Historically, Chinese are obsessed with food. It would not be uncommon for a person to spend two hours cooking a meal, something that would be shocking for the average American. In fact, the most common greeting historically is not the general non-specific “how are you?” (how do you truthfully answer that profound question?), but is actually a very specific question of concern, “chilemeiyou, have you eaten yet?” Which is apparently a hold-over from history, since, generation upon generation, there was always the threat of famine and starvation. So eating is a key issue, especially to ask about.
有史以来中国人对食物是着迷的。一个人花两个小时做饭并不少见，这对普通美国人来说是令人震惊的。在现实生活中，那些英文国家的人会问你“How are you?”但中国历史上最常见的问候并不是这种泛泛而指的“你的情况好吗？”（你该如何回答这样深奥的问题？）实际上“你吃了吗？才是人们担心的一个问题，这是历史遗留问题的一个体现。因为一代又一代，总是有饥荒和饥饿的威胁。所以吃饭是一个关键问题，大家特别关心。
And the question of have you eaten yet is always germane, since it could pertain to have you eaten breakfast, lunch, or dinner; at any moment in time you are always in between any of these 3 meals, so this question is a perfect question to ask at any time of the day. The Chinese language doesn’t have clumsy English past and future tenses, and the Chinese “have you eaten (literally eat, no, yes)?” is actually inclusive of have you eaten in the past or are you about to eat, soon? Got it? The westerner probably is quite confused at this moment, but it is a fact.
Looking at travel brochures is a great way to understand culture. Travel brochures in China will list clearly that at each site being visited, there will be a sumptuous meal of some kind, some special menu unique to the local area, or of one of numerous regional dishes of China (think Hunanese, Hainanese, Shanghainese…), and always billed as a fantastic meal. And meals in China are indeed always great meals, often served banquet style, with 12 or 24 dishes (think Chinese buffet lining the rim of a huge round table for 12, but with new substitutes coming at unpredictable times)! In contrast if you look at the usual travel brochure in the West, it’s just about the spectacular scenery and significant historical sites, with barely a mention of a good meal. That would be really strange, and possibly a disappointment, to a person from China.
We were traveling along the River Lijiang, in Guangxi province, on a boat that was crowded with tourists from various cities of China. The scenery was gorgeous, with the steep cliffs, narrow waters, and half naked men pushing their flat log rafts using long poles poked into the sand. My son and daughter were with me, and we were busy taking lots of photos of unusual karst formations from the deck of the boat. We suddenly realized that we were the only three people watching the scenery. No one else was around, it seemed. Then we realized that everyone was down in the main cabin, busily eating a colorful and huge meal that was part of the service, of course. No one was watching the beautiful scenery, except probably as an incidental background to the fragrant main features on the table, as the boat glided serenely down the river. Except for these three strange people from America, who actually were interested in something besides delicious food.
Food being such an important part of Chinese and Asian life, it is really no surprise that most business is done over a great meal. Thus the term used in English about breaking bread (having a close relation to another person by sharing and therefore breaking the bread together over a meal) has an even deeper emotional significance, in the Asian context. Of course Asians may not break bread literally, but most likely scoop rice.
The novice westerner who goes to China for a business or joint venture often is surprised initially that the local host does not really seem to want to talk about business. He would love to have dinner with you, and the dinner could indeed be a sumptuous 24 course dinner just held in honor of you. And so you might think that the topic should get to the business, at some point, or points, during the banquet. But the dinner goes on and on, and maybe tomorrow there’s another dinner. And maybe there’s another dinner. You keep thinking, when are we going to get to the business part? Except that it doesn’t seem as if the business topic comes up at all, until at the very end of the very last meal, very innocently and as a matter of fact, the host turns to the westerner and says, “and O, yes about that deal we were talking about (which you don’t really remember was talked about), it’s no problem, we’ll get it done.” It’s just details.
The dinner’s over, and the deal is sealed. No lawyers, no papers. Just trust. He’s been sizing you up for the last few great meals and sense that he can do business with you. He’s likely thinking, “You’re okay, I can trust you, we can seal the deal. No need for those pesky lawyers. I’ve figured you out.”
For hundreds of years or maybe thousands of years, this has been the way that business was conducted, and it worked well. Trust is what counts. Chinese have often been considered some of the best businessmen in the world, probably because they honed their business skills over deliciously stimulating (and reassuring) food, and did not depend on Harvard educated lawyers. Could be cheaper, also. Unfortunately, today Chinese have started using pricey lawyers too, and maybe indeed it has become more “efficient.” Time will tell. I just hope the food doesn’t become too western.
Somehow in the West we tend to forget the importance of personal trust, and we think that lawyers will provide us with trust (which I guess they do?). There are many ways to build up trust, and breaking bread or scooping rice are great ways of building friendship, trust, and fun, from which great deals can be made. That’s just another variation of having more coffee with uncle Reggie, I think.