In a Chinese dining experience, dishes are served communally. They are placed in the center of the table and everyone reaches their chopsticks forward to partake. Each person generally has a small bowl of rice in their hands, which serves to complement the savory dishes as a staple food but also serves as a handy drip catcher before the food disappears into your mouth. There is no need for large place settings for each individual.
When I’m eating Chinese style, I love being part of the collective crowd that is being nourished simultaneously from the same central source. I also love not having to load up my plate and then finish my plate; I can eat until I’m no longer hungry unlike the Western method that requires estimating a portion size while serving. I also love that there are fewer dishes to wash. There’s no dinner plate, bread plate, salad bowl, and fork-knife-spoon for each person dining, just a rice bowl and a set of chopsticks. Easy!
The thing I love the most, though, is that no one reaches over and steals food from my plate… because I don’t have a plate! At least, not until we eat Western food…
Guo Jian is a food stealer. He has been raised with the collective eating model and so, when we eat Western food, he is constantly picking food off my plate as though it’s a communal platter. I once nearly stabbed him with my fork for doing it. Okay, it may have happened more than once. It drives me absolutely batty. And let’s not even talk about how crazy it makes me when it’s dessert. A woman’s pie is a precious, personal thing. Geez. [Insert image here of shooting flames from eyes, ears and mouth like a deranged dragon.]
No matter how much I love the many benefits derived from the collective eating experience, however, I’ve discovered that it just doesn’t work for certain foods. Like the aforementioned pieces of pie, for example, and you can also add mashed potatoes, salad or sandwiches to that list. Mostly Western foods, in fact.
I have taken the time to make myself a sandwich instead of sharing in the leftover Chinese food from the previous night’s dinner. I watch Guo Jian heat up the rice and various dishes and lay them out on the table, offering them to me. I decline. I explain that I’d rather eat the sandwich (that he’s also watched me make) and that he can feel free to consume all of the leftovers on his own. I sit down at the table with my plate in front of me, no chopsticks. I pick up one half of my sandwich and begin eating. Before I can finish biting down, he reaches over, grabs the other half and takes an enormous bite of it.
“Hey!” [grunting, lettuce falling out of my mouth, teeth still clinging to the bread I just bit off]
[offended look] “What? I’m sharing this food, why can’t you share yours?”
“But that’s not how sandwiches work,” [sputtering, mouth half full] “I don’t want that food and I made this for myself. Sandwiches are one-person meals! Besides, if you wanted one, I would have made two!”
“You are so selfish about food! You’re in China now; you have to learn to share!”
[To that, I respond by taking the remainder of my sandwich to a different room.]
[To my disappearing back, yelling] “It doesn’t taste good anyway!”
[Under my breath, grumbling in English] “Then leave my food alone!”
Sometimes I just don’t want to share. Besides, he has such a big mouth that a “bite” of my sandwich ends up being such a huge hole in my meal, and when he doesn’t enjoy it anyway, what a waste! Besides, after living in China for this long, a sandwich is a special commodity.
Okay, I may be overreacting. Just a little.
When I was partnered with women, we would often share food. For instance, ordering one meal in a restaurant and splitting it. The thing is, we would actually portion it in two and then each get half. It was simple. There were no arguments. I never had to deal with random plate invasions.
Guo Jian thinks I’m the greedy one who secretly makes myself “private” food and isn’t willing to share. He accuses me of hiding food so that he won’t eat it and he might be right about that, at least a few times. I don’t always want to donate my coveted Western treats to his casual Chinese curiosity, especially when I know his palate won’t enjoy them.
I think Guo Jian has a greedy sense of Chinese-style entitlement to at least half of whatever food exists in the house, no matter who has purchased it or prepared it. Thus, I think it’s fair to sometimes want him to leave my food alone! Isn’t he being a bit ungracious when he fails to notice how important these Western food moments are to me? After all, I’m living in his country, right?
Hhhm, lots of food for thought there…
His first trip to Canada, when his English was much worse than it is at present, he asked me several times what my parents were eating and why it was different from our plates. Most of the time, it was because the items in question were meat-based and we’re both vegetarian. Nevertheless, a sense of inequity began to cloud his perception of Western food distribution. Every time we sat down to a meal, I saw him scan everyone else’s plates to make sure he wasn’t missing out on something.
Once, he reached his chopsticks towards my Mother’s plate without thinking. Luckily, I noticed before he got to the plate and my mother didn’t. My mother also ignored my rapid Chinese that told him to stop, that it was her food not his, that I could get him his own serving if he wanted it. Thanks to the language cloak, the faux pas was avoided. He was annoyed, though. I was amused.
Similarly, when my parents came to China the first time, they very awkwardly eyed the communal plates and preferred to take a few pieces from each plate to place into their own private rice bowls before starting to eat. Since they’re not very good with chopsticks, the absence of serving spoons in each of the dishes also posed a problem. I often helped them by serving them directly, with my own chopsticks, which is polite and respectful to elders in Chinese culture (to feed them first) and just plain sweet and sympathetic in Western culture. Win-win. When we went to a Western restaurant where they got their own plates and forks, you could see them visibly relax.
So, neither method is right or wrong; they’re just different. Since I straddle both cultures, I get to see the benefits and drawbacks of each.
These are the ways we have finally resolved these “problems”:
Now, rather than fight over whose food is whose, whenever I make a sandwich and he’s at home, I just make two of them. If he doesn’t want it, I put it in the fridge for myself for later. When I make foods that require forks or spoons, I hand him his own bowl and his own set of utensils along with a “don’t-even-think-about-stealing-mine” look of warning. Then I dish out more than one serving. If he doesn’t enjoy it, I just get more. Yum.
And he’s started to ask me first before putting his chopstick-holding hands at risk of fork stabbings.
Last but certainly not least, we have established one very important, non-negotiable food-sharing rule:
NO ONE touches my chocolate.
I mean, c’mon.
Dear readers, please excuse my sparse blogging this month. The holidays have taken me over!