For the last several decades, economies of many developing countries have been continuously booming. China, as a representative example, has experienced lots of changes due to the increasing GDP for so many years; as a result of which, people’s daily life has also changed a lot. As an economics student, I conducted a study about the kitchen table in order to see how economic changes have altered people’s life and reflect some cultural changes.
To begin with, one of my grandmother’s old friends, Mrs. Lu, agreed to let me observe her family’s kitchen table and ask her about her kitchen table in past when she was living in the countryside. One thing that particularly interested me was that Mrs. Lu has experienced the economic changes as well as the movement from the countryside to the city; therefore, the changes of her kitchen table would reflect not only the changes of daily life but also some cultural differences between rural areas and urban areas. To conduct this study, I chose ethnographic fieldwork and interview as my methods(Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, Gillian Crowther). Using ethnographic fieldwork could enable me to observe Mrs. Lu’s kitchen table directly, and the interview could allow me to learn about her kitchen table and experience several decades ago. The combination of these two methods would ensure that I could study the changes of Mrs. Lu’s kitchen table.
When I arrived at Mrs. Lu’s home, her family were sitting around the table and preparing wonton together. While Mrs. Lu was making chicken soup with a pressure cooker for the soup base, her husband was mincing pork, cabbages, and mushrooms for wonton’s fillings. At the same time, her son, daughter-in-law, and her litter granddaughter were making wonton, chatting with smiles on their faces. Every member seemed excited and happy because of the joyful family time at weekends. During the time of waiting for the soup, I interviewed Mrs. Lu about her past kitchen table. “There was not a literal kitchen table when I was young. The kitchen space was too narrow and all we had were a simple hearth made of bricks, soil, and a big iron pan with a wooden lid, so we just used the hearth as a kitchen table, covering the pan with the flat lid. When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, my parents began not to take care of our family’s meals in order to earn more money to support the family; therefore, I had to cook meals for my three younger brothers and myself. I seldom enjoyed family time like this moment but cooked meals and did housework for most of the time,” said Mrs. Lu. Then I asked her why they were making wonton, and she answered, “making wonton was one of the few chances by which I could feel the happiness of the family reunion, so I want younger members of my family to enjoy the process that everyone involves to make a dish. Also, wonton is an indispensable dish when we have a family party; thus, I want them to learn how to make it. Of course, in the past, we didn’t use pork as one of the ingredients, and all we eat were just some random green vegetables.” As soon as the dish was finally finished, the older couple let their young granddaughter taste it first. “In the past, no one could start eating until ‘the head of the family’ started, right?” Mrs. Lu said with a smile, “but the era has changed, and we have already abandoned those feudal cultures.” She also invited me to eat wonton together with them because she always believes the old saying – “one who comes to my home is always my guest”.
The kitchen table of Mrs. Lu makes me consider it as a symbol that represents the economic and cultural changes of Chinese people’s lives in the last several decades. Since people always prepare and eat food by tables, they are able to clearly deliver messages about people’s dietary behaviors and habits, which reflect their financial situation and culture. By comparing what Mrs. Lu said about her past kitchen table and what I observed by her recent kitchen table, it’s obvious to see the change of economic situation in her family. In the past, the tools and kitchen environment were so simple and crude; by contrast, she can use more developed tools to make things more delectable and have more space for her whole family to gather together. Moreover, because of economic development, people’s understandings about family culture have been altered as well. In the past, especially in rural places, the father in a family was usually the one who dedicated the most to earn money and support the family; therefore, the rest members showed their respects to the father by honoring him as the head of the family and always let him start a meal first. But due to economic changes, the population have gradually moved from the countryside to cities, and their economic activities have changed from agriculture to other activities in the second and third industry. In other words, simple manual labor has contributed less to a family’s earnings, and more members can devote to the family more equally; as a result of which, the focus has been gradually transferred to young children. Mrs. Lu’s family just shows these changes in both aspects and reflects the influence of economic changes to cultural changes. Nevertheless, there are still some traditions being inherited. For example, just as Mrs. Lu invited me to their family lunch, the hospitability of rural people has never changed wherever they are. Furthermore, the reunion of a family is always an essential part of Chinese culture. No matter how the era and people’s thoughts have changed, people still consider it indispensable to their families. Also, dishes like wonton, dumplings, spring rolls, etc. are the carriers of families’ good wishes all the time.