For many, individual plates are routine at mealtimes. Each person receives a dish for themselves, be it a burger, pasta or steak. But for those raised in a Chinese household like me, communal eating — set to the sounds of relatives insisting we eat more and the clatter of serving utensils — are intensely familiar. Not only is this practice culturally significant, it largely shaped my relationship with food.

In Chinese culture, communal eating means food is served using gong kuai (which fittingly translates to “public chopsticks”) or gong shao (“public spoons”). Traditional rules call for the eldest or most honorable member of the group to be served first from their seat at the head of the table, after which diners are served clockwise. However, these customs can vary depending on the region.

My family considers these rules a suggestion rather than an obligation, but we wait for the entire table to be seated before digging in. During the meal, serving one another is seen as a sign of respect and care, and the conversation is always as plentiful as the food.

Communal eating reflects many Chinese cultural values. Serving shared plates encourages people to strengthen the social connections existent within their community. Large portions on the table present an opportunity to put others first by serving them before serving yourself. Communal eating emphasizes the need for human connection and makes it clear that we do not exist in a vacuum. Meals are a time to come together and express gratitude for the network of relationships we enjoy.

I notice differences between myself and peers unfamiliar with communal eating. Many tell me they prefer to eat separately from their families because it is what they’re accustomed to. They tend to eat more informally, whether watching TV or finishing homework and I find they often are less willing to share food, drink or utensils.

For me, food ought to be shared. Eating without friends and family feels foreign, even in the midst of tension. Communal eating is a powerful connector and not something to be seen as strange or unsanitary.

When I eat with friends who are similarly accustomed to communal eating, we treat meals as if they are served to the entire table. Together, we decide on the best dishes to order to try a multitude of flavors. When the food arrives, everyone gets a fair share and no one is embarrassed to ask for more. By doing so, we learn about each other’s food preferences and establish a sense of comfort with everyone in the group.

I know I am not alone in my experience. First-year student Estella Xu said communal eating eliminates the feeling of disconnect with the people around her.

“If you make an active effort to eat communally, it brings you closer together,” Xu said. “Choosing to eat individually in a restaurant setting feels formal, almost like I’m meeting someone for the first time.”

Xu said sharing food creates an opportunity to escape a “me first” mentality and pushes people to be conscious of one another.

“Instead of starting to eat whenever you want, you’re encouraged to think, ‘you first,’ and consider if others have food on their plate,” Xu said.

In college, there are fewer opportunities to eat communally in dining halls. When I do get the chance, it makes me grateful for the way this practice shaped my relationship with food. I am closer to the people around me because of it.

I hope in the future, I can continue to connect with others by sharing a bit of my culture -- and my food.