Back in March, when my grocery store's shelves were barren and COVID-19 infection rates began to dangerously ascend in New York City, where I live, I picked up a near-daily habit: After cooking each evening, I took a picture of my dinner, and texted it to my mom.
I've sent pictures of food to my mom before, of course. She is Chinese, and food is one way we relate to each other. Visits and holidays are punctuated by good meals, cooked or eaten out, and later discussions about how good those meals were.
Yet this ritual of showing her what I was eating, at least once a day, took on a heavier, unspoken meaning during a pandemic that has now killed over 200,000 people in the United States, and keeps us geographically separated from each other.
“It’s about nutrition,” said Becky Hsu, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University, when I told her about my texts. “It’s about your physical health. But you’re not explicitly saying how you feel. It’s an interesting, quick, way to connect on a very gentle and physical level.”
Hundreds of people were dying per day in my city. My friends were laid off. One of my best friends died. My partner lost his job. A picture of my dinner was a simple reassurance, a way to say that my physical body was okay—even amongst ongoing emotional turmoil. To show her that I was trying my best, making an effort to nourish myself. And for my mom, someone born in China during a famine that killed millions of people, my dinner was also proof that I was safe.
In China, instead of "How are you?" people often ask, "Have you eaten?"
Hsu said she has several Chinese American friends whose parents call them every day, “and their conversation is: ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi.’ ‘Did you eat?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What did you eat?’ ‘I ate this.’ ‘Okay, bye,’” Hsu said. "The point isn’t the words so much, it’s just the connection. 'Have you eaten?' is like, ‘I love you.’”
My mom and I don’t say “I love you" to each other, and many Asian parents don't communicate love verbally. In a viral video from 2014, young Chinese people told their parents “I love you,” and their parents reacted with shock, anger, or confusion.
Journalist Candice Chung wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that her parents also regularly inquire, “So, have you eaten?” “It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or which meal, specifically," she wrote. "Rather than asking each other how we are, we’d end up spending most of the time describing our dinners over the phone." If Chung was feeling upset, instead of receiving a hug or verbal affirmations, her mother might “put an unexpected fried egg in our noodles.”
In 2017, I wrote in Undark about how Asian people have been found to express their emotions more through the body, something that has been observed by cultural psychologists and anthropologists since at least the 1980s.
Early research in this area can be rife with racist tropes—claims that Chinese people feel emotions in a less sophisticated manner, or don't have the vocabulary to express what they feel, using the body or food instead. But more recent work by Asian academics has continued to find that the ways East Asian people express their emotions are not better or worse than the way others do—they simply reflect an emotional schema that's developed over time, as all of our mental states are culturally shaped, at least in part.
In times of trouble, Chinese people might reach out not with words or feelings, but with action. In a study from 2017, Hsu and her co-authors looked at how breast cancer survivors interacted with their families. They found that the relatives of Chinese American women wanted to do practical things, like offer medical advice, help someone to eat well, and enact their love through acts of service. “I'll do chores for you,” Hsu said. “I'll cook for you. That is love. They didn’t want to necessarily get into emotions. In contrast, the European Americans said it was a great opportunity to talk and really cry it out together.”
I'll admit that sometimes it's not enough. I have desired to talk more explicitly about emotions and mental health, and wanted to not have those subjects feel off-limits or taboo. But in 2020, it can be remarkably freeing to leave words and cognition behind and return to physiological basics. At times when there was nothing to say, no way to talk through the deluge of emotions, I could gesture at my perseverance with a colorful plate of vegetables.
“It’s not that Chinese people have no emotions, it’s just different,” Hsu said. “A different way of relating.”
This summer, Hong Li, a professor of pedagogy and Chinese at Emory University, heard that many of her students from China weren’t able to go home because their flights were cancelled, or they were unsure if they could go home and still return to the US in the fall for school.
Li co-teaches a summer class called Noodle Narratives on the Silk Road, which began in the summer of 2016, and explores the cultural importance of noodles in different countries.
For their midterm assignment during COVID, the students were asked to cook a dish personally meaningful to them.
“Making something allows them to feel this connection to their loved one back home,” Li said.
Alex Li, a economics major and Eastern Asian Studies minor, cooked pepper sautéed pork (辣椒炒肉). In his reflection essay he wrote that he chose this dish because of his homesickness—he was able to leave Atlanta for Vancouver but was unable to return to China in June, as he planned, because of China’s travel restriction and his status as a Canadian citizen. “I do not even know when I will be able to return,” he wrote.
Cooked peppers with sautéed pork is originally from the Hunan province near the south of China. Alex wrote that when he was growing up, he had eaten this dish with noodles on his way to kindergarten, with rice at home for lunch, or at restaurants.
“Whenever I prepare 辣椒炒肉 away from home, I also take a picture and send it to my family on WeChat,” Li wrote. “It is my way of expressing how much I have missed them while away from home.”
Cherie Wang, a student from Beijing, cooked Da Lu Mian, a noodle dish, for her assignment, inspired by her memories of her grandparents feeding it to her. “However, my studies have taken me away from my grandma,” she wrote. “ I no longer get the chance to eat my grandma’s most delicious dish of the Da Lu Mian.”
She called her grandma to get her recipe, and her noodles turned out good, but something was missing. “At the end of the cooking, I realized that my grandma's love and warmth of family members at home were just as an important ingredient as the other ingredients,” Wang wrote. “I guess that is what makes the Da Lu Mian dish special. For me, it is all about family.”
When I was growing up, it was sacrilegious to skip a meal. If fate intervened and delayed lunch or dinner, panic ensued; a mad scramble to find sustenance. Eating before you were hungry, “just in case,” was encouraged.
Many Chinese adults living today have pasts marked by a traumatic lack of food. My mom was born in 1961 in Sichuan in the midst of China's Great Famine, which killed 45 million people by conservative estimates. The same year she was born, there were parts of Sichuan where the death rate was 50 percent.
During the famine, people ate whatever they could find to keep themselves alive: wild plants and animals, bugs, tree trunks, or decomposing animals. People ate white clay, dubbed “immortal clay,” which dulled the overpowering sensation of hunger, but also caused severe constipation. Many of those who didn’t die from starvation became sick or died from eating toxic or poisonous plants, or the indigestible substances like earth and clay.
Today, food is one way that survivors still grapple with this time period. Xun Zhou, a reader in modern history at the University of Essex, wrote in 2012 that the recipes and kitchen practices people used during the Great Famine “continued to provide solace and are often the only hope and consolation for many survivors. Their shared remedies and recipes, which they used to sustain hunger and to survive famine, provide a non-threatening context to elicit and explore what are often painful memories.”
Hunger or a lack of food are warning signs that something has gone horribly wrong; that one’s environment is crumbling, and that fatal events loom. The first time I had to stand in line to get into my grocery store, thinking of the overflow of dead bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks in Queens, I wondered if this was going to be my great catastrophic historical event.
Though standing in line at Whole Foods has little actual resemblance to the Great Famine, I also, somehow, felt a sense of guilt. My mother suffered to give me a life where I should never have to stand in line for food. The pictures of my dinner were a promise: Things aren’t great, but they’re still better than that.
Food is meaningful in all cultures, not just in China. It is much more than sustenance; it is family, childhood innocence, vulnerability, tradition, and a way to relate. When I worked in restaurants, I felt a warm bemusement and understanding towards families that were quiet and morose until the food arrived, and then—like puppets being pulled by their strings—animated and chatty upon the arrival of their entrees.
With family, those inextricably dear, but at times, tortuous others we are bound to, there are not always words. But there is food. To lose that vital communication strategy has been a tragic, and sometimes necessary, consequence of the pandemic.
Ruize Niu, from Nanjing, wrote that he still remembered the last plate of fried rice noodles her grandmother made her before he came to the US in January. “I have not tasted my grandmother’s noodles since then,” he wrote.
He cooked tomato and egg stirred noodles for his assignment in Li's class, “which brought me back to the alley where my home is located,” he wrote. He reflected on how the food was much more than just its ingredients, but the memories that came with is: “The days with grandmother, a crush on a girl, the smile on the owner’s face, and many stories that are never told to others.”
Li told me that before a long journey, it is traditional to prepare dumplings for someone—a symbol of your good wishes and hope that they stay safe. When loved ones return home, it’s customary to prepare a bowl of noodle soup. “It represents the joy of having loved one back home,” Li said. “Everything is expressed through the noodles, not necessarily through a physical interaction, like a big hug, or language—saying I love you.”
My grandmother is currently in China, living alone; we are not able to visit her or eat with her. I know when we see each other again, she will prepare our arrival meal days before I board a plane. She will peel fruit so that I eat only the tender, naked flesh of apples and pear, and not the fibrous skins. She will tell the story of how, when I was a baby, I would only stop crying when she fed me segments of the springtime's sweetest oranges.
Until then, my mother will tell her each week how many vegetables I am eating, and how good my meals are. When my grandmother can finally ask me: "Have you eaten, 吃饭了吗?" I will tell her, "Yes, 吃了."
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