It was my second hot pot dinner of my trip to China and I had already fallen in love with this signature meal of the Sichuan province. The waiters brought out the familiar favorites (chicken, beef, noodles) and the Chengdu specialties (duck tongue, quail egg, lotus root), and, immediately, hands from every direction collided over the boiling broth in the center of the table. Chopsticks flew from plate to plate. Our Chinese friends dumped more food on our plates than on their own and spent most of the time searching on their phones for English descriptions of the mystery meats we were all devouring. It was then that our new friend Mike (I failed to learn his Chinese name) announced to the table: “When we eat together, we are like brothers – like sisters.” And for a moment – there was quiet (the most shocking thing to experience in a hot pot restaurant).
I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss American food while I was in China, but it lacks a crucial element of Chinese dining culture: the community built at a dinner table. Ordering food was a discussion – a table-wide compromise determining what food would satisfy everyone equally. After that came the delicious chaos of actually eating. Elbows collided, food flew, broth splashed, chopsticks clamored, and everyone shared everything. Nothing was claimed by anyone. The food belonged to the table.
Not only was it a chance to share food, but also a chance to share ideas. With our friends from Sichuan University we talked politics, language, education, and even High School Musical. The food was a bridge over an ocean – a shared experience to shatter any cultural barriers we once had. After that meal, I really did begin to see these friends as family. Mike’s words were the truest words I heard in China. And that meal was the best meal of my life.
Months before I embarked on my trip to China, I was not so excited. In fact, I was mostly scared. Every time I shared with someone my plans to fly overseas and take part in Sichuan University’s Summer Immersion Program, I was not met with encouragement, but with confusion and fear.
“What do you expect to gain from that?”
I met with the unfortunate discovery that we live in a world of borders; we see the differences in each other rather than the similarities. We plug our ears and refuse to listen to the wisdom other cultures can offer. In this heavily globalized world, we have become more divided than ever.
Mike opened my eyes to the importance of learning from our friends across country lines. He taught me to drop my prejudices at the boarding gates and enter new countries with an open mind and an open heart. I owe it to him to hold this knowledge with me and to continue sharing it with my future friends around the world. I owe it to him to continue my travels abroad.