My Shanghainese friend’s kitchen table (Helen Zeng)

My family and I moved to Shanghai two years ago and settled there. As a new incomer, I cannot speak Shanghainese and often feel distant from the city. I am eager to know more about the place that I live in each day, and more importantly, about the local culture. Food, as an important part of every Chinese’s daily life, is the key to fit in.  

Moreover, since my family just bought our own apartment in Shanghai and we are going to decorate it, I am also interested in learning what kind of kitchen table can last for a long time and carry beautiful memory. That’s why I am conducting a study about a kitchen table of a Shanghainese family.

My friend Lu is a traditional Shanghainese girl, and from her character, I know that she must live in a harmonic family. I contacted her and she welcomed me to have lunch with her in a lovely Saturday noon. The first thing I saw when I went into her home was the kitchen table. The kitchen table is different from the one in my home. They are both made of mahogany, but Lu’s is rectangular and mine is a round one. There were only two boxes of napkins on it. Lu told me that nothing would be on the dining table except for dishes. They all have their own desks and thus they won’t work on the kitchen table. Even all three of them are at home, they work separately in their own rooms. But they would eat together around the kitchen table, and during the meal is when they communicate the most. Kitchen table brings the family together.

As we were randomly chatting, her parents brought the food they just cooked to the table and we started eating. We talked about some rules in the kitchen table during eating. For example, you should not make noise while eating, should not put the piece of food you touch back to the dish, should eat everything up in your own bowl. Her parents said they have been serious about these rules ever since Lu was little. They believe that eating habits can reveal one’s manner; they want her to be not only educated, but also genteel. They all obey these rules while we were eating together. And I did the same as well. I used to have a bad habit of leaving a little bit of food in my bowl when I finished, but this time I ate everything in my bowl like them.

After the lunch, we had some cheesecake together on the kitchen table. Lu’s mom talked about the history of the kitchen table. It’s a mahogany furniture that follows the decoration style back in Ming dynasty. Different from the design style of Qing dynasty, the Ming one is simple yet serious. There are exquisite carve patterns on the woodwork, while those patterns are decent enough so that people won’t be tired of looking at it even after a long time. Lu’s family redecorated their home two years ago and gave away many things but the kitchen table.

When I conduct the study, I choose the anthropological method of  participant-observation. As the author said in the “Eating Culture”, “participant observation involves trying to gain an insider’s to epic perspective on a culture and simultaneously apply an outsider’s or metic perspective to draw wider conclusions about how the culture and society works.” I think that compared to interviewing Lu and let her to tell me about her kitchen table, going to her home, looking at and eating on the kitchen table by myself would be a more direct way for me to learn about the culture and story behind the kitchen table. It helps me to not only learn about the objective facts but also to have my own feelings about it. 

During the study, I also think of my own family. Like Lu, I also study in emory far away from home and my parents are busy in work even at home, so eating in the kitchen table seems to be the some of the precious time we share together. Same things happen to my parents, too. They don’t live with their parents for a long time. Now, the most of the time they spend with their parents is on the kitchen table. When they go back to Nanning, they call their parents, “hey mom, I want to have a lunch at your home today.” Then they share their recent condition during the meal and leave after the meal to deal with other things. 

Kitchen table is a carrier of love in the family. Parents teach children about the culture and rules about eating; the child is cultivated. When the children grow up, kitchen table brings the busy family members together, offer a place where the family can focus on only eating and each other. Parents prepare food and bring to the kitchen table for us and we don’t need to think about food problem, it is also an act of love.

One Reply to “My Shanghainese friend’s kitchen table (Helen Zeng)”

  1. Helen, solid response to the essay prompt. You’ve address all the prompt questions in your essay. We would recommend building more connections between the course materials and your experience. Perhaps you could reference our course texts and class discussions to bear upon your own experience.

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