A Conversation on Food: Do the Things Coming Out of Your Mouth Affect What Goes Into It?

Editor’s note: With the school year starting back up and ministry among Chinese international students launching into full swing, we continue last week’s series offering some practical advice to Americans desiring to make friends with Chinese internationals. Although by no means comprehensive, we hope these posts can help those with little prior Chinese cultural experience to be more confident in serving and befriending their Chinese neighbors by helping them better understand the areas of conversation, hospitality, and food. Thousands of Chinese students are arriving at American airports this month to start degree programs across the country and we encourage readers to consider befriending them in Christ’s name. Make sure you check the other posts in this series: 9 Tips for Being Other-Centered in Conversation and Friendship with Chinese and 3 Tips for Hosting Chinese with a Capital H. “What is your favorite Chinese dish?”

This is perhaps the most culturally awkward question I have ever encountered, and I am only exaggerating a little bit. To begin with, it assumes that all Chinese dishes are given an English name. Secondly, it suggests that Chinese cuisines can be compared across the board, and among all the variations and flavors, it may be possible to have a favorite. Finally, and most awkward of all, I am expected to name something that the questioner can easily get at a nearby restaurant, otherwise any answer I give will only disappoint him or her. When I am confronted with this question, which unfortunately happens more often than I prefer, I’m tempted to say, “Have you tried roasted snakes?” which, by the way, is really delicious if you can find a restaurant that serves them.

Most Chinese immigrants like me take tremendous pride in the cuisine that is loved by so many, but it is also lamentable to us that the Chinese food we eat overseas is often far from those we eat at home. Therefore conversations about food can evoke feelings of both pride and melancholy. There are many ways to ask a Chinese friend about food that does not put him or her in an awkward position. Here, I offer a list of suggestions that may help you connect with your Chinese friends over food, and hopefully lead you to a richer discovery of our culture as well as a more tasty dinner.

1. Avoid using the phrase “Chinese food.” I understand the need to distinguish Chinese cuisine from a variety of food choices in America, but when you are conversing with a Chinese friend, what we eat is simply “food” to us. By referring to something so natural to us as “Chinese food” automatically creates a distance between us. Instead, try using questions like “Tell me about the food you eat at home,” or “What are some specialties from where you grew up?”

2. Ask your friend about what is so special about their regional cuisine. There is not only one kind of Chinese cuisine. Due to climate differences and ingredients available, each region in China has its own specialties. The cuisine most familiar to Americans is from the Guangdong (Cantonese) Province. This is because up until the early 1990s, most of the immigrants in U.S. came from this southern province. Although most restaurants in the U.S. serve Cantonese food, it is now more and more common to find restaurants that specialize in other cuisines as well. It will be a great treat if you can ask some of your Chinese friends to recommend some to you. This leads to the next point.

3. Ask your Chinese friends to recommend a restaurant, not just a dish. Better yet, eat with them together, and let them order for you. Chinese people can be very picky eaters. If you are brave enough to ask your friends to order for you, I am certain your courage will be deliciously rewarded. If you do go to a restaurant on your own, don’t go for the common items. Order something you have never heard of. If they are not well known, but are still listed on the menu, they are there for a reason. Be adventurous and try them.

4. When you eat at a Chinese restaurant, be open to sharing. It is customary for Chinese people to put all the dishes in the middle of the table and share with one another. If you have a particular dish that you like, you may suggest ordering it, but be prepared to try some other items on the table as well. Again, Chinese people are picky eaters, so you can always trust their judgment.

5. Ask your friends about seasonal specialties. As a culture with a long history, almost all Chinese holidays are accompanied by legends and food. For example, the Dragon Boat festival is accompanied by rice packets wrapped in bamboo leaves, the Mid-Autumn Festival by mooncakes, the New Year by rice cakes or dumplings. Enjoy these seasonal festivities with some of these delicacies. Most importantly, ask your friends to tell you about the stories behind these holidays and specialties. Your tongue will be tickled and your mind enchanted.

6. Look for the story. Regardless of where you travel in the world, you can always find a Chinese restaurant in the most surprising places. This not only testifies to the popularity of Chinese cuisine, but also to the extensive network of Chinese communities around the globe. Most of time when I see a Chinese restaurant in a remote part of the world, the first question that comes to mind is not “How is the food there?” but rather, “What brought them to this part of the world?” When you are in a Chinese restaurant, especially one in a surprising place, take the chance to get to know the folks who work there. What brought them to this part of the world? How has life been for them in the last few years? These are some of the most heart-wrenching conversations that I have ever had. It may not lead to a delightful dinner that you were hoping for, but it will deepen your experience.

This is a short list of suggestions that hopefully help you connect with your Chinese friends over our food. Next time, I will share what we think when we approach food in America.


Never miss a story

Sign up to receive our weekly email with our original articles.

 

Ryan currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.

 

Share This Story

Further Reading

shio-yang-g_C8w1QBca0-unsplash
Nanjing: Love Under Pressure
Read More
zhang-kaiyv-L9NHlk2CGOQ-unsplash
Why Should I Love My Enemies?: Give Up Revenge, Love Enemies
Read More
yifei-wong-HfLKjg2ic64-unsplash
Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
Read More

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

Videos

ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

Videos

Stories from Shenyang

About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

Videos

Stories from Qingdao

About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

Videos

Stories from Xiamen

About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Videos

Stories from Chongqing

About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

Videos

Stories from Nanjing

About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

Videos

Stories from Changchun

About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

Videos

Stories from Guangzhou

About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

Videos

Stories from Kunming

About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

Videos

Stories from Shenzhen

About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

Videos

Stories from Chengdu

About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

Videos

Stories from Beijing

About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

Videos

Stories from Shanghai

give

A short message about partnering with us.