This article was published on April 20, 2022, a month into the Shanghai lockdown.
As you may have heard, Shanghai has been under strict lockdown since late March.
Going into the lockdown, one of the very first emotions I experienced was anxiety – not from restrictions or the virus, but from food. I was not starving in the literal sense – history taught me a full pantry is a must – but the dwindling supply and shuttered supermarkets led to a crippling fear of going hungry.
This is, of course, a natural, biological response – but it’s also very much the result of intergenerational trauma. As I try to salvage a rotting tomato and savor every spoon of peanut butter, I think of my grandmother. As a holocaust survivor, expiration dates were mere suggestions. I spent many visits arguing about expired products and secretly throwing them away. As grandchildren, we were taught to “clean our plates” – both by our grandparents and parents. Decades of abundance couldn’t erase a childhood of hunger.
This complicated relationship with food is evident around the world, and in China too. Following the turmoil of the 20th century, Chinese food has become increasingly oily over the years – a demonstration of wealth, if not of health. Chinese grandparents notoriously and lovingly ‘force feed’ their grandchildren with fatty food. Food is at the very heart and soul of Chinese culture, and I can imagine that these days bring up difficult emotions, not unlike my own.
Yet while the pandemic fueled the mental health discourse worldwide, it is largely absent in China. As a nation, Chinese have always been extremely resilient, moving forward in full economic and technological force. Yet during trying times, we are reminded that we are a product of our past – not just the stories, but the emotions too.
How did your parents and grandparents’ backgrounds shape your relationship with food?