I lived with my grandparents for the larger part of my childhood, so they clothed me, fed me and pat me to bed. I was also a much smaller kid than most of my peers, so I naturally had a meagre appetite. As a result, when I could't finish my rice on a daily basis, my grandmother would remind me casually:
"Whatever rice is left on your plate will be on your future husband's face. You don't want that, do you?"
That would encourage me to force down another 2, or at most 3 mouthfuls of rice before I gave up. Sometimes my sister and I would make a joke out of it, arranging our rice balls to form "our future husbands'" facial features. Yet in the back of our heads, we still obliged and finished our food, unwilling to risk our future husbands having rice spots all over their faces.
On the other hand, during festive occasions or celebrations like Chinese New Year, this same grandmother would tell me something quite the opposite:
"Don't finish up the fish on the plate... It will be a good sign that we have enough wealth to leave on the table and roll over to the next year."
In Chinese folklore, it is believed that expensive food items like fish or meat serve as symbols as a family's affluence. Coming from a poor background of hawkers and seamstresses, it seemed even more important to my grandparents that we displayed - using the food on our table - that we could afford to live comfortably.
Despite its internal contradictions, Chinese folklore surrounding table manners plays an important role in the way the elder generation educates and inculcates values among the younger generation. Stories make a simple lesson more poignant and memorable in a repetitive and mundane activity like eating, while personal consequences that these stories hint at make these habits even more non-negotiable.
To this day, I still find myself fantasizing how my future husband's forehead will look like...