Dear Asian Youth,
One of the perks of being Chinese (for me, anyway), has always been the food. Whether it was a long day of school or a day of gaming with friends, my parents would always see to one thing: that I was fed... or that I was about to be. I still remember the homely smell of congee in the morning (otherwise known in Cantonese as juk). My mother would always ask me if I wanted yau ja gwai (fried dough) with it, and I wouldn’t miss a beat when I replied with an enthusiastic “of course!”
Come to think of it, food has always been something that binds me to my family and close friends. It is a way to connect with the people I care about the most in my life. It is the basis for planned food tours that take me and my parents all the way to Paris and the jung (glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) that I fail to parcel nicely that demolishes the boredom we feel during a trapped house blizzard situation. Whenever my closest friends took a break from their weekend alcohol binges, we would always end up in an Italian restaurant that quickly became our favourite lunch spot. We would laugh and cry in the same corner of the place for multiple years, and they would later make up some of my fondest memories that I took with me to university. Guansheng Ma (Professor of Nutrition and the Chief of the Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene at Peking University) once wrote that food “not only expresses but also establishes the relationship between people and their environment as well as between people and what they believe.” It perfectly expresses the idea behind the power of food and its role in Chinese culture.
Although I now recognise the value of food and what it symbolises, there was a point in my life where I didn’t. Over the years, I considered myself lucky due to my relationship with my family; in comparison to a lot of other Chinese (and east Asian) families, we regularly expressed our love and appreciation for each other through words. I never had to read between the lines when it came to affection growing up; however, I was well aware of the issues that my own cousins were dealing with when it came to feeling loved and worthy enough for their own parents. It was with time that my cousins and other Chinese friends realised that the way their parents showed love was through food. It was the packed lunches that were normally filled with rice and sung (side dishes to accompany rice), the daily “have you eaten yet?” after school, the adamant dismissal of my cousins whenever they offered to help wrap dumplings, and of course the classic medicinal soups (tong) boiling over the stove for hours on end whenever they felt sick. The saying “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” seems to be something that extends beyond gender in Chinese culture. It applies to all human beings as far as our parents were concerned. Putting aside the fact that I have always had parents who explicitly state their pride and affection towards me, I feel the most comfort when a piping hot bowl of Ho fan (rice noodles) is in front of me. Going to university made me long for that comfort, and I missed my mother's cooking. In retrospect, when I would tell her that I was missing her food, I think what I really meant was that I was missing her love.
Along with communicating love between families and close friends, food is also symbolic. It has superstitious and mythic ties in Chinese culture. Although these beliefs may not be fully believed now, the tradition and history behind certain foods live on. An example of this is during mid-autumn festival, the only time of the year where we eat mooncakes (round pastries which are filled with thick paste and different flavours). According to China Highlights, “mooncakes mean family unity as they're round, like the harvest moon." Through this reasoning, even the foods that are presented and traditionally eaten in Chinese culture are to do with unity and the family. The essence of these family holidays are to spend time together through eating. As for the history of the mid autumn festival, like many stories in folklore, it has many variations. According to Vetter, the story is about an archer named Hou Yi who saves Earth from a drought by shooting down nine suns. For this, he is gifted by the emperor of heaven an elixir of immortality which he plans to give to himself and his wife, Chang’e. However, Hou Yi’s apprentice, Feng Meng, comes to his home to steal the elixir which Chang’e hastily drinks by herself when she realizes this. It is said that she ascended to heaven and has settled on the moon, which is now her home. Over time Hou Yi, who is still mortal, misses his wife and starts leaving fruits and desserts for her outside every night. This is where the tradition comes from to eat moon cakes, as it is believed that Chang’e loved them and Hou Yi would leave them out for her. The moon in its orbit is at its closest during the mid autumn festival, so people are encouraged to gaze at it in hopes to see Chang’e in her beauty, longing for her husband. The idea of longing is a theme in the story of Hou Yi and Chang’e, which is arguably again, reinforcing the idea of the significance of unity. Hou Yi shows his love for Chang’e when they can no longer see each other through food as well, which displays the connotations around food and how deeply ingrained they are in Chinese culture.
Food is also centered around philosophy. Confucianism is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and believed by many to be the absolute core of how the culture surrounding lifestyle and family works. I believe that naturally, this broadens itself to food. The concept of togetherness is one in which Confucius placed emphasis on, the philosopher himself had created rules that refined Chinese cuisine due to its simple, however straightforward recommendations. According to Confucius Was A Foodie, “Confucian philosophy strongly believes that food and friends are inseparable parts of life. A life without food and friends is considered as incomplete and improper”. Furthermore, Taoist philosophy also believes in the notion of balance through yin and yang. This connects to Chinese cuisine due to how so much of the lifestyle revolves around balance in all aspects of day to day living. In terms of food, yin and yang is explained by Matson: “Yang food is spicy, sweet and pungent with a warm appearance while the yin food is salty and bitter with a high level of moisture… Frying and roasting are yang while boiling and steaming are yin”. Given the importance of balance being so focal in Chinese culture, it makes sense that cuisine culture is also an important factor of the society and daily lives of Chinese people.
Despite Chinese cuisine culture being so influenced by these factors, the most significant one to me is my personal experiences with food surrounding my family and friends. Regardless of the history and philosophy behind the cuisine, it is a large part of my culture that I grew up with and will continue to enjoy for the rest of my life. Although being a “minority” has its positives and negatives, food has always been something that I have been proud of when it comes to my own culture. It gave me comfort and a way to make friends growing up, especially with the people around me who weren’t a minority themselves. Growing up, although I wasn’t a ‘majority’ and felt different from others in this sense, I had been able to connect with them all due to the medium which is food. This brought me some solace in the most transformative years in my life and for that, I am grateful and proud.
- Cathay Lau
Cover Image Source: Wes Radez, chineseamericanfamily.com