It seems as though we are – in extraordinary circumstances – witnessing two rapid cultural shifts. Under normal circumstances, cultural assumptions and practices have a remarkable inertia. But times of crisis are different.
Change 1: Social eating practices in China.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting the southern province of Guangdong. At the first welcoming meal, I found two pairs of chopsticks in front of me. One pair was red and other pair white. Seeing my puzzled look, my hosts laughed: the red pair is for serving yourself; the white pair is for eating. ‘I have not seen this before’, I said.
As I write, this Guangdong custom is increasingly becoming the standard practice across China. Eating together is a central daily activity, where major decisions are made, food appears in common dishes on the table, you chat about all sorts of things, and often consume baijiu, the Chinese spirit.
Now, as China gradually returns to normal, restaurants and eateries are open once again. But – except for Guangdong – new practices are being rolled out. To quote an article from the China Daily:
The World Federation of Chinese Catering Industry and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade’s commercial sub-council co-released a specification on individual portions, communal dishes, and serving and personal chopsticks on March 18.
The specification states that individual diners’ food should be served to customers in separate tableware.
Each shared dish should be served with a separate pair of serving chopsticks.
And each diner should have two pair of differently colored chopsticks. One is to pluck dishes from communal dishes to place into individual bowls, and the other is for eating from individual bowls.
These are intriguing instructions, seeking to balance the highly communal nature of eating with the need for individual practices. But, as is the way in China, justification for the measures is drawn from the Chinese tradition. Already 3,000 years ago, during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) it seems to have been the custom to eat separately with even separate tables.
Communal eating at one higher table with chairs emerged later, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
A famous painting from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), called Along the River During the Qingming Festival, clearly shows such a practice:
The detail requires a bit of a search, so here is a smaller section:
Change 2: Facemasks in the ‘West’
Let me begin with another personal experience. A few weeks ago, I was involved in a workshop (now no longer possible). Since COVID-19 was spreading rapidly throughout the world, I wore a facemask for the whole time, since I have become accustomed to doing so in China when needed. The other participants gradually became used to my facemask, but one did admit it seemed to create a significant social barrier.
Ultimately, this is reason for the resistance in the ‘West’ (14 percent of the world’s population) to facemasks: it is a social, or cultural assumption. (Note that in Chinese wenming, poorly translated as ‘culture’, embraces what in English is called ‘society’). There may be ‘scientific’ reasons provided, but these boil down to misuse and lack of availability. At the most, you might wear one if you are really sick
Yet, this cultural assumption too is beginning to shift, driven by medical analysis. It has become clear that across East Asia the percentage of populations that have been infected with COVID-19 is quite low. China led the way, but you find this in other East Asian countries as well. Indeed, in places like China and South Korea, it is an offence not to wear a facemask during epidemic control.
The key is to wear the correct type of facemask for the conditions, put it on properly and use it only for as long as it is effective. For example, in Beijing I used to wear a pollution facemask, although one hardly needs to wear them there anymore. When the issue is bacterial or virological, a different, medical facemask needs to be worn, and so on.
Now, there is global scramble for facemasks, with some piracy and skulduggery involved. The WHO is beginning to recommend that facemasks, along with other measures such as hand-washing, gloves, contactless payment, disinfecting surfaces, and so on, are indeed beneficial. My wife tells me that even in the East German countryside where she is currently holed up, people are beginning to wear facemasks in the shops (she does so all the time).
In fact, I have found that wearing a facemask in Australia has an unexpected benefit: people think I have the virus! They jump back, give me more than 5 metres of space, and the woman at the post-office asked me very loudly: ‘Are you sick? Stay away from me!’
Perhaps this will not be the response when the practice becomes more common hereabouts.
As a footnote, I was actually picking up a package from the post-office that contains facemasks, from my friend in China: