Friday, February 6, 2015

The Superlatives of a Chinese "Humble" Dinner

When in China, one does what the Chinese do.  And when it comes to doing, eating takes up a huge chunk of the average Chinese's time and money.  The results of the devotion is apparent in how large shopping malls, most of which filled to the brim with different eateries, are popping up across the country.   Yet, for the Chinese, that is not enough to justify their love of food in special occasions, and interestingly enough, the author had firsthand experience of the lavish extremes that his extended family, like many others, are willing to go to celebrate their love for good food.

As the so-called welcome dinner for the author's three-day stay in Nanjing, he and his grandmother are invited by distant cousins for what they termed as a "humble meal."  Picked up from grandmother's house in their new leather-seat private car, the group drove to what seemed to not to be a mall but a brightly lighted five-story building in the urban outskirts.  Expecting the truthfulness of the meal's humbleness, the author casually walked into the nondescript building, expecting the first floor to be another corner restaurant so common in Chinese cities.

"We have booking for the fifth floor," the cousin casually remarked to the service personnel at what looks like a hotel's front desk immediately upon entering the building's main entrance.  Yes, it turned out the whole five floors of the building belongs to the same restaurant, catering to groups large and small, with different needs in food specialization (dim sum on the first floor, seafood on the second...) and seating arrangement (top floors contained purely private rooms, each higher floor with larger tables to accommodate more people)

The size of the place is staggering.  Even at the top floor, where the author's group was ushered into a private room that can easily fit a dozen people around a large round table, the number of private rooms comfortably exceed quantities offered by the average karaoke parlor.  With five floors put together, it is safe to assume that the restaurant can accommodate up to a thousand people simultaneously.  Observing the waiters running vertically and horizontally across the floors at 7pm on a weekday, the restaurant is hardly anxious about its excess capacity.

At the dinner table, the "humble" meal was quickly escalating in scale.  With only five people in the group, the quantity of a single meal was monstrous.  Gigantic dishes, each piled high enough to serve as a couple of people's full meals, came one by one in succession.  Broiled shrimp, beef brisket, lamb chops, roasted duck, fried pork, chicken soup...possibly all domesticated animals readily available and fit for human consumption appeared in separate dishes on the table.  With the same five people, there was neither hope or attempt to finish everything on the table.

The dinner table conversation was, unsurprisingly, about eating.  Not just introducing the dishes on the table and how properly to eat them, but also about the general philosophy of eating.  There were explorations of Chinese history on why Chinese cuisine has become so diverse and elaborate, cultural opinions on why Chinese value camaraderie cemented over dinner tables, and pompous statements on centrality of food to Chinese psyche as something not found anywhere else in the world.  While many of the points made are more joking than factual, the importance of food cannot be any clearer.

With the average Chinese's disposable income continuing to rise, the excess to which the Chinese people lavish on dining out will definitely become even more worryingly common and extreme.  The likes of ridiculous ten-course dinners for five people will not disappear, and more buildings will be completely rented out as multistory restaurants.  Perhaps thinking the same as the author, the author's uncle quietly sighed and shook his head to the joyous pigging out session of the younger cousins.  "Chinese and their food..." his voice trailed off disapprovingly.

Indeed, while food is consumption like any other, it really cannot be considered productive consumption.  Unlike electronic, it does not make work productive, and unlike household goods, it does not make life any more convenient.  Instead, the end result of overeating in the form of obesity-induced diseases, can only bring out decreases in quality of life in the long-term, no matter how much face a full dinner can give the eaters.  Maybe, just maybe, one day the Chinese will realize the ludicrousness of expending so much of newly gained wealth on filling their stomachs.

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