I come home for dinner with my extended family over the weekend. My thirteen-year-old cousin announces that she is finished and is about to leave, but my uncle chastises her for not finishing every grain of rice in her rice bowl. He looks to my mother in support, and she explains the reasoning behind the belief.
[Mother to cousin]: “This is something that my grandmother told me and your father when we were young. Every grain of rice is the result of hard work from the rice farmers, and not finishing all your rice is disrespecting them. If you do not finish grains of rice, it reflects on your character and shows that you do not value the hard work of those in society. Because of this, a freckle will grow on your face for every grain of rice that you do not finish. My grandmother told me that this happened to her when she was young. Her mother told her to finish all the rice in the bowl, but she stubbornly refused. Over the next two years, she grew three freckles that she did not have before this.”
Meaning to informant: This belief is very important to my mother and uncle because my grandmother was the primary caretaker of both of them. Their parents were both doctors who worked long hours and were not home often. My mother and uncle respected my grandmother a lot and took her words very seriously. While they do not know whether or not to believe the story about my grandmother’s freckles, following the belief is a form of honoring and remembering my great-grandmother. It is also a habit that they have formed and kept since their childhood.
Analysis: The belief shows that rice is very important to Chinese culture and that every grain is considered to be valuable. Historically, this was because many families in China were not very rich, and parents would tell their children this to enforce good habits about not wasting food. This is different from other foods like fish because fish represents wealth and if you were able to eat fish regularly historically in China, it would mean that your family was pretty well off. There is also a belief in China that leaving fish for the next year was a symbol of good fortune and wealth, which is why people leave leftover fish to be finished the next day on Chinese New Year.