Food Lifestyle

Communal Eating: Comparing Cultures and Controlling a Crisis

Coronavirus has prevented us meeting friends and relatives, celebrating milestones and enjoying the simple comforts of proximity, let alone physical contact. Now, Chinese authorities at a provincial as well as national level are trying to alter a social tradition going back hundreds of years – communal eating. The authorities are largely addressing the specific endeavour of  ‘gongkuai’ where diners use individual chopsticks to eat from a collective dish, traced to the Song dynasty around the turn of the millenium in 1000 AD, before which state-sponsored campaigns claim common utensils were the norm. The absence of serving spoons has led to the speculation that saliva transferred from individual utensils to the food is a method of transmitting the virus, and could be responsible for its spread within families or other close groups who practice such eating habits. But the devil is very clearly in the oft-misunderstood details: calling for the eradication of chopsticks themselves, or for complete avoidance of communal dishes, is different from changing one specific aspect of communal eating, personal chopsticks. Why, then, is the tendency for Western media outlets reporting on the issue is to advocate, implicitly or, in the case of the Economist, nearly explicitly, that fully ‘Westernising’ to individual dishes is the only realistic solution?

The article in question quotes a 1980s New York Times headline, to say that when former Communist Party General Secretary Mr. Hu was paraphrased as believing “the future lacks chopsticks”, China should have listened. This is written in a semi-ironic tone, asking the reader to laugh along at the headline- but the underlying argument of the whole article is clear in its sympathy with a Chinese administration trying through any means necessary, from propaganda to proffered discounts, to change a population stuck to dangerous, naïve and archaic customs. Of course logic assumes that a disease transmitted via saliva droplets could realistically be transferred between people through their individual chopsticks and the dishes at hand.  But the reality is that there is little to no research indicating that sharing food could itself cause the virus to be transmitted. With the US Food and Drug Administration guidelines as of May 6 2020 state, “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food” . In terms of actual likelihood for the virus being transferred, then, using serving spoons to serve yourself from common dishes versus ordering separate dishes for each person – both of which eliminate the saliva factor – are equal.  There is no doubt that simply sitting together at a table, whether or not you have personal portions, will greatly increase the risk of transmission in any case. Even if the Chinese authorities are actually trying to orient their people toward Western-style individualised eating, this is deeply problematic in its attempts to erase culturally-rooted modes of social interaction when the science shows this change will not mitigate the risks.

One is reminded eerily of colonial-era ideas regarding ‘uncivilised’ versus ‘civilised’ cultures. Separate dishes and portions – forget what the Chinese are actually advocating, which is the use of serving utensils – are normal in the West, even at family meals and celebrations, where you choose specific items and eat nothing but your own dishes throughout the meal unless invited for a small taste of someone else’s.  In most Asian cultures, this is not the case and never could be; I can recall my own confusion at my first meal with non-Asian friends when I watched each person place separate orders, struggling to quickly decide which dish I would be able to finish all by myself. Amongst my family and my friends in India, we order everything as women in chick-flicks do at bars after a friend’s breakup– “fries and vodka shots for the table, and keep them coming”. Historically, this was a norm even in Europe until discrete dishes became a marker of economic prosperity around the seventeenth century because it was more labour intensive to have each diner at, for instance an aristocratic dinner party, be served their own separately-prepared dish for each course, and this trend was further catalysed by the growth of restaurant culture. 

Asian traditions of communal eating which haven’t changed for centuries, ranging from Middle Eastern large rice plates shared around the table to Indian families eating naan with shared curries in a five-star hotel, are construed as unhygienic and implicitly inferior to Western culture’s personalised dishes. This is not a question of utensils versus no utensils, or common chopsticks versus serving chopsticks, but reflective of narratives ingrained deep into our understandings of culture; in some sense, these dining practices have been linked to surface-level perceptions of East-West culture clash. Asian cultures are seen as restrictive to the individual, overly encouraging submissiveness to familial and communal collective good while the West is independent, allowing each person their freedom without the ‘cultural suffocation’ of such societal burdens. Evident even in recent media portrayals of South Korea – which claim the nation’s success at dealing with the virus is due to “an ancient culture of docile collectivism” compared, as The Atlantic has shown, with American or Western norms of cultural independence – the perception that Asian cultures are inherently worse for the individual than those of the West is being highlighted during this time of crisis. Giving one or two people the responsibility to order for the table and then partaking in the same dishes together is contrasted with taking charge of your own food choices. But communal eating isn’t an archaic custom that does not allow you the freedom of your own preference. In reality, it allows each diner greater variety– if you ordered ‘Western-style’ at, say, Pizza Express, you would be limited to the one alfredo pasta you selected. When you order as a group, everyone can have a little from multiple pizzas, multiple kinds of pasta and excitingly enough, I have had the pleasure of ordering ‘one of each thing’ on the dessert menu as a result of this communal system. You can still have what you want, but multiple people will share it and you will equally share their selections. If you decide the pasta sauce which seemed enticing on the menu isn’t to your liking, just eat more of the pizza instead, without needing to inconvenience the other person for whom that pizza would be their whole meal in a Western-style system. 

As one interviewee in China Daily stated, “sharing food is also a way of showing trust”, and so insistence upon forgoing this sign of social proximity could be viewed as a lack of faith or affection for fellow diners. Campaigns in China at rural levels as well as in urban centres such as Shanghai use slogans such as “divide chopsticks, not love” to emphasise this change does not undercut the practice of dining together, nor should it be perceived as a social slight to request using serving utensils rather than personal chopsticks. This is a change to a specific method of eating, such as eating Indian food with your hands or ramen with a special utensil, but not in the style of dining communally itself, which holds an essential place in cultural life. Using coronavirus concerns to construct the style of individual dishes as superior – culturally, hygienically, practically – is part of a problematically denigrating view of Asian cultures for whom communal dining is an intrinsic and irreplaceable part of social interactions.  Lockdown won’t let me meet my friends now, but it gives me an amount of comfort to know that when I meet my best friend from home at a newly-reopened McDonalds, we will hopefully continue the system we’ve always had: they’ll get the burger, I’ll get the wrap, and we’ll split them equally with a shared order of fries.