Out of the Rice Zone

In China, eating rice is manly. It goes with smoking and drinking. Every time I turn down a cigarette with a “I don’t smoke,” people are disappointed. When I drink with them, they are very happy, nodding in approval. When I don’t eat much rice (like only one bowl), they demand I have another bowl. They don’t want to hear any of that “we don’t eat this much rice in the West, especially not at the very end of a meal” crap.

So I was happy once I got into my “rice zone.” I was capable of eating two to three (smallish) bowls of rice with every meal. Normal whiteys fresh off the boat cannot do this. It took me years to get to that point.

Lately, I’ve lost it. I’m not sure what it is. A few months ago, when Ayi gave me a heaping bowl of rice (and that’s a big bowl, not the restaurant size), I would eat it all in the course of my meal. Now, I take one look at that bowl and I’m sure I can’t finish it. When I put back half the bowl, she scowls in disapproval, the “a big tall guy like you should be eating more rice than that” written very clearly on her face.

Maybe I’m just ready for a visit home.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. What? Almost no one I know eats rice at a restaurant — we’ll order more dishes before that happens. At home (mine and others’) anyone who eats more than one bowl is called a 饭桶.

  2. Brad,

    The rest of China has another word for someone who only eats one bowl of rice: 女孩.

  3. or 鳥食 (bird feed)

  4. Yea same here, i’ve noticed that afluent chinese almost rarely eat rice 米饭 that is, when they go out to eat, I’ve been told by several Chinese that eating 米饭 means you are poor and can’t afford anything else to eat.

  5. I’ll warn Taco Bell that you’re coming home & that they need to stock up.

  6. Tian, I appreciate your translating the Chinese for those of us who aren’t Chinese literate. Thanks.

  7. Tim P,

    Brad used the word 饭桶 which literally means “rice bucket.” I think you can understand what it means.

    I used 女孩, which means “girl.”

  8. I prefer dumplings饺子, noodles面条 and steamed buns 馒头 as my 主食!

  9. I don’t know, John. My experience has been the exact opposite of yours. At Chinese restaurants in Houston and Austin, they bring a whole pot of rice to the table, and my male friends and I would eat 2-4 bowls each. When I came here, I noticed no one at rice, so I stopped. Several of my Chinese friends have come to visit from the States, and were shocked that rice wasn’t served with every meal. They complained that they were hungry almost immediately after eating.

  10. Brad,

    I’d wager you’re a bit atypical in that respect. I didn’t hang out with Chinese people much at all back home, so rice was always something I ate only occasionally in modest portions.

    Your China experience has pretty much just been in Shanghai, right? That’s why I said “the rest of China.” Plus, dining out is not the same as eating at home. Still, I can assure you that plenty of rice is eaten in Shanghai! I feel silly just saying that.

    The experiences I referred to in this entry were mostly eating at home and eating at other people’s houses.

  11. From personal experience, shoving 白米 or 面条 down your throat is definitely a 江南 thing. It happened to me as well, but not up north in 陕西 and only rarely in 河北.

    白米: white rice
    面条: noodles
    江南: south of the Yangzi, i.e. wide neigbourhood of Shanghai,
    陕西: Shaanxi
    河北: Hebei

  12. I REALLY appreciate the translations. Thanks to you all. Now I can read and UNDERSTAND the comments that I’m reading. Thanks again.

  13. It’s quite fun to read such comments on rice of U foreign guys.I am a Chinese girl in Hangzhou(where Turr called “江南”).I think what John talked about is really typical in China.My mother is definitely an Ayi who demand my pals eat more and more ^^~~
    BTW,I am a girl who has a good appetite,even better than some boys.I eat a heaping bowl of rice every meal,hehe,and I am sure to order rice in restaurant.^
    ^SO some of my pals really called me”饭桶”,but I don’t care,Cause I do like rice~~

  14. I dunno John, so far my experience has be similar to Brad’s. Up here in Beijing, I’ve been to a few meals where I was the only one who ordered rice with the food. Everyone else was content with the dishes themselves.

    Maybe it’s different in the home; I’ve only had one particularly statisfying Dongbei home cooked meal where the only other thing we consumed with the dishes was baijiu.

  15. Down here in the south I’ve asked a number of colleagues about when “they” eat the rice. They say no problem during the meal and usually down a bowl by the 3rd bite of food and finish up a 2nd and 3rd bowl in no time. Guangdongren have no 规定(regulations) about rice etiquette. I prefer it this way as rice always seems to be best served with the meal, not after as a very plain bland “dessert”.

    Not that it matters, after 2 years here I’ve resorted to cooking at home whenever possible. You can only eat so much Chinese food before you realize you’re dropping weight like Jenny Craig on wheat-thins.

  16. i’m not rice bucket, but i really experieced to eat a big bucket of rice(of course not compelete), pity can’t post photo here.

  17. In Kunming, rice is definitely still in. Maybe business people spending lots don’t eat it, but for most meals and in the families I’ve stayed with, yeah, a lot of rice is obligatory. Hope your stomach recovers its old powers soon 🙂

    Right now I’m in Hong Kong, suddenly find I can’t eat the same amount of bread I used to….

  18. photo here, go to my blog

  19. Yay! one more to come in your group. Me too love eating rice.

Leave a Reply