Mandarin (Simplified): “吃着碗里，看着锅里”
Pinyin (Simplified) : chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li
Literal translation: Eating in the bowl, looking in the pot
C is a Chinese international student from Anhui Province, Hefei studying at USC. There were a lot of pauses between sentences as C was finding the right words, as English was not his first language.
C： “This folk speech is relatively widespread in China. It’s not very local or original, but it’s more like a proverb. That kind of thing. It’s called “吃着碗里，看着锅里“ (chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li). My parents used that a lot with me, because when I was very young, I tend to be very protective of my food. And that’s why my parents described me as that. It translates that you’re eating the food in the bowl, and looking at the food in the pot. I remember one time when my cousin was visiting over the weekend and my parents was cooking a lot of good food. I was always the one eating the chicken leg, the best part of the chicken. And I was so protective, I licked the chicken. I was so young at the time. And my mom said that [proverb to me]. In my family, it was more about not being greedy.”
This proverb is a shorthand bit of wisdom passed down from parent to child. It condones the subject for being too greedy with food. In Mandarin, it’s also a comment on personal character. The direct English translation implies a passiveness to eating and looking, merely an observation. What’s lost from the original Chinese wording is the tone of condescension and the clear subject being the person who is eating. It is not only an observation but a warning. What is in the pot, what the eater cannot look away from, is something the bowl cannot and will not have. This proverb is not only about sharing food with others, but also a caution against selfish desire. One’s personal needs cannot always come first in every situation nor can they be met perfectly. It is not the right response to be ungrateful and expectant for a self-centered result every time, but better to practice moderation and patience with what one wants most and be understanding towards others about their own desires. This proverb’s nugget of knowledge goes past the surface level hoarding of food and deeper into human nature without becoming overbearingly moral. It exemplifies how proverbs operate in folklore well; as generational sayings that though short, have deep meaning.