Constraints of budget, time, the road, and research often dictate the ways in which one typically enjoys (or doesn’t) a given meal. When research demands dictate non-stop data collection, a pleasant solo lunch can (and should be) sacrificed in favor of a team discussion or a grab-and-go whilst between interviews.
I’ve been criticized (only half-jokingly) in the past for preferring to take my meals almost exclusively standing/in motion whilst going solo in the field. By virtue of having interviewed numerous vehicle-based vendors during research in China, standing (and conversing) while eating (often the vendor’s own food that they prepare and sell), and occasionally running from the urban administration authorities, became a routine part of the interview process.
Research-imposed constraints aside, I’ve found mealtime to be an excellent ritual around which to bond with the team, with many a strong idea coming in the midst of an intensive caloric recharge. The dining experience itself is one way in which the typical Chinese dining experience consistently wins out over other contexts – food is shared by default, with “family style” being assumed instead of requested. Anyone bashful about working alongside strangers will quickly drop any pretenses of unfamiliarity when crossing chopsticks over a shared favorite dish. I must admit being a sucker for the occasionally kitschy “Mongolian barbecue” joints that tend to proliferate around university campuses in certain second-tier cities around China. Of course, the team sharing the occasional gastrointestinal consequences of a meal that involves cooking your own meat only serves to temper stronger group bonds (one could argue with a wink).
Besides satisfying caloric needs or providing a forum for team discussion, a meal (in a broadly defined sense) can fulfill even more basic needs. The would-be consequences of a sudden monsoon in rural Myanmar can nearly always be prevented by pulling over to one of the ubiquitous roadside teashops and paying for a cup of strong milk tea – a reliable way to warm one’s bones while conveying gratitude for the tin roof overhead, roaring in defiance under the weight of a million determined drops.
One of the most memorable meals over the months of fieldwork in China was in the back of a tractor one frigid morning (see the above photo). The driver with whom I was working and staying made his living hauling massive bars of rebar-reinforced concrete from a local warehouse to the sites of various soon-to-be high-rises spread throughout the suburbs. Frost had gathered around the corners of his apartment’s windows windows, and it was cold enough to justify rising before dawn, boiling a kettle, and carrying it precariously down the six flights of stairs from his apartment to where his tractor was parked to pour it into the engine’s water tank and help “wake it up”. Once we had gotten underway and picked up his friends with whom I’d be working that day, our final stop before the construction material warehouse was a hole-in-the-wall dumpling restaurant. We dismounted and rattled off the number and types of dumplings we wanted. The cook deftly gathered our orders in individual plastic bags the approximate thickness and consistency of onionskin, through which the heat and steam of the fresh dumplings provided the ideal weapon against the elements whilst the team barreled out of town towards the factory (although the dilemma of whether to satisfy one’s hunger or preserve the warmth in one’s hands was a daunting one).
Though these days life has kept me out of the field as much as I’m accustomed to, I am exceedingly pleased that the office allows and encourages an upright (if not walking) dining experience.