Quiz shows and neat little trivia cards will like to tell you that the Chinese greet each other with ‘吃了吗?’ or ‘have you eaten?’. It seems neat, and the little explanation in smaller font will tell you that this is due to the importance of food in Chinese people’s (and indeed everyone’s) lives.
Except, well –
Nobody uses it. People would understand you, but it would be like coming to London and exclaiming ‘how do you do’ with an aggressive handshake to every new person you meet. (你)吃了吗 (you eaten?) often appears in sections of phrasebooks trying to connect with culture, and often leaves Westerners appearing either hilariously stupid or like they are begging for food.
吃了吗 is said to have come from the famines of the 1950s, and is therefore common among older people today. An old chinese proverb ‘民以食为天’ translates as ‘the commoners regard food as heaven’, which pretty much sums up the sentiment behind 吃了吗. In an ancient and tight-knit society such as China’s, wellbeing of others was very important, and well-being was closely bound to food. Asking 吃了吗 is a way of showing that you care about how someone’s doing – but most definitely not an invitation to a meal.
If a Chinese person does ask you 吃了吗, a whole social dance of etiquette now begins. If you say that you have eaten, they may tell you to eat more, and if you have not, they may ask you to share a meal with them. Neither of these are actually inviting you to a meal! You are expected to politely decline, and go backwards and forwards ‘insisting’, when neither of you actually want a meal.
One way of avoiding this is to say ‘I’m just about to go have a meal’, so they don’t feel inclined to feed you (even though this is just a mask anyway). This appears all over Chinese culture; when arriving at someone’s house, they may offer you a drink, but don’t be fooled! You should decline, they will insist, you will decline, they will insist, and they may (or not) actually get you a drink.
The safest thing to do may be to avoid the upper circles of Chinese culture, and stick to the people who start a conversation with a nice simple 你好.
Things I learnt this week:
- Trivia cards lie. The whole time.
- The commoners may regard food as heaven, but they’re not the only ones
- Awkward little backwards and forwards dances can just be avoided with the magic word – hello.
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