China's window to the world

18 Feb 2006|LiAnne Yu

In China, food is love. Food represents familial ties and status between people: the elderly and most prestigious guests are always served the first and best parts of the dish. Food represents commitment: business deals and marriages aren’t sealed with paperwork but by the opulence of the dinner banquet. Food represents all that Chinese parents feel but aren’t in the habit of saying: parents will spend without limit on fancy packaged snacks to show their love for their little emperors and empresses. And increasingly, food represents China’s window to the world.

In a recent ethnographic study we did on food in China, we found that people perceive foreign restaurants as more than just a different dining experience – they saw these places as windows to the world. Parents, in particular, believed that in taking their kids to foreign restaurants, they were giving their children new opportunities to experience the world outside of China, and that this would lead to a better future. “We don’t really like the taste of pizza, but we like going to Pizza Hut because our children can have the experience a modern environment,” several Chinese parents told us. Indeed, Pizza Hut in China is very different than the back here in the U.S. Young, ambitious waiters and waitresses in uniforms and aprons serve their customers with exuberance. Dark tables, soft cushioned sofas, and pictures on the wall give Pizza Hut the atmosphere of fine dining.

For China’s youths, foreign restaurants have become stages for enacting new behaviors tied to being modern and cool. “When I take my girlfriend out for Western food, we sometimes hold hands under the table or I put my arm around her. We would never do that in a traditional Chinese restaurant. It would feel strange!” said one young man. In the stylish Brazilian, Thai, and Italian restaurants we visited, we saw couples sitting next to one another in the dim light, giggling and nibbling on dishes together. It seemed the food was always secondary – having a place to enjoy private moments in a public setting was the more important.

China’s rising middle class dreams of travel and experiencing the world outside of their borders. Foreign restaurants are the start of such journeys.

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