This article is part of a new column on “Asian Values”, where we explore ideas that we take for granted as being inherent to our Singaporean identity.
It’s a Friday. You’ve decided to ball out with your lunch buddy at work, settling on the hipster cafe that up till last week you thought was a storage space for a karang guni with a hoarding problem. As it turns out, not only are they a cafe with a fully-operating kitchen, they also serve a mean, albeit vegan carbonara, which you order.
Meanwhile, your lactose-intolerant colleague orders a seafood aglio olio, which arrives first.
“Huh, Nevermind la, I wait for you,” she says, although you are 100% certain that she would much rather eat first.
And with that, the both of you sit in awkward silence (and hunger) until your vegan pasta dish completes its trek from stove to table.
If you’re a human being who’s had lunch with another person on at least one occasion, you know exactly what I’m talking about: the unspoken, implied expectation to wait for your lunch buddy’s food to arrive before eating, as both of you engage in a pointless session of etiquette gymnastics.
But what if you’re having a plate of steaming hot pepper lunch? As you wait for everyone at the table to arrive with their food, the beef slices start to char, and turn from caramelised to carcinogenic. Or the piping hot bowl of fish soup that you’ve ordered on a rainy day turns into tepid milk-water.
So why is eating first regarded as a cardinal sin? Why do we choose to put ourselves through this pointless and arbitrary social rule?
Many a time have I had looks of scorn shot in my direction when I so much as try to sniff the pieces of char siew on my plate. Similarly, I’ve watched in awe at the brave souls who continue consuming their meals despite obvious judgment from their lunch buddies.
After speaking to a few people, I’ve come to the conclusion that it largely boils down to one word: respect.
Showing your lunch partner that you have the patience to wait for everyone’s food to arrive implies that you treat them as an equal, and that you respect both them and their need to be fed.
By waiting for all the food to be served before digging in, we subconsciously portray ourselves as selfless individuals. With this simple gesture, you and your appreciative lunch buddy turn into kindred spirits, and develop a magical relationship that culminates in an orgasm as you both stumble upon the holy grail.
It is an acknowledgement that you are in this together. You are both hungry, suffering people. No one should get to partake unless all can do so at the same time, in shared pleasure.
This is solidarity of the purest kind that also preserves the communal spirit.
To not honour this unsaid agreement is like queuing up for the Battlestar Galactica ride at USS for an hour, and then sitting in different rows. Why would you bother asking someone else along if you were going to do that?
In Singapore, where meals are often communal rather than solitary affairs, this socially mindful aspect of respecting your dining companions has carried over into other more informal settings.
Chinese banquets, for instance, may be formalised to facilitate a culture of sharing. But this kinship that we often associate with family and closeness has inevitably left its mark on other dining formats.
“I wait for the other person’s food to arrive before eating cause that’s how I was brought up,” a friend explained to me, outlining the importance of manners in her household.
“My mother would beat us if we didn’t wait until everyone was at the table.”
This could very well be the reason why waiting for someone else’s food to arrive before eating goes beyond showing respect, and becomes a gesture of affection as well. However, this doesn’t manifest in such a straightforward manner.
Another friend concurrently shares, “If I’m close with the person, I will eat first. If it’s a colleague, then I won’t eat.”
Just like the middle-aged Asian father who walks around the house topless, or couples who feel secure enough in their relationships to pass gas in each other’s presence, being able to dig in first without any judgement is thus also the perfect barometer for gauging the level of closeness between two individuals.
If you can throw these rules of dining engagement out the window, you’ll basically die for each other.
My hypothesis is that all this is also a spillover effect from the Chinese concept of mian zi, or ‘face’. When you choose to eat first, you are supposedly displaying greed and a lack of both self-control and respect for your dining companion. This in turn leads to you looking bad and people judging you, which is probably also the reason why everyone starts to get in a fluster when the solitary Paiseh Piece is left on the plate.
Over time, these gestures, mannerisms, and their supposed implications have become a part of us. Today, they are the reason we get offended when someone takes a few mouthfuls of soup while waiting for someone else’s food to arrive, or dares to secure the paiseh piece with their chopsticks.
This is because these behaviours now serve as indicators of our own sense of morality.
Actions have meaning, and so we put on this front, unconsciously displaying what we want others to see in order to be perceived as more polite and well-mannered.
In a way, waiting for someone’s food to arrive before eating makes as much sense as the human nipple on the male body. It’s one of the things in life that hover between meaningful and meaningless.
It might seem pointless, but they just seem to make life just a little bit more interesting to live. After all, so many things in life are fun but stupid, yet we do them anyway.
So the next time you’re having a meal with someone, consider this: it doesn’t matter how your dining partner dresses it up; they want to eat their food, and you should give them your sincerest blessings.
If they insist on waiting, then simply accept the gesture. Just let them know what a tit they’re being.