Curious About China: What's for Lunch?

Countries around the world have different eating habits, especially when it comes to lunch at work. India is famous for its elaborate network of home-to-work delivery systems. American workers often eat sandwiches or salads at their desks. Spain made the siesta or extended lunch break and nap combo famous. Germans enjoy a proper full meal with colleagues and Brazilians go to pay-by-weight buffets.

I interviewed GoEast teacher and Chief Academic Officer, Michael Wang (王如迅), about his lunch habits as a student and at work in China. Michael's focus in teaching Chinese as a foreign language is centered on instructional design and increasing gamification in learning Chinese, particularly as the Director of the new GoEast Online education platform. When not working, Michael enjoys playing video games (RPG) and watching animation such as "Ghost in Shell" and "Cowboy Bebop”.


In elementary and high school, did you bring lunch or eat school food?

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In elementary school and high school, usually the school arranges for all the students to have lunch. It's much cheaper than the food at restaurants so more than 90% of the students will have lunch in school. The taste is not very good but it doesn't harm your body, just keeps you alive.

Some schools they have their own cook, others order food from a third party company. They deliver the food by truck every day, divided into boxes - one box for one person. They give you a list, what you will eat each day, like a menu. Every day we passed the list and we never looked at it. We didn’t care what we ate.

What kind of food did the school serve? Were there any special meals?

Usually you have one or two vegetables, one meat, and a bowl of soup. We prefer the meat, when they give you pork, a big piece. One or two days each month they might give you fried rice with some carrots and vegetables. It was better than the other days. Usually the food is overcooked, especially the vegetables. But at least you got warm lunch.

How many students have lunch at the same time? How long is the lunch break?

It depends on how big the school is. In my school, we have 54 students in one class, 12 classes in one grade, and 3-4 grades in high school. The school will arrange a time for each class to have lunch [between 12:00 and 1:00]. Usually you have 10-15 minutes to eat. We can finish our food in 5 minutes. One of my classmates can eat veeery fast. He eats the vegetables and pork first, then puts the soup and rice together and [shovels it into his mouth]. That's it! In maybe 2-3 minutes, so fast!

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The lunch break usually takes like 1 hour. The rest of the time is free so we usually hang out in the school. We have a playground where you can play basketball. Also, the food is not enough for teenagers. I think every school has a small shop, like a market. They sell some ling shi (snacks 零食). Usually we go there and choose one or two snacks for just one or two yuan, it's very cheap.

At university, did you also eat in a cafeteria?

To a student, money is important, so we rely on the school cafeteria because it is much cheaper than the restaurants outside. At university, you have much more choice than in high school. All the food is there so you can choose what you want and then you pay for it.

At work, do you bring a lunch or eat in a cafeteria or go out to eat?

At work, I think maybe half of my colleagues bring their own lunch. They cook it every day. To me, it's bothersome so I prefer to eat out every day. In my first several years of working I brought food from time to time. But first, it's too heavy, and second, the distance from my home to company is long so I think it's not very good to put the food in your bag and on the subway, especially in the Summer.

The last company I worked for was in the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park, it looks like a campus with many tall buildings, a lot of companies. The park there, they provide a cafeteria underground so it's the same as university, you just go there and order food. The only difference is the price is much higher than in the university.

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Ordering delivery (wai mai 外买) is very common. How early do you start deciding what to order?

I like to order food at like 11:00 because in Chinese companies, lunchtime is from 12-1:00. The first team I was on, they preferred to order food at the start of the work day. So they arrived at the office and discussed, what will we eat for lunch? We ordered lunch for a half hour and then started work.

What do you like to eat for lunch? How much do you spend on lunch each day?

I prefer very fast and sometimes delicious food. Family Mart food is just average level, average quality and taste. I think Family Mart tastes better than the school lunch. But if there is food above that quality and at a lower price, then I would like that. I give myself a limitation of 20 yuan, not more than that.

I think to Chinese people, [convenience stores like] Family Mart and Lawson are very common way to deal with your lunch because it's fast and it's safe and it's clean. You never worry about the quality problems. Some small restaurants, it's tasty and they offer lower prices or the same prices and they taste very good. But sometimes you worry about if they are clean. Chinese people sometimes, they don't care, they just go and eat there.


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