Chinese Eating Habits and Health

The informant is an eighteen-year old student from Los Angeles. He was born in Taipei and received schooling in America. He had been studying in Taipei before moving back to the United States for university. He speaks Chinese and English and will be referred to in this transcript as “GS.”

GS: Back home, we have a lot of like, superstitions, or folk beliefs about what we eat. So the most common one is that uh, you are what you eat. Or in, uh, I guess that’s the English translation, but in Chinese culture we say, uh, you grow, or you give a boost to whatever you eat. So, um, if people have an eye problem, uh, relatives might say oh, you should eat more eyes. To get better eyes. If you have a liver problem they might say eat more livers to get better livers. Yeah, if you have, you know, let’s say, a dysfunctional problem, you might have to eat more, you know, uh, eat…phalluses. To, uh, get better, uh, at that. So like there’s this, this whole consideration of like, you are what you eat. So uh, once again, if you’re short on blood you might eat congulated, coagulated, like, duck blood or something like that. So, yeah. We also have this conception that eating fish makes you smarter. I dunno why, eating fish makes you smarter and then that uh, uh that’s about it, but-

Interviewer: So what do you think is the-

GS: Significance?

Interviewer: Yeah

GS: Okay, so most of the time that you say this, you might say it to somebody who’s sick or something like that, but we don’t’ really believe in that. I know, like, whenever my grandmother says it to me, she’ll go like, ‘oh, you wanna get buff so you eat more chicken,’ and then she’ll just take a big bowl of chicken and like put like five pieces in my plate. And of course her being my grandma I can’t reject that. So I was like, ‘okay, okay, thank you,’ and then she’ll say this, she’ll say in Chinese it’s called ‘tse te bu ge,’ okay so that basically means ‘tse’ is eat and then ‘te’ is chicken and then ‘bu’ is, uh, like boost or, uh, grow or increase and then ;ge’ is also, also means ‘chicken,’ but it also means ‘muscle,’ so she might say something like that or ‘tse gan bu gan.’ Which once again, eat liver, gan is ‘liver,’ um, ‘boost liver,’ ‘increase liver,’ so she’ll say that and then she’ll put a bunch of food in my plate. So, I mean, I think that rather than a true belief it’s more of like, excuse to make people eat more. Which I think that every culture has some form of that.

As GS is able to provide a perspective from both within and outside of Chinese culture, his assessment sufficiently touches on this tradition’s significance. What I find interesting is that the phrase “you are what you eat” has a completely different connotation in the United States: It is often used to describe health, in the sense that if you put healthy food in your body, you will be healthy, and vice versa. Alternatively, it is used as a pro-vegetarian statement (since nobody wants to be considered a cow or pig). This Chinese version instead represents a very Zen idea, that being that energy constantly flows from one to place to another. In that sense, eating eyes boosts eye health because of that transfer of energy.

At the same time, GS makes the observation that while the phrase is meant this way, but is usually used to encourage someone to eat more. I believe this is the case in a family context, as it is common for families to share compassion by sharing food with each other. This is especially the case in Chinese families, where all relatives are very close and there’s a high chance of cross-generational interaction such as between the grandmother and grandson in the case of the boy. The example he gave about eating chicken to promote muscle growth is also indicative of the reinforcement of the classic male image as the strong protector of the family. The grandmother, coming from an older generation, wants to continue the idea of men being strong, so she passes on this idea in the form of an endearing proverb to encourage the grandson to eat more.