In America, we are familiar with the outright confessions of “I love you” and place heavy significance on those few words. Popular culture, movies, the way proposals work, the overall flamboyance that accompanies most relationships, and the idea that if nothing is said nothing can be understood effectively enforce the importance of saying “I love you” whether to a partner or a family member. However, in East Asia, people tend to express love differently and less directly. Possible reasons are numerous, including historical tradition, cultural values, and perhaps even education. However, one thing is sure—while Asians are less likely to tell their loved ones “I love you” outright, they often try to feed their loved ones to death.
Food is probably the pinnacle of most close relationships for many East Asians. When a loved one comes home from work or school, the first question is almost always “do you want anything to eat?” or “are you hungry”? The setup of a family meal is indicative of this food-love sharing sentiment. Many Asians eat family-style meals, with many dishes in the center of a table and people using chopsticks to go take a portion of the dish that they want. Almost always, parents or grandparents will use their chopsticks to pick the best piece of meat and plop it into their child’s bowl, or they might dump a bunch of vegetables into their child’s bowl in order to ensure that the child is eating all the proper foods.
In Japan, there is a dish called nabe (鍋), which is essentially a Japanese hotpot that can contain a number of ingredients ranging from vegetables to meats to seafood. In China, there is a similar parallel called huo guo (火鍋). Because of the amount of ingredients that can be included in the pot and the fact that everyone has to take from the same pot, the dish becomes the centerpiece of the meal as well as the family. This element of connectedness brings all family members together and turns the meal into a loving and enriching experience.
However, it is not just homemade dishes that depict a special importance placed on family. Even at most native Asian restaurants, meals are expected to eaten in a homestyle fashion. Large bowls of rice along with a wide variety of dishes are placed on table and each customer is given a plate and chopsticks.
In Japan, even the meals that kids bring to school show indirect forms of love. Children typically bring homemade obento, which is simply a box with assorted foods inside. These bento boxes are frequently designed to be aesthetic or cute, and are almost certainly more time consuming for parents to make than the typical sandwich. The level of care for a child in addition to the fact that Japanese people attach great importance to the appearance that they eat result in a bento that depicts an anime character or other pretty design and also includes a healthful variety of foods for the child—representative of the dedication and hopes a parent has for the child who is venturing away from home for the day.
The amount of value that Asians place on relationships with significant others is also expressed strongly through food. For example, a traditional Chinese wedding consists of 10 to 12 “courses” while a typical western wedding has the appetizer, main course, and dessert (typically not family style either). Common dishes in Chinese weddings include lobster which symbolizes the dragon (the groom) and whose red color carries high celebratory meaning in China, and chicken which symbolizes phoenix (the bride). The dragon and phoenix are considered balancing elements on opposing sides of yin and yang. Other popular dishes are fish which indicate abundance, as well as noodles which represent longevity (often eaten on birthdays too). Sea cucumber represents selflessness and harmony and the ever popular shrimp with glazed honey(核桃虾) represents liveliness and happiness for the family.
In short, not only is eating food significant, but the food itself is significant. In Asian countries, food seems to set the standard of a love-value system while in the west, that standard is set by other traditions such as the big “I love you”. Regardless, these different forms of expression and values systems still focus on portraying the same universal love that humans experience.