Like for everyone else sheltering at home, it’s been a lonely existence, made lonelier because my family can’t gather to eat. Our love language is food. We eat together communally, sharing dishes and piling on food. It’s common among Chinese Americans and immigrants.
“It’s like a built-in cultural practice of how you express your emotions,” said anthropology professor Li Zhang of the University of California at Davis. “When my mom and my dad, especially mom, wanted to express her love, it’s always through food. They ask, ‘Oh, did you eat this and this? Eat more of this. Eat more. Eat more.’ ”
In this period of solitary confinement, eating alone can make social distancing even more challenging.
The typical greeting of “ni hao ma,” said James Beard Award-winning writer Carolyn Jung, might literally mean “how are you,” but its more subtle meaning is “have you eaten yet,” showing just “how important eating is to the Chinese.”
“If there’s an opportunity for a banquet meal, believe you me, they will take it. Just consider that Chinese food is the ultimate family-style meal,” said Jung.
I used to joke that the main reason people would bug me about getting married was for the 10-course meal. Food was my first and main priority for my wedding, way above the dress. While there was only one ceremony, there were three banquets across three cities to accommodate all the family in California, Florida and Taiwan. I can’t even imagine my wedding without food.
Oliver Wang, a sociology professor at California State University at Long Beach, says that for the Chinese community, communal meals are “practically the default way we’ve known to eat.”
“There’s a reason why so many Chinese American movies, for example, all feature scenes around a dinner table — it’s arguably the most important room in the house for many families,” Wang said. “It’s precisely because it’s such a common experience that the covid crisis has been so disruptive.”
This is especially true with some holiday traditions like hot pot, which is like fondue, but instead of cheese, there’s a boiling vat of soup into which you dip all sorts of food, like thin slices of meat to cook. Then you eat it with a sauce of your choice. It’s incredibly delicious, but because everyone uses the same pot, it’s just not possible anymore.
Many in the community have been figuring out how to eat apart and still express how much they care, like personally delivering food to family and friends.
When one of Zhang’s friends contracted the coronavirus in her hometown of Kunming, China, friends and family delivered so much food to her doorstep that her friend had enough to eat for three months.
“I think it is true that good food is still so essential,” said Zhang.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, her friends would also joke that there was no need for serving utensils, dismissing their use as “American” and choosing to use their own spoons and chopsticks to dive into the main dishes. But now, Zhang hopes her friends will embrace this healthier practice.
Those who can’t share food literally have found ways to virtually carry on the tradition.
For example, some of my co-workers have started sharing family recipes over Google Docs, and colleagues at the Asian American Journalists Association started swapping each other’s family comfort food recipes over a Slack channel.
The guides at San Francisco’s Wok Wiz Chinatown tours, who range in age from their mid-60s to 80s, text food photos to each other to stay connected.
“Eating communally is important to our team, families and friends,” said Tina Dong Pavao, whose tour company has been around for more than 30 years. “Our tour groups always end with a hosted dim sum luncheon. … So not having those gatherings has definitely left a void for us. That void is now filled with regular correspondence via phone, text, social media, email. … What we have in our freezers and pantries, what recipes we want to try, what is on sale at the local markets and the best noodles to get that keep well.”
Psychiatrist Steven Sust also recommends cooking together over video chat with family members. Even if your mother might be critical, keep in mind that “she’s just trying to help. This is the way that she shows that she cares and she’s trying to provide advice,” said the clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
And when this all calms down, Zhang said, we’ll all be eating together again.
“When this covid-19 passes, people are going to flock to restaurants and get together, maybe more so because they’re food-deprived.”
My mother’s birthday was Thursday, but I wasn’t able to celebrate with her over a meal because of the coronavirus. Instead, I ordered her food online and had it sent to her. I’m looking forward to virtually cooking with her soon.