All Tea No Shade with Andrea Lo.
The other day, I was working in the office when a TV suddenly turned itself on at full volume.
“Is there anyone actually watching that?” a co-worker piped up. “I don’t actually mind the noise — it’s just like when I’m with my family,” she said. “But if no one’s watching it…” she added, her voice trailing off as she went to find the source of the noise.
What she said made me think about a habit in many Chinese families: having the TV on during gatherings and dinners.
I don’t remember a single dinner party my parents have thrown, or that I’ve attended with them, where the TV isn’t on before, during or after dinner. And even when it’s just family dinner at home, the TV is on — whether it be Hong Kong news, TVB dramas, or a 90s Triad movie.
You only have to look at Chinese restaurants around the city to understand this well-established habit: most of them have TVs throughout the dining area as well as inside their private rooms.
I know that there are non-Chinese families that allow TVs in the dining room. And even though there are restaurants around the world that blast TV — sports bars and diners alike — the phenomenon I’m talking about is one that’s very Hong Kong-specific. To me, it’s not like the TV is on for any reason. It’s not like anyone’s trying to catch major breaking news or the finale of a groundbreaking series. It’s just on.
Opinion seemed to be divided when I asked friends what their thoughts were on this strange cultural quirk. To me, the TV is a way to avoid making conversation during Chinese family dinners and gatherings: with all the “why are you single,” “you’re fat,” and “how much money do you make” questions, what better way to avoid awkward chat than to stare blankly at a TV screen?
My friend N agrees: “It’s a good excuse not to talk to your bitchy and judgemental aunts.”
“But you could argue that it promotes conversation — because everyone is following the same TVB soap,” analyzes L. This must be what gave rise to the Cantonese saying 電視汁撈飯 deen see jup lo fan, “to mix the TV sauce with your rice.”
“Though if you want to make the argument that the TV is being used by people to avoid talking to people, the smartphone enables that as well,” L says.
We agreed that, generally speaking, the TV gives something to those who are not necessarily involved in the conversation. Though I still think that watching TV during dinner is a much more acceptable practice than playing on your phone — just because the former has been done for so long.
I have a love-hate relationship with the TV. There have been times when I’ve zoned out during a family dinner, when whatever was on TV seemed a godsend. But then, when I’m at my mom’s for dinner, I am secretly annoyed that whatever is interesting that’s happening on TV seems to suddenly cut off whatever we were in the middle of talking about and dominate the conversation.
When I moved out on my own, I resisted getting a TV because I hated that omnipresent noise in the background of everything I did at the family apartment: having dinner, talking on the phone, getting work done.
But after a while, I began to miss it.
For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with TV dinners. When I stay in, I usually have dinner with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on — at full volume.
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