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This is not a joke: Chinese people are eating — and poking fun at — #whitepeoplefood

A Chinese worker's vision of "white people food" includes raw veggies, crackers, lunch meat and raspberries. This kind of pared-down, easy-to-prepare meal is catching on among office workers in China's cities.
Little Red Book/screengrab by NPR
A Chinese worker's vision of "white people food" includes raw veggies, crackers, lunch meat and raspberries. This kind of pared-down, easy-to-prepare meal is catching on among office workers in China's cities.

Go on Chinese social media around lunchtime and you will likely see picture after picture of distinctly underwhelming lunches: raw mushrooms and pepperoni on crackers, a plain chicken breast or a lonely baked potato.

Videos and photographs showing simple meals like these have gone viral on the Chinese internet accompanied by the playful hashtag: #whitepeoplefood, or #白人饭 in Chinese.

The shots depict people's minimalistic, sometimes uncooked lunches based on what they have seen in North America and Europe. Part of the appeal is that "white people food" is meant to bewilder many people in China with its no-frills, no-fuss nature – by contrast, Chinese cuisines can be complex in flavor, using dozens of ingredients and spices and a balance of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates, often cooked or stewed for long periods of time.

Teresa Duan, 23, likes how healthy a basic sandwich or salad can make her feel, but she admits there is a touch of sarcasm when the phrase "white people food" pops up on social media: "Chinese people don't understand how foreigners can fill themselves with such food. They might even think it's an insult to gastronomy."

Teresa Duan aims for minimalism and artistic flair in this "white people's" meal.
/ Little Red Book/screengrab by NPR
/
Little Red Book/screengrab by NPR
Teresa Duan aims for minimalism and artistic flair in this "white people's" meal.

Duan often shares such pictures of her "white people" meals from Shanghai – inspired by the simple, minimalistic food she found her classmates eating when she was studying for her undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom.

Hailing from China's central Hubei province, famed for the spice in its cuisine, Duan says at first, she was not used to eating a cold, plain sandwich for lunch. She often craved hot dry noodles, a specialty from the province's capital, Wuhan. The noodles are tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce and some tart pickles, and served hot.

But with little time left over after her school deadlines, she began to find the sparer diet of her classmates convenient. "I found this food healthy and time-saving at the same time, and two or three years is long enough to change my gut flora to help me get used to this diet and begin liking it," Duan told NPR on the phone. Since moving back to China, she estimates about 70% of her meals fall into the realm of "white people food."

The trend has especially caught on among younger, burned-out office workers on a "996" schedule-- working from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, six days a week.

"There is more pressure on young people today, especially with the 996 working culture. There is less time to cook and to prepare nutritious traditional Chinese meals," says Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of the blog What's on Weibo, which follows Chinese social media trends.

"They think that sometimes mixing up your diet with some so-called 'white people food' is quite handy because it saves time and gets you more time to continue working and it also makes you less drowsy in the afternoon."

That rings true to Perry Liu, 30, who lives in Beijing.

"For me, 'white people food' is easy to digest because I have a bad stomach. And this uses less oil and spice, so I feel light even after eating," Liu says, adding that the easy-to-prepare, pared down cuisine makes her less sleepy in the afternoons. "When you're under pressure at work, you tend to binge."

So far however, "white people food" – shaped by economic and demographic forces prioritizing efficiency – is very much an urban phenomenon in China. "If you tell people in a remote Chinese village that you had a 'white people meal' today, likely no one would understand what you are talking about," said Mei Shanshan, a Beijing-based food writer who often spends weeks at a time in rural China on gastronomic discovery trips.

The popularity of the hashtag #whitepeoplefood also reflects the mainstream Chinese eater's changing perceptions of Western cuisine, Mei argues.

The "White People Food" trend has especially caught on among younger, burned-out office workers on a "996" schedule-- working from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, six days a week, and eager for lunches that are easy to prepare.
/ Little Red Book/screengrab by NPR
/
Little Red Book/screengrab by NPR
The "White People Food" trend has especially caught on among younger, burned-out office workers on a "996" schedule-- working from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, six days a week, and eager for lunches that are easy to prepare.

Now, as Western hemisphere cuisines permeate Chinese cities, people there have become more comfortable parodying and satirizing the Western cuisines. "People tend to look at Western cuisine on more equal terms, with judgment and sometimes with a light whimsy, as it shows in the meme 'white people food,' " says Mei.

And the #whitepeoplefood meme has come full circle as it gets picked up by Westerners. Koetse speculates that they no doubt get a kick out of the fact this "tiny part of Western food 'culture' " has been "magnified by Chinese netizens and turned into something 'Chinese.' "

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aowen Cao
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.