A Window Into Chinese Culture Through Workaway

Volunteers, and sometimes performers.

Imagine a vast plot of hundreds of acres of land, set deep amongst the quiet villages of rural western China. A well-paved road snakes its way through the property, past beautiful, modern buildings, past pond after pond after pond. Children smile merrily by the side of the road, and faces of many different colors beam back at you as you nod your head in greeting.

What kind of place do you think this is? I’ll bet ‘pig farm’ wasn’t what you had in mind! When my boyfriend Sudir (name changed for privacy) and I signed up for a work exchange (volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation) at a partially-organic farm in the Chinese countryside, something so luxurious wasn’t what we had in mind.

We even had our own private ultra-comfortable cottage next to a pond, were treated extremely well, and…barely had to do any work?! Aside from a bit of English teaching, mostly our work occurred in 12-hour bursts every few days: Since Sudir is a chef, our main task was to cook elaborate meals for important guests.

Crazy-Fancy Dinners

Our first job was to cook an extravagant meal for some local bankers who would visit the farm to talk about giving a loan of 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan to the farm.

The meal was to be 11 courses, and we were to cook 5 of them. Yes, you read that right. It’s not a typo. The bankers were getting an 11-course meal!! Apparently, this is quite common for business dinners in China.

We diligently prepared the list of ingredients in the days prior, then set to work in the late morning in order to prepare the dinner. We made eggplant parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, I made a massive apple pie on a cookie sheet, and I don’t even remember what our other two courses were.

The family of Lee, our host, prepared elegant Sichuanese dishes with fish, pork, beans, and more. We plated everything, taking great care to arrange the food the same way on each plate and in aesthetically pleasing patterns.

The volunteers who weren’t involved in cooking were instructed to sit at the table with the bankers, to “fill the extra spaces at the table” — a request that seemed a bit odd, but no one complained about being made to sit through a 12-course gourmet meal. When I was no longer needed in the kitchen, I was instructed to do the same.

None of the bankers spoke English, but Lee acted as translator. In turn they each gave toasts, but in a way to which I wasn’t accustomed: They would walk around the entire table, toasting every single person with a shot of Baiju (hard liquor that tastes really rank). When they would come to a particular person’s chair, the person being toasted would stand up.

Typically, the content of the toasts was stuff about wishing them health and prosperity, and then they would engage in the most interesting formality: Just before they clinked their glasses, both people tried to put their glass lower than the other person’s, sometimes resulting in the ridiculously amusing spectacle of both people bending down in a rather awkward fashion in a wholehearted attempt to hold their glass lower than the other person’s glass.

Having the lower position is apparently a sign of respect and humility; effectively a game of who-respects-who-more. Humility is paramount in Chinese culture.

That first dinner must have gone well, because the bank granted the farm the massive loan for which they had asked.

We were asked to prepare another such meal two more times during our tenure there — this time for officials from the regional government.

As the dinners progressed, we learned more and more about interesting customs…

  • The most important person at the meal sits at the head of the table. The second most important person sits to their right. The third most important person sits to their left.
  • The baiju and wine glasses should always be filled. If the server isn’t mindful of that, it’s rude.
  • While serving a whole fish, it is of utmost importance that its eyes and mouth should be facing the door. Otherwise, it’s really bad luck.
  • It’s important that everyone walk around the table toasting each individual present. And by toasting, I don’t mean saying “cheers!” and calling it a day…I mean making a drawn-out, individualized speech about their well-wishes for each individual. Even the foreigners had to do it!
  • Not to drink is rude. The owner of the farm had a serious health condition that is exacerbated by drinking; once he even wound up in the hospital for a few days. He also gets drunk very easily and quickly. Despite this, he still had to show respect by drinking copious amounts at the dinners!
  • If it’s a family dinner, the women typically serve the men, then they eat later on.
  • The number four is very bad luck, because it is pronounced similarly to the word for ‘death’ in Chinese. Therefore, if there are four fish in the soup, you’d better take three out. Four brussel sprouts in that pile? Add of subtract one. This is taken very seriously.
  • No one can leave until the most important guest leaves. It is very rude to leave before them.

Showing Our Faces to the Parents

When the summer camp commenced, we were asked to be present at the opening ceremony. It seemed very important to Lee that we were there. Sporting our camp shirts, we were introduced briefly as camp counselors. Later, we found out that having foreigners present at official events is considered very impressive; a sign of being important and worldly. (This also explained the need for us to “fill the extra seats at the table” at the bankers’ dinner.)

The Takeaway: Ritual, Cliche, and Traditional Cultures

We were treated extremely well at the farm. The hosts were genuinely interested in our lives and our cultures, and the dinners were a fascinating way to gain insight into Chinese culture.

I frequently criticize my own culture: I think that US culture teaches people to be too individualistic, to the point of self-centeredness that manifests in frequent one-sided “conversations” (read: monologues) and copious, overly-indulgent amounts of self-congratulation under the guise of “self-love” and “self-care”.

However, this time I found myself feeling grateful that I don’t have to deal with the unique pressures of Chinese culture to conform to one’s given role, like drinking too much when I shouldn’t drink at all, or serving the men before being allowed to eat, or having to wait to leave until the “most important person” is ready to go.

On the other hand, finding out about all these little rituals like the fish head and the intricacies of the toasting and avoiding the number four made me nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced: The richness of being firmly rooted in a traditional culture.

My family is Jewish, technically; I know that just a couple of generations ago we also had traditions (which of course come with their own set of unreasonable rules and pressures). My parents raised my brother and I without any of that, on purpose. And I’m glad we were raised in a secular environment, free to believe what we wanted and choose our own views, but I do wonder, sometimes, what it would be like if I understood what goes on at a Passover Seder.

I once had a theater teacher who talked a lot about ritual and cliche. Ritual, he said, is something that holds things together. That instills a sense of anchored-ness, of community. Cliche is something that used to have meaning, but doesn’t anymore; it’s a ritual gone stale. It isn’t serving anyone, isn’t creating connection anymore.

To the untrained eye, those fancy dinners looked like environments bursting with thriving rituals. But they come with unfair pressure. I went away feeling simultaneously jealous of the traditions and relieved that I’m not subject to so many pressures.

Indeed most traditional cultures share this two-sided package of rich traditions and rituals that come along with pressures that ultimately serve no one. This has left me with a question: Can we create societal models grounded in ritual, but exempt from unfair pressures?

Long-term low-budget nomad writing about travel mishaps and adventures, relationships, sharing economy, and whatever else strikes my fancy that day.

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