Asians love to eat, especially at banquets, which sometimes have as many as 12 or more people around each dinner table. And if you have eaten at such banquets, you’re identifying further with billions of people all over the world, over many thousands of years, who have done something similar, at least at times of celebrations! It’s a very human thing to do. Maybe you are even fantasizing about just such a sumptuous feast right now.
But meals together are taboo at certain times in the US. In the academic world, in which I thrived for decades, competition is very fierce. Commonly for very large projects, a review team is organized by the National Institutes of Health, NIH, of scientists from different parts of the country. And there are strict rules governing “come, let us eat together.” Early in my academic career, I was part of a team reviewing a top East Coast university. This was the first time I had actually participated directly in an NIH group “site review” team. The project under review had been in place for many years, and the leader was well-established and very famous. Under the rules of academia, it was clear there was to be no contact between the review committee and the group being reviewed. Definitely the visitors and the host could not have a meal together. The review committee quietly ate our dinner on the night before by ourselves (“business dinner,” no frivolities), and prepared our homework carefully for the interview the next day.
The next day we arrived at the actual visit site. After being dropped off by taxi, we were met by no one in particular. Indeed, the local project people had not arrived yet, and the room for the review was bare. The day thus started on a very cool note, and it got cooler and colder as the day went on. During the actual presentations by the local team, it began to look more and more like a tribunal: the one condemned man (each presenter of the project, in sequence) at the center, and the jurors (us) seated in tables on 2 sides. The only item of hospitality was coffee by the side table, and definitely nothing to eat! The questions seemed to get tougher and tougher. There seemed to be no question that, by the end of the day, total coldness would descend, and it did. The project looked to crash, and it was indeed disapproved. We heard the institution later decided to discontinue the project altogether; in addition, to my naïve surprise, the huge team was also disbanded, and the leader had to resign and move to another city. It was a disaster that was clearly coming during that day, but I was truly astonished by the brutality of the entire process. I learned that science could be cold and very unwelcoming. Of course, the reviewers concluded the science was not strong enough, but I have always wondered if the cold atmosphere may have had a subtle adverse effect.
第二天我们来到了考察的地点。我们从出租车下来的时侯没有遇到任何迎接我们的人。地主团队的人还没到，访谈室也十分空洞。这一天就这样冷冷的开了序目，而那一天的过程却更为冷冰。地主团队答辩演说简直像是法庭仲裁 – 答辩人像一个个被告站在中央，而我们像是陪审员坐在两旁桌子后面。桌上的咖啡是我们仅有的招待。当然我们没有任何食物！我们提出来的问题仿佛一个比一个难答。当提问结束时整个气氛仿佛都冻结了。那整个项目没有通过我们的考察。我们事后听到那所大学决定终止那整个项目，解散那个庞大的团队，而那位团队领导也辞职并搬到另一个城市去了。不通世事的我在当时感到十分讶异。虽然在过程里我已清楚知道答辩将会是失败的，我还是对整个过程的严酷感到惊愕。我认识到科学可以是冷酷及令人不快的。当然，考察员的结论是那个项目的科学不够严谨，但是我常常问我自己当日冷淡的气氛是否对着件事有着微妙的反效果。
However, I also know the other extreme, where reviewers could be wined and dined by the host institution, even to ridiculous levels, such as being supplied the best wines and liquors, and hugely expensive food items on the menu, all in the name of being a good host. All this bon homme could happen the evening before the visit or the evening of the visit, but everyone would have a good time during the dinner, even if the review day was not necessarily a piece of cake. This happens especially in countries where the ethics of the review process have not been worked out well, and hospitality is considered very normal, but therefore also easily distorted. Actually, in my view, this approach borders on bribery, since I am sure it is difficult to separate friendship, privilege and quid pro quo issues, when we agree to “let us eat together,” in the context of reviewing and judging some professional project.
After this, when I was myself preparing numerous large NIH projects for review, and had to expect big teams of reviewers coming to visit, I came to a very practical decision. I felt strongly that hospitality is a normal human virtue, and it didn’t make sense to have reviewers come to the review room tired, hungry and unhappy. Especially after experiencing that first cold review myself, albeit as a reviewer. So, we organized everything to make life somewhat easier for the reviewers, including, for starters, a warm welcome by local team investigators, whom we arranged to arrive 30 minutes before time (in case the reviewers came early) at the door. Then, a smooth friendly escorted transition into the meeting place, that was pleasantly and professionally decorated, with clean tables and professional looking table linen, even esthetically placed flowers. The visitors were amazed, they exclaimed, to observe the elevator electric signs, apparently welcoming them, as “REGI,” my shortened name; of course, these markings were simply the initials for Receiving dock, Entrance, Ground, and level 1, and had nothing to do with the visit at all, but the reviewers were already “primed” to expect the best!
在这以后，我自己在为数个国立卫生研究院项目要接受考察而准备也必须招待数个来访的考察团。我做了一个很实在的决定。我认定了好客乃是人的本性。我们不应该让考察员在劳累，饥饿，以及不悦的状态下地进入审查室。因此，我们为招待考察员做了些准备。首先，我们让在地的审查员们提早三十分钟在大门前预备欢迎我们的来客。之后，我们热情的引导他们进入专业布置过，有着整洁的会议桌，正式的卓布，还有美观的花饰的会议厅。我们的访客们很惊讶的留意到了电梯门上的楼层显示器旁写着“REGI”这样的欢迎字样. “REGI”正好是我的小名。当然，那只是接待处（Receiving dock），入口（Entrance），底楼（Ground），和一楼（level 1）的缩写。虽然考察还没正式开始，我们的考察员们对我们已经有了很好的印象！
During the review day, we even had a variety of deliciously healthy nuts (I love nuts), jellybeans and lots of coffee, teas, and cookies readily available, often laid out on conveniently on the table before them. Jelly beans were in vogue at the time because President Reagan (president at the time) loved them and had made it a personal national snack! There was no need to be garish, and definitely we were not trying to bribe the visitors with fancy food! Everything was professional and ethical. But definitely we did not want hungry grumpy reviewers. People that are hungry are just not very nice (nor maybe that fair)! There was one lady reviewer that affirmed our suspicion; she must have loved jellybeans; she grabbed a handful of them, and even quietly wrapped a bowlful and put them in her handbag. Definitely she would not be hungry. And “of course,” we passed the review with flying colors, with several million dollars to our credit. Jelly beans cannot be classified as bribes, or even a meal, I am certain.
“Come let us eat together” has many ramifications. As our local ethnic church grew larger and larger, meetings of the deacons and leadership became more and more complicated. People just did not know each other too well, and it was easy to have misunderstandings. We thus changed the format of the meetings to include Saturday morning breakfast together first, at the church. Even the elder-ministers meeting added some breakfast meetings at the “Red Squirrel”, a very local restaurant. In all these situations, we realized that having a meal together really helped to pave the way to have more civil discussions. I have probably had lunches or coffee with all the leaders of the church, and many less active, often neglected, members. Asians love to have meals together, and I’m sure that is for a good reason. But not only Asians: many cultures historically have emphasized having meals together. It’s just that modern-day people have forgotten these ancient wonderful cultural traditions.
When I took over leadership positions at the hospital, I would often start off by making the rounds to see key relevant people. Where necessary, I would try to get them out to have breakfast or lunch together. I found that meals, or even coffee, have this funny way of lowering potential tension and helping to improve understanding. So that, later on, during some future meeting, in the heat of argument and discussion, we have a better idea of how people think, and less misunderstanding. In particular, since most arguments and discussions are often nuances rather than black and white, prior relationship building helps us in understanding how each person comes from a different perspective, and allows us to come more easily to a reasonable consensus. Again, the meal should not be designed to be a bribe, but more a simple inexpensive business meal over sandwiches or something like that.
In the stories of Jesus, although there is no record of him drinking coffee with people, there are plenty of accounts where eating and drinking together happened. Asking the outcast “woman at the well” for a drink of precious well water precipitated a great discussion about faith. Eating among “sinners” and societally marginalized people was the opportunity for him to discuss issues of love and fairness, even though hypocritical people attacked him for mixing with “bad people.” Even in the “feeding of the 5,000,” we see that Jesus is having a huge banquet of fish and bread right on the hill slopes overlooking the great Sea of Galilee. There is no question that the Master recognized the huge importance of having a meal together with the people following him. And, so should we. I have personally had fish (grilled “St Peter’s fish” according to the locals) and bread (pita) by that sea, and I can assure you that combination tastes just superb, especially knowing what happened 2,000 years ago at the same spot, and imagining that historic “come let us eat together” spectacle.
Come, let us eat together, friends, and friends to be, and let us enjoy the friendship, camaraderie and even love, as we journey together.