Lunch In A Chinese Home

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While in China I had the unique opportunity of experiencing several home visits with everyday Chinese people. On one such visit, I got the chance to go to an apartment in what is considered an upscale neighborhood of Changchun to have lunch with a Chinese family.  Even though I was in such a foreign place, I found unexpected familiarity and warmth, reminding me once again that we are more alike than different.

Upon arriving, I couldn’t get past the fact that the apartment building was bright pink. It looked like something right out of Miami Vice, but I decided it was better than the usual grayscale color schemes of communist architecture.

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A very pink apartment building in Changchun, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

No elevator meant climbing several flights of stairs in a series of concrete hallways. The drab and industrial surroundings made me wonder about the Chinese definition of “upscale.” However, when the hosts opened the door to their home, I saw a beautiful little apartment with wood floors, modern furniture and “stone” decorated walls. Before stepping through the door,  I was asked to remove my shoes and wear slippers. Apparently, the floors were new and the family didn’t want them scratched!

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A living room in a Chinese apartment.

After spending time in hutong homes and rural farmhouses, I now understood why this neighborhood was considered wealthy. This family had more money and domestic conveniences than many Chinese will ever see, including a big screen TV, a portable A/C unit, and a state of the art Western bathroom.  Most Chinese bathrooms consist of a hole in the floor that requires some skilled squatting, so this is a really a huge luxury. However, I was a little put off by the glass doors. The Chinese have a very different sense of privacy than the West in that there is little or no privacy!

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I’m a little jealous of this bathroom!

Despite many conveniences, the family had to hang their laundry out to dry on the patio. The concept of in-home washer and dryers is almost nonexistent for the everyday person in China. Hand-washing and line-drying is the most common way to clean clothes. In almost every window in every town, I saw clotheslines!

In comparison to the rest of the house, the kitchen was very simple. On one side there were small cabinets and counters, while the other side had a small dining table.  There were no full-size appliances. The stove was inset in the counter and consisted of two burners, while a small refrigerator and pantry were outside on an adjoining patio.

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Super small cabinets and counters didn’t hinder these master chefs!

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Getting ready for a buffet in the dining area of the kitchen.

Despite the small space, the entire family set about making the traditional and delicious meal of meat-filled dumplings.

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A few more stirs ought to do it!

Once the filling was cooked, the family taught me how to make the perfect Chinese dumpling. A spoonful of meat filling goes in the center of a thin dough circle. Then, the circle is folded in half and the ends are pinched together. It sounds easy, but it takes some practice! Too much filling can make the fold split and too few pinches can cause the whole thing to fall apart. After stuffing and pinching, the dumplings are steamed to cook the dough.

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Yes, they are as good as they look!

Dinner was served buffet style and the family insisted on incredibly full plates. It is considered rude not to sample everything on a host’s table, so I loaded up my plate and ate everything! Every bite was incredibly tasty.

As with many Chinese families, multiple generations live under one roof. In this instance, the grandparents on the mother’s side lived with the family. The Grandfather was a particularly colorful character who loved to talk to anyone who would listen. Even with a language barrier, he was a chatty one. Towards the end of the meal, he started a drinking game in the kitchen. He could down a beer faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. After chugging more than a few, he was the life of the party.

Even though I was wearing slippers instead of shoes and I was surrounded by a language I didn’t understand, I strangely felt right at home. Good food, good people, and a funny Grandpa can make the distance of an entire ocean disappear.

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Just curious . . .

Any ideas on why stuffed animals in plastic bags are on display in the living room?

I noticed the cabinets were different colors in both the bathroom and the kitchen. Is there a reason for this or does it simply not matter that they don’t match each other or the house decor?

Is lack of privacy the result of cultural evolution or is it related to high population density? Or both?

Got a question, observation, or reaction? Leave your thoughts in the comment section – Let’s get a great conversation going!

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Previous “New Familiars” posts:

Grocery Shopping in London

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c.b.w. 2013

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20 thoughts on “Lunch In A Chinese Home

  1. Thanks for sharing. When I stayed in China I never got to view a city home – only rural. My guess about the cabinets is that the colors control the energy flow. My experience with rural kitchens was similar as they were shared by generations of a family and some had annexes for cooking like in the USA’s old south. The stuffed animals are protected by the wrap again like the plastic covers on couches. Grandpa is a great example of honoring the elderly – not so in the USA were elders are hushed and stored away from view.

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    • I went to plenty of rural homes, too, so it was really interesting to see things on the other side.

      I like your theory about the cabinet colors. This wasn’t the only house I saw with color configurations like that. 🙂

      The funny thing is, the furniture was not covered in plastic, like the bears! I wonder if they are collectibles of some kind.

      In every home we visited, there were multiple generations living under one roof. I loved that about Chinese culture. There is honor and dignity afforded to the elder generation.

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  2. This is the lifestyle that is one side of the Communist Party of the PRC’s deal with its population: You let us continue in absolute power and we’ll give you prosperity. It’s part of China’s emergence from Maoism to state-capitalism, and it depends a lot on learning a lesson from 19c communist and anarchist thought. That lesson is that the bourgeoisie – the comfortable middle class – always supports the status quo, the regime that’s in power. So, if you want to remain in power, create a comfortable middle-class to lend stability to your regime.

    Please forgive me for this cynical response to what is, after all, rather a charming and observant post about a pleasant and interesting experience in a foreign country.

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    • Agreed on the propaganda front. Part of the reason I think we visited this home was because the powers that be wanted us to see that their brand of communism is working. Many things in China feel like a big show and if you’re not careful you’ll become blind to reality. I like to think I could see beyond the “face” China wants me to believe. I had the opportunity to travel outside the cities and interact with people far away from the show – I learned more from them what China is all about and it has nothing to do with communism.

      Underneath the veil of politics and propaganda is a very warm and welcoming culture.

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      • It’s not so much the propaganda side of it I was referring to, of course, but the wee slice of the regime’s politico-economic strategy that made such propaganda possible.

        By the way, it is interesting how we see other cultures, isn’t it – as though we have two lenses in our glasses, one focusing on ‘humanism’ and the other on ‘cultural relativism’.

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    • Dumplings are a Chinese tradition. I ate different so many different varieties, including meatless!

      That Grandfather was a hoot. I often think of him and I hope he’s still keeping that house lively!

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  3. Cindi

    What a fascinating slice of Chinese life. The bathroom doors look see-thru also and that wouldn’t be comfortable to me as a visitor. I do like the pops of red and agree, it must be a feng shui thing. The pink building is cool!

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  4. Bryna

    Talk about fascinating! That food looks delicious, and the grandfather is adorable! (In the words of my sister-in-law, there’s nothing like a cute old man! : ) )

    The lack of privacy would be uncomfortable for me. And here sometimes I think that bathrooms in restaurants aren’t that private! : )

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  5. Thanks for the fascinating glimpse into one of the more affluent homes in China! Red is a very popular color in their culture and while it isn’t necessarily a Westerner’s ideal choice for cabinetry, I’m sure it is significant to them. I’m not sure why the bathroom cabinets would be blue, though. Perhaps it is the association with water? Or are they just enthralled with bright colors?

    I love Chinese dumplings, or dim sum. We have our own version of Chinatown here and my son and I love to go out for dim sum. The Ukrainian version of dumplings are perogies, which are also very popular here, but they have a potato and cheese filling rather than meat. They also have a version containing meat and sauerkraut called something else that I can’t remember at the moment.

    I’m with you about the windows in the bathroom doors. Despite the wonderful fixtures, I would not be comfortable using those facilities, either! 🙂

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