“Sufei, kuai chi fan!” (Sophie, come eat quickly!), my host grandmother calls every morning before breakfast. There is an urgency to eating here that I did not anticipate. After learning so much about Chinese food in Chinese class back in Brookline, I knew that food would be a very important part of the culture here. However, the reality I have experienced living with my host family has been very different from what I am used to.
At home it is important to wait until everyone is seated at the table before beginning to eat, and it would be considered rude to leave before everyone is finished. However, at my host family’s house, I am told to start eating before the table has even been fully set and before everyone has come into the room. Frequently we have a bowl of noodle soup for dinner and my grandfather and sister will quickly grab their bowl and return to their rooms to eat.
These differences were not as apparent at first because aside from the occasional dumplings or rice, I had never before seen most of the dishes that we were eating. Corn meal soup, quesadillas filled with chives and scrambled eggs instead of cheese, French toast made from man tou buns instead of sliced bread, and numerous other dishes are the everyday food of my host family. In the beginning, I was focused on trying these new delicious foods, so the food culture was temporarily put aside.
But now I notice that the insistence for guests to eat is a significant part of Chinese food culture for my host family. After seven weeks of living in Xi’an I have both recognized and grown accustomed to this. Despite the fact that I have loved the food and have eaten a full bowl at almost every meal, “chi bao le” (I’m full) has become a permanent part of my Chinese vocabulary. Each meal ends with at least one repetition of the phrase, sometimes two or three if my host grandmother answers with the suggestion of refilling my bowl or by pointing to other foods on the table that I could eat.
A few weeks ago this insistence to eat more reached its height. My host grandmother came into my room and tried to get me to eat, but after being sick for the past day, I knew that it was more important to my health to refuse than to give in out of politeness. But she would not take no for an answer.
I eventually consented to some plain crackers, and she returned a little later with 3 small boxes, more than enough. An hour or two after, my host grandfather also came into my room bearing a plastic shopping bag filled to the brim with crackers. At dinner that night, my usually quiet and reserved family burst out with objections when I told them I was finished eating and wanted to go back to bed. “You need to eat more,” they said. “It is good for your health,” they insisted.
It was not fun to have this persistence thrown at me while I was sick, but from phrases like “kuai chi fan” or “chi bao le” I have been able to see how food is used as a way to welcome a guest and to care for someone when they are sick. These phrases have become more familiar to me as I get to know my host family better and as I become less of a guest and more a part of their family.
Many of my classmates have similarly said that their host families used food as a caring way to welcome them. But I previously did not think about the differences. Some families always eat together while other students only eat with their host siblings, and while some of my classmates have had long, conversation filled dinners, others have eaten relatively quickly. At first I assumed that every family ate similarly to the way that my host family did, but after talked to my classmates, I realized that this was clearly not the case. It reminds me that underneath a common culture, every family has their own individual routines.