I have 口福 (kǒu fú), which might literally be translated as “mouth happiness” and means something like “the destiny to eat delicious food” – and what good fate this is.
I didn’t realize the blessed state of my culinary fate until I moved to Shenzhen, where I have truly enjoyed eating. Apparently, my joy at the table and mad chopstick skills have convinced many Chinese people that I am good friend material. Early on, when friends invited me to eat larvae or dog hotpot, I said, “Sure!” When Yang Qian and I started dating, we made a point of trying a different restaurant several times a week. Moreover, when I had a cold or minor physical discomfort, I went to the local market, bought herbs from a former barefoot doctor, and on her instructions, concocted delicious and healthy Cantonese soups in an ordinary clay pot. The unadulterated pleasure I felt when eating and the joy of sharing good food were critical to how I settled into an ex-patriot life in Shenzhen.
Meal by meal, I ate and talked and laughed. Indeed, I conducted many interviews at banquet tables and not a few after several shot glasses of Erguotou or, when someone else picked up the tab, Maotai. As an anthropologist, I had realized that Chinese people were justifiably proud of their diverse culinary traditions – indeed, the Cantonese boast one of the healthiest and tastiest cuisines – but only in retrospect can I see how my eager willingness to eat Chinese food came to symbolize a desire to swallow, ingest, and be nourished by the city precisely because the dining table was one of the few places where I unconditionally opened myself to whatever was offered. Frankly, I was probably at my best when dining. However, at the time, I ate because it felt good.
As an American, I went to China spoiled for food, much in the same way I was immune to the beauty of my environment. There was just too much, too easily had to be interesting and I ate what tasted good: milk shakes, hamburgers, french fries, and chocolate, bars and boxes and Easter baskets of chocolate. Life was elsewhere, certainly not to be found sharing a plate of greens and scrambled eggs. Not unexpectedly, my eating habits led to a weight problem, even as collectively Americans struggle with obesity issues. More importantly, I skirted the edge of ignorance, unable to answer the question, “why do I eat?”
Yang Qian once explained Chinese attitudes toward food in couplet form: Good food — love! Bad food — immigration! No food — revolution! And thus, I continue to learn from how Chinese people value, share, romance, dream about, and eat delicious foods (美食).
As I have become more conscious of my own attitudes toward food, I have voluntarily stopped drinking alcohol, eating meat, and am moving toward a completely plant-based diet. On occasion, my diet frustrates well-intentioned friends who ask, “So if you don’t eat meat, that means we’ll have to go out for seafood, right?” Nevertheless, they knew me back in the day and have seen positive changes; I maintain a healthy weight, am more energetic, and less likely to get into ugly arguments after drinking, even as my eating habits become more aligned with my political ideals.
All this to say, I am grateful to the endless web of lives that have made my culinary destiny possible; farmers, truck drivers who bring the vegetables and whole grains to market, vendors, cooks, and the people who sit down at each meal with me are just the inner circle of expanding connections, including my Chinese language teachers, the flight crew on the plane that first took me to China, and the construction workers who built the airports in Newark and Hong Kong, respectively. May everyone enjoy the blessings of kǒu fú.