Ten years ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference in the beautiful German city of Schwaebish-Gmuend, a gorgeous mediaval city to the east of Stuttgart. The conference was held at a Christian retreat center on the edge of town.
In attendance was a delegation of people from China.
We ate all of our meals at the site. Not being a resort, the meals were on the simple side. Breakfast every morning was white bread, ham, cheese, salad, and fruit. Lunch was white bread, ham, cheese, salad, and fruit. We Western delegates all knew what to do at lunch — pile all the ingredients (minus the fruit, of course) into a ham and cheese sandwich.
The Chinese delegates just stared in disbelief as the cultures went CLASH!
For the Chinese, this is not a meal. A meal consists of food, and food is something that is cooked! At this conference, cooked food was only served at the evening meal, by which time the Chinese were near starvation and gobbled up everything. Even though the food (finally!) wasn’t what they were used to, it was better than a sandwich.
I felt so sorry for them.
I thought about that experience last week when I read an article at NBC News, “Chinese Social Media Users are Not Impressed With Your Ham Sandwiches.”
The plain ham sandwiches, simple salads and other American-style packed lunches that fill office refrigerators don’t exactly scream “Instagram.” But they’re a social media sensation in China, where they have their own hashtag: #WhitePeopleFood.
The trend appears to have started in May, when a Chinese social media user posted a video that quickly went viral of a fellow train passenger in Switzerland pulling lettuce leaves from a bag and layering them with ham and mustard.
“Is there anything more ‘white people food’ than this?” the caption read.
The term pokes fun at the casual, on-the-go way people eat in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the West. Compared with the warm, flavorful and elaborately prepared food people from China are used to, meals made with a handful of cold and unseasoned ingredients can seem underwhelming or just plain inedible.
Discussions of “white people food” on Chinese social media are filled with witty and withering descriptions: “Food of suffering.” “A meal to maintain vital signs.” “What death must feel like.”
I must admit that I laughed out loud when I read it, remembering the suffering each breakfast and lunch those poor Chinese delegates experienced.
Then I remembered another experience I had with Chinese friends and their unhappy encounter with sandwiches. I wrote about it in 2015 in a post titled Better Than A Sandwich. I am copying it here:
I have some friends from Beijing visiting for a couple of weeks, which is always a rip-roaring good time. One of the fun (and sometimes challenging) things is keeping them well-fed. They are not enamored with a lot of American food, so I’ve been trying to make sure they get a Chinese meal in every other day or so. We all know about comfort food, right?
Last week, my sister and I took them to Leann Chin, a local “Chinese” fast-food place for their much-needed fix. My sister loves the place, but I am not a fan. It is, however, cheap and fast and the food is stir-fried so I suspected they would be satisfied. Bad Chinese food is better than good western food, right?
As they were (happily) eating, I asked the husband (who is a bit of a foodie) what he thought of the food.
He stopped eating his noodles, and looked up at me… “Better than a sandwich,” he said, smiling.
Now, whenever I need to keep him in line I threaten to make him eat a sandwich!
We westerners love our sandwiches.
Our Chinese friends, not so much.