There Can Be Only One Lunch Time

After having lived in China for over 13 years, how has China changed me? Some changes are more subtle than others.

Chinese Food

Photo by Yoshimai

Here’s a short exchange I had with a friend recently:

> Me: So are we doing lunch?

> Him: I can’t come at 12pm. How about 1pm?

> Me: OK, so after lunch?

> Him: What time do you eat lunch then? You’ve been in China too long…

It’s true that the Chinese are pretty rigid about their eating schedules, and now I realize that I have been reprogrammed. I think of 12pm as “the lunchtime,” with deviations as early as 11:30am or as late as 12:30pm acceptable.

Recently I had an evening meeting with an American AllSet Learning client that wrapped up around 10pm. He and his wife (also American) went out for dinner after the meeting, and I was a little incredulous that that was normal for them.

I realized that I now think of 6:30pm as “the dinnertime,” with deviations as early as 6pm or as late as 7:30pm acceptable.

This cultural norm for mealtimes also affects my business. Occasionally AllSet Learning clients want to do 2-hour Chinese lessons starting at 11am or 5pm. Those time slots make it impossible for the Chinese teacher to eat lunch or dinner at an even remotely acceptable time, so I have to explain that for cultural reasons, those are bad times for lessons.

I’m not sure exactly how “Chinese” my eating habits are, or if they’re sort of a hybrid of my original American ways and my Chinese life. One habit I’ve yet to “go native” on is breakfast. I like some Chinese breakfast (煎饼 in particular), but I frequently skip breakfast. This, of course, horrifies Chinese friends.

I think I used to fight this kind of change, these insidious creeping ideas that attempt to slowly win over my brain. This one is kind of hard to fight, though. The stomach wants what the stomach wants, and China’s been whispering in its “ear” for quite a while now.


John Pasden

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


  1. 早上吃得好,中午吃得饱,晚上吃得少

  2. Ha, I read this over lunch at 1:49.

  3. I never thought of this, but now I realized why I got so annoyed while staying in the USA last summer. I split my time between my parents’ house and my sister’s; neither of them would eat at what I considered “normal” times. It would get around to 11:30am and there was no talk of lunch. My (half-Chinese) kids are used to a pretty strict eating schedule, as am I. I’d whip up something for them and two hours later my sister would take a break from her work and ask if I wanted to eat.

  4. I always find it bizarre that you can walk into the most popular restaurants in Beijing at 5:45pm, no problem, but, if you get there at 6:15pm, you have to take a number and wait two hours.

    Just get there a bit earlier would surely be a logical response? But try as I might, I just can’t seem to get my wife into a restuarant before 6, no matter what we are doing that day. Sometimes I shift it to 8:30 or 9pm but this doesn’t seem to work, and is always meiyou renao from my wife’s perspective.

    • Benjamin C. Says: March 2, 2014 at 10:27 pm

      If I’m going to be eating out for lunch it has to be before 11:30 or after 1:30. I don’t like a crowd.

  5. Really? None of my Chinese friends in Beijing have very strict eating times. Maybe it’s a Beijing thing, or maybe their age group (twenties) isn’t as strict as older generations?

  6. Try living in Xinjiang, where lunch is always at 2 pm (or 12, depending which ethnicity you are) and dinners can last until 10 or 11 at night.

  7. Excellent observation and realization.

    Here in Tianjin is the same trend. Meal times are strictly abided by. College cafeterias are such a great example of this, most here totally shut down outside of the “meal times”.

    And yes having been here a while, I too have succumb to the silent subconscious molding, my meals have become much more routine in time than before.

    Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing though?

  8. but no matter what i bet your stomach will never
    tire of burgers and fries lol !!!!

  9. I just read your post John. I’m going to lunch now!

  10. I generally view lunch as being sometime between 12-1 pm, with deviations from that acceptable but not the norm, and dinner as being between 5-7pm, with rare deviations, and it’s been that way before I ever started learning Chinese. Though, it may have something to do with being diabetic…

    對我來說,午飯應該是下午十二點鐘到下午一點鐘左右,差一半個小時OK的。晚飯應該是晚上五點鐘到七點鐘左右。學中文之前我的看就這樣! 但,可能是因為我有糖尿病有這樣的比較嚴格得時間表ㄟ。。。

  11. SeekTruthFromFacts Says: March 11, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    This is China – there are regulations on such things!
    According to the late unlamented SARFTL
    “in accordance with the customs of the masses, it is forbidden to transmit advertisements that may disgust audiences as they are eating from 0630 to 0730, 1130 to 1230 and 1830 to 2000.”

    Deviations to 6 pm are not acceptable! 🙂

    Source: Provisional Measures on the Regulation of Television And Radio Advertisements clause 19, 2003

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