Chinese food culture is pretty hard to miss. There’s even a Chinese greeting - 你吃了吗? - that literally means "have you eaten?" However, the American portrayal of Chinese food culture is painfully boring, and beyond the use of chopsticks, most Americans are unaware of the authenticity that lies behind the neighborhood Panda Express.

So as a fellow American, who both knows and has been through the struggle, here is my experience with native Chinese food and some "need to knows" on the differences between how a Chinese and American person eats.

My Native Chinese Food Background 

Healthy in my Tummy photo by Pooja Chaudhary (@threepointswheretwolinesmeet) on Unsplash

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My first experience with authentic Chinese food was the summer following graduation when I went to Xi'an, China. I had never traveled alone in a foreign country and could not speak any Mandarin when I first arrived, and my food experience was greatly affected by this. I inevitably fell in love with Chinese language and culture, and after studying Chinese for a year, I returned to China last summer and was determined to have experimental eye-opening experiences with Chinese food this time around. 

My first food encounter in the vibrant Sichuan province was with my classmates. We didn’t share food and we paid for ourselves, so despite the long struggle I faced with my chopsticks, the environment was still an "eating at home with family" type of familiar.

Fifteen minutes later, walking down the road of local restaurants and cafes, I realized I had it all wrong. And as a born and raised American, the encompassing aroma of Sichuan spices came as a pleasant surprise. 

There’s a Developed Social Culture Behind Food

Mackenzie Patel

Remember that high school psych class where we learned that eastern cultures tend to be collectivist and western cultures are more individualist? Well, they weren’t kidding. Although the Chinese youngsters have gotten the western memo and are much more into the self-pay system, the older generation still rolls with the concept of treating each other.

Being from an Asian background myself, the idea of treating friends to dinner was not entirely foreign. Believing myself to be well mannered, I attempted to pay for myself when my host family took me out to eat. Little did I know, my supposed politeness was actually insulting.

In China, treating others to meals is so common there’s actually a way to say you want to pay for yourself. The phrase AA recently rose through Chinese pop culture basically meaning “split the check."

They Eat Out a Lot

Mackenzie Patel

Growing up we’re taught that eating out is a treat and that cooking at home should be the norm. The Chinese appreciate a good home cooked meal just as much as the next family man, but the reality is that good food is so accessible that there’s no need to put in the extra effort.

In Xi’an, China, on my morning commute to the university, the street stands swarmed by crowds of people caught my eye. Chinese food stands are a complete hit. The vendors make fresh food, and the everyday people get portable, delicious, and cheap food in an instant. It’s every college student’s paradise. 

The Meat to Veggie Ratio 

Mackenzie Patel

As a vegetarian growing up in America, there were countless times when I would prefer to not eat out with friends because I didn't like the vegetarian option of most menus.  Had I not had my ability to talk endlessly, American meat to veggies ratios may have been the tragic end to my social life. With the recent trend towards veganism, my eating out nightmares have vanished, but there's definitely still work to be done.  

China, on the other hand, has their meat to veggie proportions down to a T. Most dishes are a mix of veggies and meat, and the range of vegetables found in China surpasses those of America. It's super easy and convenient to sub veggies in for meats or you can simply ask for the dish without meat.

Not only is it ideal for meat eaters chasing a healthy balance but also for vegetarians afraid of not having enough food choices. China also has strictly vegan and vegetarian restaurants, not due to the lack of vegetarian options at the everyday restaurant, but instead because of the cultural groups within China who follow such diets.

The Chinese Takeaway

Mackenzie Patel

To all my fellow foodies, don’t let Chinese food scare you. American Chinese food and authentic Chinese food are miles apart, and the vivacious food culture surrounding how the Chinese eat is worth exploring.