Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nutritional Transition in China

The concept of the nutritional transition, roughly defined as the shift away from traditional diets to one of modern, "Western" foods high in sugar and fat, occurring in the world today is an extremely relevant and urgent issue. Having traveled in China during this past summer, I can personally attest to the changes in the country’s eating habits and culture, especially to the change in the diets of the younger generation versus the older generations.

One important factor to bring up is the Chinese cultural mentality and history with food, which creates a food environment that can be dangerous in conjunction with the modern “Western” diet. Historically, Chinese people have always been worried about getting enough to eat. Rice crops were dependent on weather conditions and the river levels. Specifically in the past century, China has experienced much political and economic turmoil that has also caused famines and malnourishment. Therefore, the older generations prize food and place great emphasis on eating well and being well-nourished, especially for their children.

People that verged near starvation in their past will not be willing to deny any type of food to their children and grandchildren, and may even be food-pushers. They also emphasize the importance of not wasting any food.

In the past, this cultural mentality worked well because the traditional Chinese diet was extremely nutritious and consisted mostly of rice and vegetables. People spent a lot of time either farming their own crops or going to open markets. Meat was expensive and an occasional treat. People drank mostly tea and water. However, with the opening of the Chinese economy, the “Western diet” has become increasingly accessible. In every city, there are multiple fast food places and convenience stores. There is more availability of cheap meat and snack foods. In every supermarket, there are American brands such as Dove chocolates, Pringles chips, and Coca-cola.

Many children prefer these novel American goodies to the traditional diet. The current generation of parents usually does not have as much time to cook and prepare food as their parents did, so they also utilize the convenience of supermarkets and fast food places. The older generations, the grandparents, are the majority in traditional open markets where one can pick out the freshest vegetables and fruits. These open markets are disappearing as the concrete jungles of the cities spread, and farms become located increasingly more distant from the population centers.

Below is a photo of a plot of land that my grandparents use to grow vegetables. They are the only ones in my family that still grow their own food. However, because of the increase in land used for industrial/residential purposes (as seen in the background), their plot of land is confined to one of those tiny squares.

The obesity rate is increasing rapidly. Because the centuries old cultural dietary mentality, not to mention biological propensity, was developed through times of food scarcity, I believe it is very difficult now for Chinese people to adapt to the current environment with its abundance of unhealthy and nontraditional foods. However, if the government does take action, it should not ignore the other portion of the Chinese population, especially in certain rural areas, that still does experience food shortages and malnutrition.

If you want to learn more about the role food plays in Chinese culture, read this post!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Hey everyone! Sorry for the lags between posts - it's been pretty busy around here. Anyways, a reader recently asked me to write on the topic of "guanxi," which roughly translates to "relations." Basically, it's a system of connections and networks between individuals that the Chinese society really emphasizes. Though I'm not by any means an expert on Chinese society, I will try my best to explain using my observations and experiences.

With a population of over 1 billion, China is a difficult place to get anything done without guanxi. The system has its good and bad aspects. At the worst extreme, guanxi can seem like nothing more than bribery, schmoozing, and taking advantage of knowing the right people in the right field. However, guanxi also promotes maintaining and fostering good relationships with old friends and others you meet in life. It emphasizes the ability to create strong personal bonds and fulfill obligations towards others.

In the states, we like to separate personal life from business, and we do not like to mix business with pleasure. Therefore, it may be hard for people to understand the guanxi system, but I will do my best to explain by providing a few examples.

Chinese people do business over dinner. If you want a favor or a deal, your best bet is to invite the person out for a meal and a drink, preferably at a nice restaurant, or at home if you know them a bit more personally. During the meal, there would probably be lots of flattery, drinking, maybe smoking, and possibly a fight over who pays the check at the end. Hopefully at the conclusion the favor would be asked for and granted, or a business deal would be made.

My uncle is the chief editor of a university scientific journal, and he gets invited out to meals all the time, either by people hoping to have their article accepted to the publication, or people whose articles have been published and want to thank him. Likewise, he sometimes hosts colleagues from other universities with whom his department wants to create connections. A friend who is a doctor at a hospital receives invitations from families who want her to take on a relative as a patient, or from pharmaceutical companies who want their products in the hospital. Sometimes people also send gifts as a sign of goodwill.

All of this occurs because there are just too many people and not enough opportunities, whether for medical care, education, or employment. You have to know the right people and cultivate good relationships with them in order to skip through the bureaucratic red tape. It's much easier to know the physician personally and receive care than to wait in line for hours or possibly days in a city hospital.

It is true - sometimes an extreme form of guanxi can start to look like corruption, such as when you have a great connection with the police or judge. However, guanxi is how China operates, and most people accept it, though I think there have been reforms to remove some of its worst aspects. It exists at some level in the U.S. as well - we have all known someone who got where they are because of the right connections. Is it wrong, or is it just good luck?