Dispatches from the motherland: At the school caf

Every day after class, I head to the school cafeteria to get something quick to eat before I go home to work. There are several canteens strewn across campus, with types of food from all over China (this week they even have hairy crab), but today’s post isn’t about food. It’s about cafeteria traffic.

Here’s how it works. On one side of the cafeteria is the area where you get your food; the other side, tables and chairs. All over the walls, posters ask students not to save seats with their backpacks, but we all have banner blindness now, so the tables and chairs are occupied not by human bums but by backpacks and other personal objects like keys, pens, and even a solitary piece of Kleenex. You and your friends plop your stuff down on the table you like and then go to the food area. Since I have no friends here, I never save a seat for myself.

The food area is basically a bunch of stalls with windows. There are all sorts of stalls.At some windows, trays of prepared food wait to be doled out. You tell the cafeteria worker which food you want, they ladle it out onto a tray, and they weigh your tray and charge you through a student card or QR code. You can order noodles made the way you like. You can order Japanese curry. At the hotpot-type stalls, you grab tongs and fill a bowl with whatever meats and vegetables you want, and then the cooks cook it up for you. Prices are maybe half what you might pay off campus. Sometimes you have to wait ten minutes while your food is prepared before they call your number. You pay for your food at the stall from which you order it.

I think the chaos of the cafeteria is exacerbated by this seat-saving phenomenon, which leaves people who haven’t saved seats hopelessly clutching their trays with soup sloshing over the lip of the bowl searching for a place to sit while all the tables are covered in bags and pens and keys and a single Kleenex and other random belongings.

It made me think back to when I was an undergrad, and how the flow of traffic was so different in that cafeteria. The area where you could get food was separated from the eating area by workers at cash registers. You would enter the cafeteria through the “get food” area, pay for your food, then proceed to the seating area. Nobody really saved seats, I think because of the flow of traffic.

Come to think of it, though, the likelihood of someone stealing your backpack was not low, so there’s also that.

It also made me think of how it’s very common to see people eating alone here, one hand shoveling food into their mouth, the other operating a mobile phone while they watch videos. This happens everywhere, not just in the cafeteria. But when I was an undergrad, I remember some of my friends thought I was super weird for eating alone sometimes. Another thing that strikes me is that men and women don’t really seem to mix on campus here.

One response to “Dispatches from the motherland: At the school caf”

  1. My favorite thing to do in college was sit in the school cafeteria for hours and watch and talk to people as they came and went from their classes and sports practices and clubs and readings and what-have-you. Whenever I went alone, I’d feel simultaneously terrified and exhilarated, although I suspect now that they are one and the same feeling. Even if I didn’t end up talking to anyone, I always left feeling like my soul had gotten what it needed and like I was part of a community. Do you feel that way in your cafeteria? Does the caf serve breakfast? Do you get to eat youtiao and unsweetened dou hua? And most importantly, how can I recreate this feeling without going back to school?


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