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.

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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.


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