Lunch in China is a big deal. It remains a part of Chinese culture that, when I'm back home in England, I constantly admire and am forever nostalgic for. I have tried hard to explain to Chinese colleagues this vast cultural schism between my home and here in China. I tried to express, grappling for words, my mournful jealousy of their work canteen, which was met by swathes of tear-filled laughter.
"You are envious of this?" They exclaimed poking their chopsticks pointedly into the plastic trays of food in front of them. Ok, I understand their complete disbelief; this is hardly five star dining. I think perhaps it is easier to explain my love of midday meals in China by simply comparing them to the one o'clock hiatus we are accustomed to in England, which simply does not even merit the label "lunch".
At home, at work, at school, British lunchtime is far from a celebrated or even acknowledged segment of the day. We seem eager to get it over, with minimal culinary effort, and in quiet solitude. Those at desk jobs pull out plastic-wrapped sandwiches; sad white bread and wilted lettuce concoctions that are far from appetizing. There is the obligatory piece of fruit, bruised and lonely looking as it emerges from a crammed handbag. Work canteens are packed with people "too busy" to eat, rushing to the checkout with something in hand that they can quickly consume on the way to another meeting. The world of work in Britain leaves little time to consume our meals, let alone enjoy them. Perhaps this is why so many of us harbor such unhealthy relationships with food.
The way we structure our days is representative of our carelessness towards mealtimes. Meetings, lectures, interviews, all scheduled in our diaries over the hours of twelve till two. In Beijing I saw a different side to midday. Lunch was early, eleven-thirty, and it lasted until one. This was not the same for everyone. But those without the luxury to shut up shops or offices for an hour still gathered in small communal groups to share a meal, in a way that is rarely seen in England. Never had I been absorbed in a culture where such emphasis was pressed on carving out time to eat, and I adored it.
Not only is the culture of eating in China different, so too is the emphasis on good, cooked food especially amongst young people.
The school and university canteen format remains the same across both cultures, simple plastic trays, bowls and chopsticks, all collected from their relevant baskets. With a simple exchange of cutlery you could be anywhere in the world. But whilst I was a student in England our high school lunches consisted largely of two bland options on any given day. Mostly we were confronted with a gravy drenched meat pie and a pasta bake that looks like it may have been sat there for slightly too long under the fluorescent canteen lights. Further along beside the tills there would be packaged rolls filled with cheese and ham and tuna, stacked side by side with trays of cherry Bakewell tarts, lemon sponge and stacks of fruit. We were by no means denied a meal at lunchtime but options remained limited, tasteless and with the end of my school career came the end of what I considered "lunch". Older High School and University students increasingly ditch communal lunchtimes and canteens all together preferring to grab snacks to sustain them throughout the day, never taking the time to sit and enjoy a break at midday.
In China I saw a different side to every mealtime. Food was a social activity, a registered part of the day, acknowledged and respected. Whilst at home my friends slide out of bed at eight or nine and reach sleepily for coffee, in China, swathes of workers and students start their days together over breakfast. In a packed canteen of hundreds, we would sit at communal benches and devoured salty, peppered cabbage, hard-boiled eggs, mantou buns that were still piping hot and bowls of thick congee. The food was simple, delicious and although not an example of culinary mastery, it was a soul-warming awakening at half seven in the morning.
Lunch was a similar affair. Trays of steamed rice, pork, boiled peanuts and pickled vegetables piled high once again on plastic trays. The culture of food in China remains a simple, yet mostly unrecognized aspect of the country as a whole. Meals are often followed by a walk or a small sleep and the middle of the day follows a gentle but regimented timetable of leisurely pursuits. Mealtimes, and the food that is consumed during them, still carry a cultural importance in China, which largely has been lost in British homes.
In Chinese families, workers and students eat together. Food is shared, not portioned and the time is relished as a moment of reunion within busy lives. This is a value and practice we should hold more dearly in our lives in Britain, food as more than an irritating necessity, but rather as a time for communal reconnection with friends and family that should be savoured much like the food we consume during it.
1. cultural divide: 文化差異。
2. nostalgic: 懷舊的，懷念的。
3. schism: 分裂，分立。
4. grapple: 摸索；mournful: 悲傷的，憂傷的；swath: 大量。
5. exclaim: 驚嘆；tray: 盤子。
6. hiatus: 空隙，間隙；be accustomed to: 習慣于；merit: v. 值得，應受。
7. acknowledged: 公認的，被普遍認可的；segment: 部分，環節。
8. culinary: 烹飪的；solitude: 獨處，孤獨。
9. wilted: 枯萎的，萎蔫的；lettuce: 生菜，萵苣；concoction: 調制品，調配物；appetizing: 促進食欲的，味美可口的。
10. obligatory: 必須的；bruise: （水果）被碰傷；crammed: 塞滿的，擠滿的。
12. harbor: v. 懷有（壞念頭、恐懼、希望等）。
13. structure: 計劃，安排。
14. communal: 共用的，公共的。
15. be absorbed in: 全神貫注于；carve out: 開辟出，此處指抽出時間。
16. format: 設計，外觀。
17. cutlery: 餐具。
18. whilst: 在……時；bland: （食物）清淡的，無味的。
19. 等待我們的通常是誘人且多汁的肉餅和烤意大利面食，在餐廳的熒光燈下這些食品看著像是放了有段時間了。gravy: 肉汁；drenched: 浸透的；pasta: 意大利面食（包括通心粉及細面條等）；fluorescent: 熒光的。
20. till: <英>（商店等）放現款的抽屜，錢箱；roll: 面包卷；tuna: 金槍魚；stack: v. 堆放，后文為名詞，指一疊，一摞；Bakewell tart: 杏味果醬塔；sponge: <英>果凍。
21. ditch: 拋棄，丟棄；grab: 抓緊，趕緊（吃東西或睡覺等）。
22. slide: 悄悄移動。
23. packed: 非常擁擠的；devour: 狼吞虎咽地吃；peppered: 加胡椒粉的；hard-boiled: 煮熟了的；bun: 小圓面包；piping hot: 非常熱的；congee: 粥。
24. pickled: 腌制的。
25. 午餐過后人們往往會散散步或者小憩一會兒，然后按照時間規定從容地開始下午的工作。regimented: 受嚴格規章制度管理的。
26. portion: 分配；relish: 享受，喜歡。
27. 這種價值觀和做法值得我們英國人在生活中好好踐行，吃飯不僅是麻煩人的必要環節，更多的還是一個與親朋好友聯絡感情的好時機，那種滋味和食物本身一樣，都值得我們好好品嘗。savour: 品味，細細品嘗。