One of the most enduring and universal traditions in Chinese culture is captured in the saying “上车饺子下车面”, which may be translated literally into “when they get on a car to leave you eat dumplings with them; when they get off a car and arrive you eat noodles with them”.
The origin of the tradition is very much unclear. A great number of Chinese people still practice this tradition today, but no one seems to know when it started. Some believe that it’s a younger tradition than many would assume – after all, it hasn’t been that long since dumplings and noodles became universally recognized (and eaten) in all regions across China.
Explanation for this phrase varies from person to person. The informant’s belief is that dumpling has the shape of ‘roundness’, and therefore produces a sense of ‘completeness’ and ‘reunion’. (in Chinese the character for ‘roundness’, 圆, also has the meaning of ‘completing’) A dumpling also has the same shape as a traditional gold or silver ingot (元宝), and is therefore an omen for good fortune. A dumpling, thus, is a wish for reunion and call for fortune to bless the departing. Noodles, on the other hand, have the shape of ‘long strings’, and therefore represent ‘ever-lasting attachment’. It’s celebration of the person’s return, and a wish that this person would stay here for long this time.
The informant is my mother. She would know of this tradition because, well, she’s Chinese. But amongst the numerous pieces of folklore legends and traditions that she brings with her, this simple piece carries an enormous weight – it’s about departure and reunion. Seeing that the four members of our family are living in four different cities spread across the globe, departures and reunions play a rather important role. It’s a tradition, but more than a tradition – it carries a wish, a hope, a blessing.
The importance of food in Chinese culture continues to be observed in its folkloric traditions. It’s intriguing to see how much poetry and meaning are imbued by the Chinese people into everyday food items – especially when contrasted with what seems to be a general indifference western cultures hold towards everyday objects. This may be seen as a perfect demonstration of what the Japanese call ‘物の哀れ’, or ‘Mono no aware’, or ‘an empathy towards things’. It is of course the departing or returning person who we are truly concerned about, but we convey our feelings using objects as vessels.