“Did You Eat Yet?”

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s a phrase commonly known today. But I never realized how significant food was to my heart – a woman’s heart – until last year. 

“Did you eat yet?” – I grew up hearing this greeting from almost every Chinese adult I met. The tradition came from surviving difficult periods of poverty in China, when food of any kind was scarce. It became a habit of asking each other if someone has eaten yet as a phrase of endearment. You asked in the past, hoping your friend has eaten already, and if they haven’t, you offer what you can. Today, it’s just a greeting, but signifies how you care about the person. There’s a popular t-shirt I once saw that said, “‘Did you eat’ means ‘I love you.’”

Arriving at college, dorm food wasn’t bad necessarily, but it certainly wasn’t a good home cooked meal. Growing up in a Cantonese household meant almost always food that was cooked – rarely cereal, muffins, sandwiches, any of that sort. Most of the Cantonese steam their food, which is far healthier than frying or grilling. So having a salad for dinner was actually really new for me in college, strange as that might seem. I had no qualms with the dorm food, and in fact for a while being able to eat “American” food all the time was fun. That being said, I started sincerely missing the food I grew up with. Much to my delight, some generous family friends who live in the same city as I now do offered to cook and deliver food to me now and again. It was heavenly! Eating pork chops, rice, actually seasoned vegetables!

But not everyone shared my opinion. Soon my roommates began commenting on how my room smelled “fishy” because of the home cooked food. I would offer to share, but no one took me up on it. I felt embarrassed and somehow shamed by the “weird” food I loved. I felt even more stung by the fact that I wasn’t consuming chicken feet or other “bizarre” selections of Chinese cuisine. This was just steamed and seasoned food that my peers weren’t used to, and thus, it was “weird” and it “smelled.” If I were Italian and had lasagna and spaghetti delivered to me, I wouldn’t get such responses.

Why is food so important? What we eat makes us who we are, in my opinion. It’s the decision to put something into our bodies, for nourishment or for pleasure. It’s a health and lifestyle choice. Our tastes define us: who we were, who we are, and who we’re going to be. By the “who we were,” I refer to how our eating habits are, for the most part, built by what we consumed growing up. “Who we are” and “who we’re going to be” is contingent on our willingness to step out of our comfort zones. You never really know if you like or dislike something until you try it. Maybe you’ll even fall in love with something new.

The way to my heart is through my food. I didn’t realize it until college, but food represents my culture and who I am. One of the reasons I fell for my current boyfriend was his response to my food and to the foods I love. I once asked if he thought the food Chinese people eat is strange, and his response was that Westerners have come up with way more gross foods. It’s strange, but his consumption of the food I love and grew up with makes me feel accepted. After all, food is such a vital part of human life and Chinese culture. So I often ask him, “Did you eat yet?”

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13 thoughts on ““Did You Eat Yet?”

  1. Lauren says:

    I guess Asian culture has really had an impact on Jamaican culture, because my family is always asking whether or not I have eaten. Haha! Not that there is anything to worry about on anyone’s side of that conversation.

    It’s amazing, the universality of human behavior. But also disheartening to see how close-minded others can be. I’ll take a well seasoned meal any day!

    — Lauren
    http://www.thelvds.com

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    • Alice L says:

      Wow, that’s really fascinating! And yay for eating – whenever people ever ask if I diet, I laugh in their faces. When I get hungry, I just can’t stop thinking about food. Maybe someone will be trying to have a serious conversation with me, and I’d nod before asking, “Food?”

      And yes, I love when things we see as culturally unique are actually universal! Thanks so much for sharing. But yes, it really is sad how close-minded my roommates and friends were, but when you find people who are accepting and open-minded, it’s the best!

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  2. This is most definitely not just an Asian culture thing, though I can see where the idea came from in your culture. For me, it’s a common thing in my family’s religious following (Pagan) and most of my mother’s family is constantly asking if I’ve eaten “real food” recently. They’re all very anti-processed food. I used to have a lot of issues with this question and it took me a long time to realize it was just another way of saying “I love you” and not a remote comment on my looks or weight at all.

    And I like Chinese food for the most part, though super sweet flavor meat is not something my palate can handle. I tend towards the spicy 😉

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    • Alice L says:

      Man, I feel excited that it’s not just an Asian thing. I always thought it was because I had only seen/heard Chinese do it. I’m sorry to hear that asking about “real food” made you think about weight. I understand because my cousins often diet and the rest of my Chinese family give them a hard time about it sometimes. Asking about food can be tricky because it’s so associated with our bodies. But I’m really glad that it’s come to mean “I love you” to you, because I really think it does in the end.

      Ha ha, as for your Chinese food comment, thanks a lot. Actually, you’re probably thinking about restaurant Chinese food which has been Americanized to taste sweet/tangy/”orange.” “Real” Chinese food is very different (at least from the region of China my family’s from) – it’s super healthy and steamed. And if you like spicy, Szechuan Chinese food is CRAZY spicy! I went there once with my mom and my mouth was dying (I can’t handle spicy). Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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      • My best friend spent a stint in China for school and explained to me that real Chinese food is nothing like the “fuck-ups Americans make” (she’s mouthy, lol). I’ll have to sample some real Chinese sometime re-evaluate.

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  3. Thanks for the post. I too come from a Cantonese family, specifically Hoiping county. Even so, there appears to be some differences between your experience and mine. It could be because of generational or regional differences. In the past, my parents’ cooking often involve stir frying, while my late maternal grandparents used steaming. My parents would fry pork chops, roast beef or cook stews the western way when we were growing up in Canada. The early immigrants often run restaurants that cater to Westerners, so that Canadianized Chinese fare would be on the menu. I love eating Chinese-Canadian dishes like sweet and sour spareribs. I suspect although you are born in US, your parents immigrated post 1970’s. My parents came to Canada pre-1970’s. I think that may account for the differences in our experiences. The post 1970’s crowd tend to have more options in terms of retaining their Chinese cultural practices. My family rarely go for dim sum while I was growing up and I never considered dim sum as part of my Chinese heritage.

    More recently after reading the health section in Chinese newspapers and having more concerns about health, my Mom gravitated more to the steaming method.

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    • Alice L says:

      That’s really interesting. Yes, my parents did immigrate post 1970’s, so they are still pretty Chinese culturally. Plus San Francisco, where I was born, has a large Chinese community. We go out to dim sum now and again, usually to meet with family or friends, but in all honesty, it’s not my favorite kind of Chinese food. I prefer homecooked. While we mostly steam, we do know how to stir fry too! And we know how to cook some things American style. But mostly, it’s steamed fish, vegetables, chicken, etc. Also, I’ve heard of Hoiping county! Anyway, thanks so much for sharing! I love hearing about everyone else’s experiences.

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  4. Tips is a great post. I really like the way you write. It is more like having a conversation rather than reading alone.

    I was fortunate to grow up in New York and lived in Brooklyn which provided a lot of culinary diversity. That said, I dated a wonderful Chinese lady whose family lived on authentic steamed dishes. It was always delicious and while I was not aware of it, healthy. My background is Jewish and the ethnic offering is not the healthiest. You have stirred the food portion of my brain to go seek the wonderful dishes of the past.
    Elliot

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    • Alice L says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I love conversations and I try to be as open to other people’s opinions and experiences. I’ve really liked this particularly blogpost because I can see how much it has resonated with other people. It’s been refreshing to see how man people respond to the universality and comfort of food, whether it’s Chinese or Canadian, etc.

      I’m glad that it’s reminded you of something in the past! I hope the next time you have Chinese food, you let me know if it’s still as good as it used to be to you.

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  5. I should also mention that my grand mother always asked if I had eaten, and it never mattered if I said yes or no. A seven course meal appeared on a white table cloth. I remember she did this for as long as I could remember.
    Elliot

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    • Alice L says:

      Ha ha, I never realized how universal asking someone you love whether they have eaten yet is. It makes me smile. Also, I love grandmothers. Thanks for sharing!

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