Chinese Eating Habits- Seniority at the Dinner Table

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: We, we Chinese people like to have, uh, a lot of family gatherings for, for dinner. Basically lunch and dinner we gather all the relatives in the house to have lunch and dinner in these big round tables and you pass the food. You don’t really pass the food, but the food is placed on this spinning table, the spinning table and then uh, people spin that to eat.

Interviewer: We call that a lazy Susan, what do you call it?

GS: Uh, we just call it, like, the spinning table.

GS: And then, um most of the time we get together to celebrate different phases in people’s lives or relatives coming back home. There’s lot of occasions where these, um, things, um, but one particular thing about this family eating at the round table is that I was always taught that elders are supposed to get their food first. So, let’s imagine you’re all sitting down at the table and then the food is there. I mean, naturally you’re really hungry so you want to dig in, but you can’t, you have to wait, in terms of seniority you have to wait for, let’s say your grandpa, of course the male, the grandpa to get his food, then the grandma, and then, you know the oldest uncle, the oldest- second, the oldest, like, it goes in like age as respect so the more, older someone is the more respected they are. And they get the food in that, in that order and um usually a kid, a young kid, might be the last one to get his food. Unless, you know, per, unless you know perhaps they might be celebrating his return from college or something, but even in that case the grandma will definitely get food first. Uh, also I know here in America there’s this thing where you wait for everybody to gather to the table before you start eating and then uh, to you know, circumvent that, or to escape that kind of thing, you can ask, ‘is it okay to eat first,’ and mostly they’ll reply yes, and then you can eat first, but in, um, back home you can’t do that, you have to wait until everybody is seated, you know, till the father, or the patriarch, the grandfather, you know, the head male figure, picks up his chopsticks, eats, and then everybody else can eat, and then everybody else digs in. So uh, this is really significant of this patriarchal society in uh, Taiwan or Chinese culture. The thing I was talking about was basically the very Confucian belief in (indistinguishable) piety where the older you are the more respect you have.

Again, GS here mostly explains the significance of seniority in a social event (such as dinner) in Chinese culture. The emphasis on age and gender is rarely deviated from, particularly in comparison to such habits in the United States.

As GS touched on, I found this system to be much stricter than for United States practice. In Chinese culture, while the child might be the last to get his food, they might also be able to exercise the least restraint of all the guests at the table. In American culture, thus, a small child might begin eating right away without any consequence. The strict adherence to social rules in a Chinese dinner thus reflects the strong value in tradition and discipline in that culture. The lack of deviation (and minimally so even on a special occasion) demonstrates how important these rules are. In addition, by my own interpretation, dinner is an incredibly important ritual of ingesting nutrition. The oldest in the family is not likely to have the greatest health, and thus eating is most important for them (as opposed to the younger family members, who can handle a short time without eating). Thus, this strict order addresses the nutritional needs of the people involved. This may also be influenced by the responsibility of bringing food for the table: It can be assumed that the patriarch has been providing food for the family for the longest time (via employment), and then the matriarch the second-longest (via food preparation). As such, this practice seems to be an exercise in rewarding the hardest workers, again instilling a sense of discipline at the dinner table. As food can be such a personal part of life (one very closely related to emotions), the values instilled here clearly represent a monumentally important facet of life in this culture.