I am Ryan Xu, a student at Emory majoring in math and computer science, and I am conducting this study to gain a deeper understanding of the role that the kitchen table plays in my family. The important aspect of my father’s kitchen table that interests me is that it has been the dining table for my family for almost ten years, and an investigation of the table as a cultural artifact would help me gain a deeper understanding of my family as well as my culture. The anthropological method that I have employed to study this kitchen table is the participant-observation method. According to Crowther in Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, “participant observation involves trying to gain an insider’s or emic perspective on a culture and simultaneously apply an outsider’s or etic perspective to draw wider conclusions about how the culture and society works.” (Crowther, Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food) I will be observing, investigating, and drawing conclusions from both an etic perspective, and an emic perspective.
Even though I have ate meals regularly on the kitchen table in our dining room for almost ten years, I rarely paid any attention to the table itself or the changes in the items placed on the table before conducting this study. For this study, I have made careful observations on the physical details of our kitchen table, as well as the specific items that were placed on the table before, during and after meals. The table itself is rectangular shaped, and it is about two meters long, one meter wide and one meter high. It is large enough for a maximum of six people to dine on simultaneously. The table might seem to be too small during parties or large family gatherings, as it could not serve more than six people at once. However, since we rarely have parties or large family gatherings in our apartment, and most of the time, it was only my father, my mother and me who were dining on the table, it is sufficiently large enough to serve our purposes. The table has four white legs, with golden patterns and decorations on each of them. The legs are possibly made from wood, with white and golden paint painted on each of them. The table top is made out of a large rectangular piece of marble. The marble has a light yellow color, and it would shine gorgeously under the overhead lights. A large vase is placed in the middle of the table, with about a dozen colorful artificial flowers inside the vase. Usually, nothing other than the vase would be placed on the table if nobody is cooking or dining in the dining room.
When my father is cooking for us, a lot of dining supplies would be taken from the kitchen and placed on the table, such as empty plates, bowls, chopsticks and spoons. My father would take out the dishes he had finished cooking from the kitchen to the table, while my mother and I would be sitting at the table and commenting on his dishes. In the Chinese culture, everyone at the dinner table would have their own bowl of rice, and share all the dishes in the middle of the table. My mother and I would wait for my father to sit down at the table after he had finished cooking all the dishes, and start dining together. On average, my father would cook four or five dishes every meal, with two or three meat dishes, one vegetable dish and one bowl of soup. We would often have the soup before or after the meal. After we have finished dining, my father would take all the bowls and plates from the table back into the kitchen, and there would be nothing left on the table except the flower vase.
From an outsider perspective, the kitchen table demonstrated a mixture of western and eastern culture. The table has a European styled design, with the rectangular shape and decorations, which is very different from the traditional round shaped Chinese style dining tables. However, the way meals are consumed on the kitchen table depicted the Chinese style of dining. Rather than everyone having their own dish, all the dishes are shared by everyone sitting at the table. From an insider perspective, as a family member who dines at the kitchen table regularly with my father and mother, the kitchen table is also one of the most important places for communications and conversations between the family members. Usually, dinnertime is the only time of the day when my parents and I can be relaxed and have casual conversations about the interesting events which happened to us during the day. Communication between family members is crucial to the harmony of a family. Some of the conversations that happened at the dining table even led to major decisions and future plans. Therefore, the kitchen table plays a crucial role in bringing the family members together, and maintaining the close relationships in my family.
Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Zhou, Cathy. Chinese Etiquette and Culture, p. 26. 2005.