When I started working in Manhattan in 2004, swanky restaurants and elaborate dinners became part of the weekly “team-building” or “client meeting” routine. After I moved over to finance, the meals got better and more frequent. My taste buds developed into these thousand little discerning and fickle things. The “Dining Out” portion of the household expense report that my then-boyfriend diligently drew up every month grew and grew. At the peak of the Asian equity bubble two years ago, I didn’t blink twice when I charged a few hundred euros on brunch for one at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.
I’ve wined and I’ve dined, but none of these gourmet meals ever made me salivate like I did two weeks ago. I was walking in the “expatty” Sanlitun area with some friends when we passed by a construction site. It was seven PM sharp and a battalion of dusty-haired, brown-skinned construction workers had emerged from the walled-in compound and was lining up on the street to get their dinner rations. The men were dirty and dressed in rags, a decrepit-looking crowd. Most of them wore shoes with holes in the sides, pieces of string around the waist to hold up ill-fitting pants, and raggedy shirts that were fraying everywhere. Not your typical unionized construction worker with a uniform of flannel shirt, Caterpillar boots, and regulation hardhat.
Normally I would’ve crossed the street to avoid being stared at by such a crowd. Next to them, my clean and simple clothing looked like extravagant finery. But something in the faces of these construction workers captivated me. They all showed expressions of…sheer excitement!
I slowed down to look and saw that each man held in his hands two large tin bowls. The ones at the back of the line jostled with each other in a friendly manner to get closer to the food. At the head of the line, dinner was being ladled out of two giant oil-barrel-like things. One barrel was heaped high with gleaming white rice. The other contained an ambiguous-looking yellowish soup, maybe boiled cabbage. When a man reached the head of the line, the “cafeteria lady” would serve him an enormous pile of rice (about the quantity that a personal-sized rice cooker yields) and a generous spoonful of slop.
The food itself was not appetizing. No enticing colors or visual presentation, likely day-old vegetables, and way too much carb for an evening meal. But the men were buzzing around the barrels happily, like bees around a succulent flower, ripe with pollen. Their eyes gleamed with anticipation of the filling meal ahead, they elbowed each other with laughter, and some even rubbed their bellies with impatience.
Right then I realized that their meal was probably better than any caviar, frois gras, or Dom Perignon that ever passed through my lips. They had worked hard, expended all their energy, and were now looking forward to replenishing nourishment. This meal would taste heavenly because their bodies deserved every bite of what the “cafeteria lady” would ladle into their tins, and most likely more.
I remembered with guilt and shame on the times I ordered an unnecessary dessert just to end my dinner on a sweet note, commanded an extra dish “just to taste,” and had threw out an expensive doggy bag because I left it in the fridge for too long. With material abundance and the alleviation of my personal hunger, I no longer remembered what it was like to enjoy food because you NEEDED it, worked hard for it, and savored it.
Night began to fall and I walked away from the scene. With every step I resolved to work more, eat less, and minimize waste because somewhere, someone really deserves the simple meals that I’ve come to take for granted.