Each culture has its own unique way of asking how someone is. In the U.S. you’ll hear, “how are you doing?”
In The U.K., it’s “are you okay?”
But in China, it’s “nǐ chī fan le ma?” which means, “have you eaten yet?”
Sure, there’s a way to literally say “hello” and “how are you?” in Chinese, but this key phrase inquiring about consumption is the most common expression. This just goes to show you how important the act of dining is in China. On any given night while passing by one of the millions of restaurants in Beijing, you’ll witness older, balding Chinese men with their shirts pulled over their bellies (on really hot nights) clinking glasses of beer noisily with their buddies. Their wives are gathered around the table, gossiping amongst themselves and munching on chuanr while the children run around the tables. Family dining isn’t just a meal–it’s a big ordeal. Typical Chinese meals consist of family-sized dishes that are meant to be passed around and shared. It reminds me of the way extended family members gather around turkey and mashed potatoes for a Thanksgiving meal in the U.S.
I found it so strange that everyone kept asking me if I had eaten during my first few months in Beijing. As soon as I learned the phrase Chinese, I didn’t stop hearing it. I was recently told by a Chinese friend that this question indicates that the asker cares about the askee and wants to make sure you are fed properly.
There is definitely a unique sense of bonding around the dinner table here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how many times I ask my friends and family if they’ve eaten yet out of habit when I return home.