A Bite of Food, A Whole Lotta Love
One thing about Chinese people, we love to eat. And we’ll eat (just about) anything. If it’s chewable then it’s edible, no matter how funny-looking or stinky. Forget oysters. The first person who accidentally ate a piece of stinky and moldy tofu or considered a thousand-year egg for his supper was really a brave man. And when other people noticed that this courageous gastronome didn’t die, they decided to put whatever it was on the menu.
We’ve always been a nation obsessed by food, so when CCTV produced “A Bite of China,” (舌尖上的中国 shejianshangde zhongguo) a seven-episode documentary all about Chinese food, it immediately became super popular. Some people online are calling it propaganda designed to distract from our country’s ongoing struggle with food quality and food safety, but if it is propaganda then it’s the first actually effective piece of propaganda CCTV has produced in a long time, maybe ever.
First of all, for all the state media blather about some nebulous ‘national unity,’ CCTV finally found a subject that everybody can get behind: Eating.
Second, instead of endlessly bragging about how China is the best or the oldest or the most special, this documentary lets the subject do the talking, with beautiful images of our culinary culture. Shot in high-definition, it feels like we are seeing these dishes for the first time, even as the images are so familiar that they immediately conjure up nostalgic memories of home and family. It reminds us of the food our mom used to cook and the families on the program are just like our relatives back in our hometown who generation after generation worked hard to put the best food they could on the family table.
Food is life. But in China, it is so much more…it is love.
My family is a traditional family. My parents never show their love to each other or to me through the kind of physical affection I see in the US between parents and children. They’ve never gone out of their way to tell me how much they love me, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say those words to each other. My dad has never hugged me. To be honest, if he did I’d probably freak out and think he was dying or something. Nevertheless, our home was always full of love and I never doubted my parents’ feelings toward me or toward each other. Especially at dinner time.
When I was a kid my parents would cook many kinds of food for dinner every night and as we sat around the table I would tell them what happened at school that day and then they would share the latest gossip from their danwei. For me, and I think for them too, it was the best time of every day. Even though we were not rich, my parents would always save the best parts of each dish for me. Watching me happily eating the food that they had cooked especially for me seemed to make them so happy.
When I moved to Beijing for university, I missed my parents’ cooking most of all. When I told my parents I was coming home for a visit, my Mom would start preparing food right away – even if I wasn’t planning to be back for another few weeks. Even now that I’m married and have been living in Beijing for over a decade, they still are in the habit of making tons of food to bring to Beijing, filling our refrigerator with dumplings and stewed pork and all the things they know I like to eat.
For busy young people struggling to make it far from home, food brings back all of those wonderful memories of a time when we were safe, and protected, and loved.
Last week I was discussing the documentary with one of my friends who now lives in the US. She was back in China visiting family and she said that the nostalgia and emotion she felt when watching this program had given her a strong desire to move back to China permanently. Now THAT’S soft power.
I don’t know if non-Chinese will have the same reaction to the documentary, but it’s certainly caused many of us to think about our country differently. Rather than shouting about bombing some rocks in the South China Sea or whining about evil foreigners, CCTV has finally given us a show which instills a sense of true pride in our culture and our nation. Since I complain about CCTV all the time, I think it’s only fair that when they do something good they should get the credit too. So…well done, CCTV.
 As Jeremiah likes to joke, “Of course Chinese food is good. Your people were cooking banquets for kings when my ancestors were picking pine cones off the ground and thinking, ‘that’s real crunchy.’”