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: 文化差异。
2. nostalgic: 怀旧的，怀念的。
3. schism: 分裂，分立。
4. grapple: 摸索；mournful: 悲伤的，忧伤的；swath: 大量。
5. exclaim: 惊叹；tray: 盘子。
6. hiatus: 空隙，间隙；be accustomed to: 习惯于；merit: v. 值得，应受。
7. acknowledged: 公认的，被普遍认可的；segment: 部分，环节。
8. culinary: 烹饪的；solitude: 独处，孤独。
9. wilted: 枯萎的，萎蔫的；lettuce: 生菜，莴苣；concoction: 调制品，调配物；appetizing: 促进食欲的，味美可口的。
10. obligatory: 必须的；bruise: （水果）被碰伤；crammed: 塞满的，挤满的。
12. harbor: v. 怀有（坏念头、恐惧、希望等）。
13. structure: 计划，安排。
14. communal: 共用的，公共的。
15. be absorbed in: 全神贯注于；carve out: 开辟出，此处指抽出时间。
16. format: 设计，外观。
17. cutlery: 餐具。
18. whilst: 在……时；bland: （食物）清淡的，无味的。
19. 等待我们的通常是诱人且多汁的肉饼和烤意大利面食，在餐厅的荧光灯下这些食品看着像是放了有段时间了。gravy: 肉汁；drenched: 浸透的；pasta: 意大利面食（包括通心粉及细面条等）；fluorescent: 荧光的。
20. till: <英>（商店等）放现款的抽屉，钱箱；roll: 面包卷；tuna: 金枪鱼；stack: v. 堆放，后文为名词，指一叠，一摞；Bakewell tart: 杏味果酱塔；sponge: <英>果冻。
21. ditch: 抛弃，丢弃；grab: 抓紧，赶紧（吃东西或睡觉等）。
22. slide: 悄悄移动。
23. packed: 非常拥挤的；devour: 狼吞虎咽地吃；peppered: 加胡椒粉的；hard-boiled: 煮熟了的；bun: 小圆面包；piping hot: 非常热的；congee: 粥。
24. pickled: 腌制的。
25. 午餐过后人们往往会散散步或者小憩一会儿，然后按照时间规定从容地开始下午的工作。regimented: 受严格规章制度管理的。
26. portion: 分配；relish: 享受，喜欢。
27. 这种价值观和做法值得我们英国人在生活中好好践行，吃饭不仅是麻烦人的必要环节，更多的还是一个与亲朋好友联络感情的好时机，那种滋味和食物本身一样，都值得我们好好品尝。savour: 品味，细细品尝。