By Carrie George
It was my second hot pot dinner of the trip and I had already fallen in love with this signature meal of Sichuan Province. The waiters brought out the familiar favorites (chicken, beef, lamb, noodles) and the Chengdu specialties (duck tongue, quail egg, lotus root, seaweed), and, immediately, hands from every direction clamored together over the boiling broth in the center of the table. Chopsticks flew from one plate to the next. Our Chinese friends dumped more food on our plates than on their own and spent the majority of the time searching on their phones for English descriptions of the mystery meats we were all devouring. It was then that our Taylor-Swift-Loving friend Mike (I failed to learn his Chinese name) announced to the table: “When we eat together, we are like brothers – like sisters.” And for a moment – there was silence (the most shocking thing to ever happen in a hot pot restaurant).
I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss American food while in China. I went to bed most nights dreaming of milkshakes and Maryland crab chips. But American food lacks a crucial element of Chinese dining culture: the community built at a dinner table. Ordering food was a discussion – a table-wide compromise determining what food would satisfy everyone equally. After that came the delicious chaos of actually eating. Elbows collided, food flew, broth splashed, chopsticks clamored, and everyone shared everything. Nothing was claimed by anyone. The food belonged to the table.
Not only was it a chance to share strange and delicious food, but also a chance to share ideas. With our friends from Sichuan University we talked politics, language, education, Taylor Swift, and even High School Musical. The food was a bridge over an ocean – a shared experience to shatter any cultural barriers we thought we might have. As we walked out onto the crowded streets of Chengdu, I really did begin to see these friends as family. Mike’s words were the truest words I heard in China. And that meal was the best meal of my life.