Worth Your Weight

May 2, 2008

Have you eaten yet?

Filed under: HAES — worthyourweight @ 6:57 pm

When I was recently a-Googling how to write “Have you eaten yet?” in Chinese, I found an excellent essay on the common Chinese greeting.

On the surface, the question “Have you eaten yet?”, a common salutation among various Asian populations, may seem a bit odd. However, in today’s parlance, it is similar to such phrases as “how are you?”, “what’s up?”, “good morning,” and “good day” as a greeting when initiating conversation, communication, and interaction.

In the pre-industrial agricultural era, frequent natural disasters and warfare only added to the hardship of most Asians’ lives. When three square meals a day were the exception and not the rule, a good meal and a warm bed were considerable blessings. Consequently, in an age of material scarcity, asking someone if they’d eaten was a projection of one’s own state of being and thus conveyed caring and good will, as if saying, “I hope you are not enduring hunger and have had a meal.”

So, “Have you eaten yet?”

When you hear people greet you in this way in Asia, they really are concerned if you’ve eaten. If you respond by saying, ‘No, I haven’t eaten,’ many gracious Asians will ask you to be their guest for a meal on the spot to have you enjoy the true satisfaction of a good meal. The colloquial Chinese phrase, “a person taking a meal is as untouchable as the emperor,” puts this respect for satisfying humanity’s need for survival into crystal clear focus in a colorful manner.

Rooted in a humanist perspective, “have you eaten yet?” further contains Asian values of pragmatism. Hunger signifies the need to eat, and many Asians, whose self-expression is restrained and subtle, are not afraid to exemplify the guiding principle of survival that “the people live for food” and to extend that concept into their daily lives as a customary phrase of communication. Thus the rhetorical question, “have you eaten yet?” represents an approach to communication that encompasses humanity’s physical instincts and Asians’ living conditions. Reflecting a “self-awareness” and thinking, at the same time it evokes a Golden Rule (putting oneself in the place of others) condition of sharing and communication values.

In my search, I also found a post that addressed how certain answers to “Have you eaten yet?” might be perceived by the asker.

From the blog “Ai ya!”:

Interestingly, answers that may seem “okay” or acceptable in the US would be considered rude in Asia. For example, consider the following:

(older person) “Have you eaten yet?”
(you) “No thanks, I’m on a diet.”
(older person thinks: What a snob, and what a conversation-killer)

Another scenario:
(friend) “have you eaten yet?”
(you) “No thanks, I just ate.”
(friend thinks: she ate without me? or she doesn’t want to spend time with me? oh how rejected I feel….)

So what is a good, yet financially sound, solution that will please everyone in every country? Consider the following:

“Not yet, it’s only 3PM; why don’t we go somewhere first to talk/shop/study?”

“Not yet, why don’t you come over and I’ll cook for both of us?”

“Not yet; there’s a new (re: cheap) place I’ve been meaning to try, let’s go there.”

“Not yet; why don’t we call up the gang and let’s all go out to eat.” (the strategy here being, more people to split the cost and/or share dishes)

A little diplomacy goes a long way…for your wallet, too.

It struck me that an answer that would seem virtuous in the U.S. — “I’m on a diet” — is seen as snobby and rude.

In the comments to the post at “Ai ya!” the point is made that there are other cultures that celebrate food and eating instead of puritanically controlling it. The commenters mention Jewish and Latin cultures.

I’m Jewish and it’s definitely one I associate with my sub-culture where one is always being urged to “Eat! Eat! What? You don’t like what I make?”


…food = nurturing in Latin cultures, too!…we use food to show love…and, food is a main component of any major occasion…my family…

Another comment I liked that I happened upon in my search, from a travel guide site:

In China if you greeting as:”Have you eaten already?” nobody will think”Do you want to treat me to a dinner.” they just think you are care for him/her .they will be pleased.

I love that! They will think that you care and will be pleased. It would be so great if more of us could think of food and eating as caring for ourselves and about others and not some bean counting punishment or just filling up our bodies’ “gas tanks.” I think more of us would be pleased …



  1. i read this as i was finishing off a falafel pita (whole wheat pita, iceburg and romaine lettuces, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, feta cheese, and duh, falafel) making all sorts of happy sounds doing my happy food dance. my boyfriend was watching me saying how much he loves that i enjoy myself.

    i am totally pleased! ^_^

    Comment by maggie — May 2, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  2. Cool to know it’s a cultural norm somewhere; I’ve been lucky enough to know people who use that as a standard greeting even here in the U.S. For instance, my Southern relatives – first thing they greet you with is “Did ya’ eat yet?” Other Yankee family members and friends greet me the same way – I can remember the greeting from various people throughout my life. I consider those the kind types of people, the nurturing, loving kinds. My mother was very very averse to feeding me (I was bone-thin) and she extended that to my husband and children. I thought she just didn’t like feeding people period, but no, it was really all about me. But anyway, my grandmother was a feeder (and I’m not talking the fetish type but the kind, nurturing, loving type as you’re talking about) and my mother-in-law as well, though she hates food prep, likes to feed people. Well, she likes to *give* period, but feeding especially.

    I have *always* found the “No thanks, I’m on a diet” shit to be snobbish and snitty. There were times in my life where I was on a diet (of course) and people offered me food, but I *always* was very very apologetic about not taking it, because I always thought it was a genuine kindness to offer me food. (Not, as many American dieters would think, a type of sabotage – gah.) I would explain in detail and say how much I appreciated it, etc. Ok, there was ONE woman we used to meet with for bible study every week and she always made goodies and sweets while I was on Jenny Craig and I did actually tell her I thought she was trying to screw me up, but that was horrible of me, and she understood I was brain-addled from not getting enough to eat or sleep. It was out of character.

    But anyway, there are individuals out there who exemplify this type of thinking; I’ve had the good fortune to know many of them, and I think it should make a big comeback in this country. In fact, my husband and I (him “normal” weight and me fat) always always show hospitality to people with immediate offers of good food; and sometimes those hungry little girls really really appreciate it. The boys do too, but they’re usually not dieting lol. Maybe because though we’ve never had money to give people, we always had some food, and we like to make good things, so we always offer what we can. I say go forth and live it just as you learned it – people will love you for it :)

    Comment by anniemcphee — May 3, 2008 @ 1:20 am

  3. “i read this as i was finishing off a falafel pita (whole wheat pita, iceburg and romaine lettuces, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, feta cheese, and duh, falafel) making all sorts of happy sounds doing my happy food dance. my boyfriend was watching me saying how much he loves that i enjoy myself.”

    *grin* Are there people out there who DON’T do happy dances while eating falafel? I will never understand those people. Falafel is a little bit of heaven.

    And you’re right: refusal of food with “oh no, I’m on a diet” does strike me as rather snobbish. I don’t mind “oh no, I’ve just eaten and I’m stuffed” because I can sometimes sympathize (and people usually do this one graciously), but the diet thing seems to smack of showy virtuousness. My advisor does this, then five minutes later he’s sneaking cookies or brownies when he thinks no one is looking. I have yet to work up the nerve to call him on it. Unless you’re really full or have a food allergy or intolerance, is it really such a big deal to accept the gift of food, especially if you’re going to sneak it later anyway?

    My family tends to be of the feeder variety, especially my dad’s large Hispanic family. For us, a big part of family is the celebration of/with a meal. Within five minutes after walking into my aunt and uncle’s house on Christmas Day, I will be offered: tostadas, tamales, rice, chili, various desserts, my uncle’s homemade liqueur, coffee, etc., all before I can even sit down. My parents are the same; if they have us over for dinner, my mom will cook enough food for three times as many people and send us home with as many leftovers as we can carry.

    Comment by i_geek — May 3, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  4. There are many myths surrounding the Chinese family of languages, such as that we write in pictures. This is one of the more amusing ones.

    In fact, this is not a greeting or the equivalent of “how are you?”. You *may* hear it *sometimes* used as a greeting in a rural area out west or something. We do use questions as greetings, but no more often than English speakers might start a conversation by asking, “Back to the office?” or “Are you busy?”. If you do get the “have you eaten?” question, all that is expected is a one-word reply, as in the case of English. No one is going to drop everything to eat with you if you should say “no”.

    As an aside, the linked article sloppily lumps together a culture called “Asia”. Is the “gracious Asian” of the article a Han Chinese, Punjabi, or Siberian person? We can only guess.

    I anticipate that you will have difficulty finding how to say “have you eaten yet?” in Chinese (presumably Mandarin, as there is no such language as Chinese), as it simply isn’t a common, set greeting like “ni hao”.

    Comment by 郭康文 (Guo Kangwen) — May 3, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  5. In Pittsburgh, we say “d’jeet jet?” Heh.

    Comment by Buttercup — May 3, 2008 @ 10:29 am

  6. I’m an old Arkansas hillbilly. I don’t think there’s a single member of my extended family that hasn’t known true “we have nothing to eat and no money to buy anything;” “if we don’t grow it, hunt it, or fish for it, we won’t have food” HUNGER… So “Did ya eat yet?” has definitely become our greeting of choice!

    You do NOT eat when you are on the way to my grandmother’s house because she will always have food waiting when you get there. All of my friends in college used to beg to be invited to grandma’s for lunch or dinner because that woman could COOK, and she always put on a spread for company. =c)

    I may not be able to give lots of gifts to my friends and loved ones, but I always manage to feed them when they come over and I have “inherited” a love of feeding people from my grandmother it seems.

    “Did ya eat yet?” = I care about your well-being and I want to share my good fortune with you. =c)

    Comment by Pet~ — May 3, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  7. maggie,
    Sounds yummy! “Happy food dance” made me smile.

    One of my first few sentences to company visiting is an offer of food and drink, but it’s not something I’d say in a more casual situation. So I find it a very compassionate inquiry when made on a more general basis, and I thought the essay (as well as your comment) explored the nuances of “Have you eaten yet?” very well.

    “Within five minutes after walking into my aunt and uncle’s house on Christmas Day, I will be offered: tostadas, tamales, rice, chili, various desserts, my uncle’s homemade liqueur, coffee, etc., all before I can even sit down.”

    I want to go with you next Christmas ;)

    郭康文 (Guo Kangwen),
    I’m not sure of the point of your comment. You say “Have you eaten yet?” as a common greeting is a myth, yet there is much evidence that it is not.

    I don’t think the author of the essay I linked to in the original post is sloppy at all in talking about “Asian populations.” I think it is an attempt to be inclusive — people living in some parts of China as well as Asians in non-Asian countries and the like.

    I said in my OP I was researching how to *write* the phrase in Chinese, not *say* it. There *is* such language as Chinese when speaking only of written language.

    And the answer, of course — “Skeet!” (“Let’s go eat!”) LOL

    “‘Did ya eat yet?’ = I care about your well-being and I want to share my good fortune with you.”

    Cannot express how much I love this ^_^

    Comment by worthyourweight — May 3, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  8. English-speaking cultures in general seem to have divorced themselves from the nurturing side of food. ie. food = sin rather than food = nurturing. Perhaps that’s a result of puritanism or protestantism?

    I think for many other cultures the offering of food is about an expression of care, nurturing and/or welcome, and therefore a flat rejection of the food (‘no thanks, I’ve eaten already’) would be a rejection of that nurturing or welcome (and thus a rejection of the offerer).

    Some of the most memorable meals I have ever had, have come from expressions of welcome like this. For exampe, I remember an Italian friend’s mother who turned out a truly amazing banquet for a group of us hungry uni students who invaded her house one afternoon – amazing not just because of the size of the meal, or the quality of her cooking, but because of the home grown, home made ingredients like olives from their tree and salami from their own pigs. And “Oh, I’ve had more than enough, thank you sooo much” was met with, “Eat! Eat! You can eat a bit more. What don’t you like it?”

    Contrast the cultural etiquette this implies (the politeness of eating \ rudeness of refusal) with the etiquette I was drilled in as a child (rudeness of eating heartily \ politeness of refusal). We were told to only take a little of something or the smallest piece, to always leave something on your plate and to respond to “have you had enough to eat” with “I have had an elegant sufficiency, thank you.”

    Comment by Fatadelic — May 3, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  9. I don’t know if it’s a result of Puritanism or protestantism, but the bible (which is supposed to be the basis of both) says not to refuse what’s offered. To take it as the nurturing, loving thing it is, and not to be rude enough to refuse. I think we’re a little quick to blame Christianity when it isn’t at fault. Also, feasts are absolutely everywhere in the bible, and feasting together is a sign of love (they were called love feasts for a reason.) I can’t say where the idea of sin came into it culturally, but I doubt it’s the bible’s fault. There is an admonition not to use the love feasts purely as a reason to pig out, but that signified an undue focus on indulgence rather than the communal activity of eating and enjoying food.

    Comment by anniemcphee — May 4, 2008 @ 4:39 am

  10. What a great post! Thanks for giving us insight into this. It’s good to know that there are culture’s out there that consider the phrase “I’m on a diet” an insult! Lol.

    Comment by tiffabee — May 5, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  11. I’m EDNOS and have a very limited palate (eg. I have never eaten most things. Falafel. Lobster. A peach. And I’m 42!!! !! (yes, in therapy *haha!) So I’m constantly at a loss for what to say when someone wants to eat with me…I usually don’t want to. I wonder what is the most acceptable, socially polite way to get around having to eat with other people, or if it is necessary to eat with others, to avoid questions about my choice of dishes (“That’s all you’re having?” “Dont’ you like______?”) because there are so many things I just can’t eat right now…as in, I gag and can’t swallow! Embarassing! I usually try to say “No thank you” as politely and warmly as I can.

    Comment by hope505 — May 19, 2008 @ 9:54 am

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