First, the “lunch of suffering” went viral on China’s social media platforms, with amused users sharing their take on “báirén fàn” or “white people food” – basically raw vegetables, cold sandwiches, and anything processed or pre-packed.
Then the trend trickled into the feeds of Western platforms and became viral again, but this time, people were a little more bemused.
Under a photo of processed cheese, ham and crackers packed neatly in plastic (see up top), a Weibo user writes that to eat this for lunch is to “learn what it feels like to be dead”.
From the land of hot noodles, fragrant rice and spiced soups, Chinese netizens are tickled by what Westerners deem a proper meal, that being pre-packed lunches made up of plain ingredients, and anything that requires little to no energy or time to make.
There’s a new trend in China where people make and eat spiceless “white people lunch”, as form of self torture.
And their commentary has me crying 😭 pic.twitter.com/aRfK3VStaD
— Del Walker (@TheCartelDel) June 13, 2023
If you are one to take raw carrots wrapped in cheese, two-ingredient sandwiches and dressing-free salads to work with you, you’ll likely feel personally attacked by these memes, but alas, you have to admit, flavour is not exactly a white man’s forte. Trevor Noah says it best:
CNN notes that the #bairenfan trend really started to take off in May when people started posting photos and videos of these simple meals on social media platforms in China, though there are posts with the hashtag dating as far back as last October.
I found out today that on Chinese social media, there’s a trending hashtag that translates to white people meals lol
“I was so tired I ate a white people meal today”
One of hashtags is also “white people meals are still meals” pic.twitter.com/VGdedgrV2F
— Yan Fan 📍Tokyo – we’re hiring! (@yanarchy) June 2, 2023
The Guardian noted that the minimalistic food trend was pushed along by a viral video of a woman in Switzerland on a train eating a bag of lettuce with ham and a packet of mustard.
In response, hundreds of commenters shared stories of the low-effort lunches of their own colleagues in Europe, the US and Australia.
“When I first came to Australia, I saw a woman who bought … raw sliced mushrooms in the supermarket and sat down to eat it,” one writes. “I was dumbfounded.”
The TikTok user @li2dog breaks down “white people food” into three parts:
First, it has no spices (“zero feeling to your food”) because it does not prioritise enjoyment.
Second, it involves as little preparation as possible: “Eat it raw, eat it as a whole piece.”
And third, it is eaten at work or school. “The idea is when you get off work, you go back to eat your normal food and you feel the life back.”
The fascination with these meals comes from the fact that many Chinese people are used to cooking with a lot of different ingredients, Marcelo Wang explains.
But to some Chinese netizens, this kind of food is the “lunch of suffering”, as put by blogger Shanyoule, who bought a pack of string beans and a tomato to see what it was like to eat them raw: “It’s so lawless and outrageous.”
Another blogger opined that these lunches are “not for enjoyment, but to find guilt”. “In this way, I can always remind myself that I am here to work.”
China, just like most Asian countries, treats food like gold, often enjoying the work it takes to make a good meal and the ritual of sitting down to eat it with loved ones.
One person in Germany said they have a colleague whose lunch has not changed for 10 years, and watching them eat it makes them feel rather existential:
“It is a handful of oatmeal mixed with low-fat yoghurt, with half an apple and a carrot. If such a meal is to extend life, what is the meaning of life?”
South China Morning Post acknowledges that the trend has also come to represent a grudging acceptance of simple eating from people striving to succeed in China’s gruelling “996” work culture.
Some posters, who compared making light meals to cooking or buying Chinese dishes, said the trend saves them time, money and a boatload of calories. It’s helped them realise that the point of eating is just to keep yourself alive, they said.
“As long as you have the nutrients, it’s good. Being alive is good,” someone concluded.
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