World Food Day is one of the 15 United Nations Observance days in October alone. That’s one every two days. It’s one of several throughout the year. In fact, I stopped counting down the list when I got to 50, and I hadn’t even made halfway. My point? There’s a lot of commemorative days – so surely we can be forgiven for not commemorating some that might apply to us less, right?
Certainly in my home-country Australia, few people worry about whether or not they are going to be able to get enough to eat every day. I hadn’t actually heard of World Food Day until last week, when I read about celebrations in the paper. It’s not a big thing in Hong Kong either, but the South China Morning Post-my current daily rag-reports extensively on China, where hunger and access to safe, nutritious food is still an issue. China has made impressive achievements lifting people out of poverty and hunger in recent years, but many rural Chinese still have trouble affording to feed themselves properly. Moreover, for many Chinese, starvation is a personal memory.
A picture in the paper showed a miniature table full of cute kindergarten kids in Jiangsu Province (just north of Shanghai). They were proudly displaying their empty tin bowls. The picture made me think back to a conversation I’d had with a Chinese friend of mine only a couple of days before. The conversation reinforced something I’ve come to realise in my time in China – wasting food is taboo here. Yes, a tradition of excessive banquets exists, the aim of which is to illustrate your wealth and hospitality to your invitees. In reality, this is a tradition practised only by rich businessmen and corrupt officials. For your average Chinese, wasting food is just not done, and those who do are regarded with contempt.
I confess: the conversation with my friend was a little gossip session. We were talking about the cultural differences that make it difficult to connect with people. In the past few months I’ve met people from about 20 different countries around the world (what a wonderful city Hong Kong is). Some of them are the first people from that country I’ve ever encountered. It’s been an interesting experience, and it seems to me that culture is a decisive factor in the way one interacts with people.
Culture also strongly influences the way we behave. So my Chinese friend (I’ll call him Jonas) was recounting to me the disturbing experiences he’d had while dining with another friend of ours, who I’ll call Giacomo. I have deliberately chosen names to hide obfuscate their identity, so please don’t assume Jonas is one of the Shanghai Jews, or that the dining experience with Giacomo is going to involve pizza.
Jonas tells me that every time he’s had a meal with Giacomo, he’s left more than half of his plate full of food. It’s happened three times now. Jonas said he would never to eat with Giacomo again. In recounting the experience to me, I was moved by just how disappointed, upset and disgusted Jonas was with Giacomo’s behaviour. “If he’d told me before he started, I would have taken half on to my plate”, he winced.
I’ve had several experiences in with friends China when we’ve been over zealous in our order. They say you should never go shopping hungry. I would add ordering at a restaurant to that warning too. Once it becomes clear consumption has petered out, the conversation inevitably turns to who will take responsibility for finishing which dish. It’s a pragmatic, matter-of-fact conversation. If people have really hit their capacity, someone will always take the food home. I’ve woken up to housemates eating the most unexpected breakfasts…on reflection, no stranger than reheated pizza first thing in the morning.
This may have been an obvious topic, but I think it’s worth reflecting on the way we value and treat food. I recently listened to a seminar on food waste here in Hong Kong. This city throws away 3,000 tons of food EVERY DAY. Statistics I found say Australians waste over 4 million tonnes of food per annum- equivalent to 178 kilos per person every year. The thought that China is on the road to western consumption patterns (as the scenario in Hong Kong illustrates) ought to inspire the west to try to set the next development benchmark: sensible, sustainable consumption.
As you chew on that cud, check out this photo essay.