Nǐ chīle ma’: Have You Eaten?

Mar 6, 2021 by

Agriculture is big business in the US and China. How our two nations partner or food scarcity, food insecurity, food safety, climate change and many other critical issues will shape the world. ALL major world issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How our respective leaders manage these issues will impact the people of China, the USA and all of humanity. That is clearly something to chew on.

Similar to how Americans ask, “How are you?”, it is common in China to greet people by asking “吃了吗” (Trans. “Have you eaten yet”?) – an ordinary, casual greeting between family, friends, and neighbors.

This greeting likely resulted from a preoccupation with food going back to the days of food scarcity in China, especially among those raised during the Great Leap Forward – likely, they well remember hunger. Mao’s social experiment resulted in over 30 million deaths, making this bad decision result in the largest death toll from a manmade famine in human history. Throughout China’s history poverty and hunger has been a common thread derived through land shortages, floods, droughts, over-population, and war.

Historically in China, it was rare for someone to eat until they were full. It was not unusual for grandparents and parents to reduce their food intake so their children could eat. Food and hunger was often the main concern on people’s minds and stomachs. Asking if someone had eaten was, therefore, a common question asked when first seeing a family member or friend. It has persisted to this day – more a common greetingnow – the pain of hunger that originally prompted the question having faded from most Chinese citizens’ minds.

Today, China’s is a rich food culture with a variety and style as unique as the nation itself – from hot and spicy to salty, sweet,and sour. The tastes are ubiquitous among Chinese – regardlessof whether one is rich or poor.

China’s sheer size leads to a variety of homegrown ingredients and cooking styles. The history of food and dining customs vary across the land, leading to the differences in cooking methods and dish flavors forming eight distinctly different cuisines. Having traveled extensively in China for nearly four decades, I have experienced more than eight genres of cookery. Typically, I will fall in love with one dish in an area of China only to find it is not served widely across the country. 

I have partaken of countless ‘Lazy Susan’ or 餐桌转盘 – multiple course banquets where I have eaten food that tempted my taste buds – some even feeling my mouth would combust, set my hair afire, making lips, tongue, and cheeks go tingly numb.

I recall eating chicken feet in a Chengdu restaurant with a group of Chinese friends, none of whom spoke English and my Mandarian consisting of a few phrases. Suddenly, I had this sensation as if hitting my funny bone – but in my mouth. My face began to tingle.  I had never experienced this before: an alarm at first, followed by laughter among my friends as I gestured with my face and hands while making bee buzzing noises with my lips trying to act out what I could not verbally explain had happened. I was gesturing with my hands, acting out that my mouth was on fire!

The laugher reached a crescendo and my colleagues began to roll on the floor in laughter as they blurted out the cause and culprit – Ma la’ – a Sichuan peppercorn that derives from two Chinese characters meaning, respectively, ‘numbing’  and ‘spicy (hot)’  to describe the sensation on tastebuds that this saucy dish creates.

To this day my friends still ask me, “Nǐ chīle ma/ Have You Eaten”, making good-natured bee buzzing sounds and fanningtheir mouths while bursting out in laughter when we meet. 

China Has Come A Long Way

China’s leaders clearly deserve praise for significantly eliminating poverty and hunger in China. What has transpired over China’s 5,000-year history is nothing short of amazing, but the last 40 years have been truly remarkable. Universallyacknowledged as a stunning reversal of fortune for China. Forty years of “China Opening Up” has produced meaningful progress for the world and especially, for the Chinese people. China’s achievement in poverty reduction and ending hunger is unprecedented in world history. China has moved 800 million people out of abject poverty into a robust middle class – nearly double the number of people in the U.S. 

China’s fortunes have changed so dramatically for its citizens that recently President Xi Jining introduced a ‘clean-your-plate’initiative, stepping up measures to reduce food waste. President Xi called the amount of wasted food, “shocking and distressing”.

Having left multitudes of Chinese banquets looking at the tables of glutinous escapades, I often thought there was enough food wasted that could feed a small village. Clearly, wasting food is an issue that deserves more attention and President Xi has sounded the alarm around the issue. Perhaps the Chinese people, many of whom historically have ‘eaten bitterness’ (吃苦(chīkǔ) are overcompensating with the glutinous behavior.

President Xi has given clear instructions for reducing waste in schools and promoting students’ awareness and practices of being thrifty.

China Grows on The World

Six years ago, I wrote in these pages, “The weight of the world is now on China. There is no doubt that China is expanding both its global influence – and its waistline”, concluding that “a fat country is an unhealthy country, and China is quickly gaining on America”.

Certainly, China’s meteoric economic growth has led to major improvement on multiple levels including lifestyle, diet, and exercise habits. Fast forward nearly 7 years and the fat warning sirens are again blaring in China. In recent years, China’s top health authorities have released new dietary guidelines, stressing the need for a balanced diet amid rising health threats such as obesity in recent years.

With over half of adults in China, or more than half a billion people, now reported as being overweight, this is clearly a growing problem. The figures have risen significantly since 2002, when 29% of adults were overweight. The report blamed decreasing levels of physical activity for the country’s expanding waistlines, with less than a quarter of the adult population exercising at least once a week. Furthermore, a growing appetite for meat and low consumption of fruit were also identified as factors behind the rise

When I first arrived in China in 1989 there was one American fast-food outlet, a three-story KFC in the shadows of Mao’s tomb in Tian’anmen Square. Today, American fast (fat) food outlets are ubiquitous in big cities throughout China. I have never been “large” by American standards but I felt HUGE in my first trip to China – back then it seemed that the average Chinese male’s waist size was 28 inches or less. With a 33-inch waistline then, I felt enormous — and the Chinese people were happy to point this fact out.

Today, obesity in China is a major health concern according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with overall rates of obesity between 5% and 6% for the country, but greater than 20% in some cities where fast food is popular.

Weight Provokes Hate

Fat shaming cuts across cultures. The Chinese people easily poke fun at their fellow citizens and foreigners alike who are carrying extra poundage in the midsection. A few years back, Winnie the Pooh images were taken down from social media sites when netizens began to compare President Xi to the tubby cartoon bear made popular by Disney. Bloggers were pointing out that Xi Jinping resembled the popular portly cartoon character. Even other nations trolled Xi Jinping, likening him to Winnie the Pooh in an attempt to get under his skin, poking fun of a nationalism that is easily provoked In China. 

Becoming Number One

The American Heartland

Undisputed is that the U.S. and China are in a global competition for number one. China is gaining on the United States in the building of strategic infrastructure including sea and airports, roads, bridges, sewers, and railways, along with investment in education, the military, technology, creativity and innovation.

Having a goal and a plan is the only way to accomplish dreams. To lose weight requires focus, determination, persistence, and a deliberate plan of action. Similarly, as Evan A. Feigenbaum convincingly lays out in The National Interest if President Biden plans to succeed in his relationship with China, he and his administration will need to whine less, compete more, and leverage American strengths – NOT hold to wishes, dreams, or fantasies.

China is striving to be number one. This does not include overtaking the US in expanding their waistlines. America has work to do. 

The USA will either begin to lead again through investment in the American people, enhancing the country’s infrastructure, embracing the talents that immigrants bring, and supporting education from cradle to the grave. 

Reskilling our workforce and building back better has to be of prime importance – anything less spells a fat chance of leading as the 21st century unfolds.

Tom Watkins 

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He is a former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools and President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fl. He has worked for nearly four decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He serves on the Michigan-China Innovation Center Advisory Board and is an adviser to the Detroit Chinese Business Association. Follow him on twitter@tdwatkins88. Email him@tdwatkins88@gmail.com.

Wechat him @tdwatkins88

The United States Heartland China Associaton 


Not all bridges are built of concrete and steel. Equally important bridges are built on friendship, cultural communion and commercial cooperation.

Where these bridges exist, communities flourish. This is the essence of the United States Heartland China Associaton 

(USHCA – https://usheartlandchina.org/). 

The USHCA has been advocating to build cultural, economic and educational bridges with China since 2003

USHCA is building bridges through trade missions, commercial fairs, student and cultural exchanges, educational programs and personal outreach to key business, governmental and cultural leaders.

The USHCA, originally the Midwest U.S.-China Foundation, was founded by U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson (IL); John Rodgers, Lawyer and Professor, and Governor Bob Holden (MO), former Chairman of the Midwest Governors Association. 

The USHCA covers 20 states that stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. 430 Fortune 1000 companies are headquartered in 84 of the cities within the Heartland region. Our mayors lead 37 of the 100 largest cities in the United States. Our national GDP ranks 1st in the world. Remove our region from this analysis and the European Union would rank 1st, China 2nd, United States 3rd.

The mission of the USHCA

is to foster and support a positive, productive, and mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and China by creating more channels of collaboration and opportunities for economic growth in the American Heartland Region.

Join the USHCA as they sponsor a progressive, engaging seminar with thought leaders on both sides of the Pacific talk about agriculture, food insecurity and scarcity that have been been highlighted during the global pandemic. U.S. – CHINA AGRICULTURE ROUNDTABLE is being held virtually and all are welcome. For more information see: https://usheartlandchina.org/us-china-agriculture-roundtable/

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