individual portions naturally places emphasis on the individual. Our two friends who refused to participate in sharing food never acclimated to Chinese customs in the brief two weeks that we were there.
Only after the trip did I finally understand the culture shock that they must have experienced. I was sitting in Commons one day a few weeks after the trip, picking at a plate of Brussels sprouts and cold, uncooked tofu — two things that I had never eaten before coming to Yale — when I suddenly recalled my own culture shock that I experienced when I first stepped foot on campus in freshman year. Coming from a mostly Asian suburb in Texas, as a freshman I quickly realized that I had become a minority, an inconsequential droplet in a sea of diverse experiences. I felt shunned and stereotyped by other Yalies due to the color of my skin and how I conducted myself in habit and custom. This culture shock manifested itself in the Brussels sprouts that I struggled with putting in my body, the cold tofu in the salad bar (Chinese people never eat tofu cold), and the Americanized soy milk that populated dining hall fridges. It reared its head when I would dine out with a group of friends: I would think that it was courteous to put food in my friends’ plates, but my friends would feel that this was condescending. It was a creeping, pervasive uneasiness that I could never rid myself of, even years after carefully forging a mask of mainstream whiteness and acclimating to the ivory towers of Yale. What I felt — and continually feel — must have been the same culture shock and alienation that the two Yalies who refused to share food in Shanghai experienced.
Still, I believe that food can be a powerful force for encouraging cross-cultural contact and forging bonds. That day, when I shared those sweet clams, those soup dumplings, and that braised pork belly with my friends, I felt at home, despite being surrounded by strangers in a foreign country. Later, back at Yale, they told me that they had felt the same way. After all, our meal in Shanghai began with a conversation about our days, and ended with a competition over who could snatch the last dumpling.