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Research Papers

“I eat more salads because they are good for health”: Cooking, Eating and Informal Learning among Recent Chinese Immigrants

  • Lichun Willa Liu

Corps de l’article


Food and eating play a central role in Chinese culture and Chinese ways of life. The new wave of Chinese immigrants to Canada in the past decade has consequently brought new food beliefs and dietary habits to the host country. There are now over 1.3 million Chinese in Canada, making it the largest visible minority group in the country. [1] However, compared to their predecessors, who mostly hailed from South China (Canton) and Hong Kong, the majority of recent Chinese immigrants come from different parts of Mainland China. As a result, they possess a distinct set of food styles due to their diverse geographical and cultural origins.

Literature on Chinese immigrants in Canada has mainly focused on labour market barriers and economic performance in the host country. [2] Little has been written about their unpaid household work, [3] and research on food-related housework remains scarce as well. [4] Despite the size of this immigrant group, [5] virtually no Canadian research examines food-related work among recent Chinese immigrants, even though the number of studies of food and eating has grown dramatically over the past three decades, including literature on immigrant foodways, food security, [6] food identity, [7] and food acculturation. [8]

Based on a Canadian survey on Work and Lifelong Learning (WALL) (n=9,063) [9] and in-depth interviews with new Chinese immigrants in the Toronto area (n=20), this paper examines the impact of cross-cultural migration on food work, health, and related informal learning among new Chinese immigrants in Canada. The survey data compares the participation rates of food- and health- related informal learning among three groups of people: Canadian-born, Chinese immigrants, and other immigrants. The interviews examine the gendered division of food work and learning between Chinese immigrant women and men, and ways in which they have (or have not) adjusted to changes in cooking, grocery shopping, food habits, and food-related health.

An Overview of Pertinent Literature

Food work as women’s work

Past and current research on food work suggests that women have consistently been responsible for a disproportionately large fraction of food preparation and cooking duties–both historically and currently–despite their increased participation in paid work. [10] In her book Feeding the Family (1991), DeVault argues that this gendered nature of cooking and food preparation, although central to the construction of family, has consequently led to the invisibility of such activities as work, not only as viewed by those who benefit from this work, but also by the very women who perform it. DeVault attributes this invisibility of women’s food work partly to the devaluation of women’s work and partly to the non-observable and not readily measurable nature of the work (for example, planning, organizing, coordination). Much of this work is either hidden from sight or overlaps with other activities and thus can hardly be measured using time- and task-based studies. [11]

Chinese food habits and food beliefs

The traditional Chinese diet is made up of two major components: fan, such as rice, noodles, or steamed buns, and ts’ai, such as stir-fried vegetable and meat dishes. [12] Influenced by the Chinese philosophical concept of yin-yang, Chinese food beliefs and dietary habits emphasize the balance of both fan and ts’ai as well as the balance of “hot” items such as fried, spicy, or rich foods, and “cold” foods such as leafy green vegetables. [13] Conventional Chinese belief indicates that methods of food preparation and consumption are intimately tied to one’s health. While improper combinations of food may cause illnesses, food may also be used to strengthen health. Satia et al. demonstrated that Chinese cultural beliefs about food and health continue to play an important role in the dietary practices of Chinese immigrants living in North America. [14]

Food acculturation and health

Research shows that migrants bring food practices from their countries of origin to their host countries as an essential component of culture and identity. [15] However, food habits and dietary patterns shift after immigration through substitution, addition, or modification. [16] These changes arise largely out of cost concerns, convenience, and social support. [17] Research also shows that changes in food practices are positively associated with acculturation, [18] the process of adopting the cultural traits or social patterns of the dominant group. [19] This plays an important role in ethnic and racial minority health issues. [20] It is well documented that high acculturation is associated with high-energy and high-fat eating behaviours, [21] and that increased consumption of a Western diet (including red meat, dairy products, fatty and sugary foods, and soft drinks) along with the decreased consumption of traditional ethnic food may lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. [22]

Research also suggests that dietary changes may be affected by gender, age, education, income, length of residence, fluency in the new language, and social contact with the host culture or other cultural influences in the new country. [23] In addition, children’s preferences, work schedules, social relations, stress, traditional beliefs, climate, season, and access to foods also influence immigrants’ food patterns. [24]


Data used in this paper comes from two sources: a Canadian survey on work and lifelong learning and 20 interviews with new Chinese immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Conducted in 2004, the Survey on Work and Lifelong Learning (WALL) represents the first initiative to examine informal learning extensively in relation to paid and unpaid work. Of the 9,063 Canadian adults interviewed, women represented 52 percent, and men, 48 percent. Based on their self-reported race/ethnicity, 86 percent identified themselves as white and 14 percent identified themselves as non-white. Canadian-born respondents amounted to 80 percent of the pool, while 20 percent were immigrants. Chinese made up 2 percent of the total participants. [25]

As part of the WALL sub-project on Household Work and Lifelong Learning, [26] 20 interviews were conducted with new Chinese immigrants (14 women and six men) who had lived in the GTA for five years or less prior to the interviews. Eight of the interviewees (four women and four men) were pulled from the WALL survey, and 12 (ten women and two men) were drawn from personal contacts due to lack of qualified participants in the research region of the original survey. Most of the interviewees (90 percent) were married, with children ranging between one and 25 years of age. Although nearly all of the participants were educated professionals before immigration, at the time of the interviews most of the new immigrants were not working in their trained profession. Several interviewees were retraining at a university or college in a field completely different from their previous profession.

This paper uses complementary data from the survey and the interviews in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of food work and health as well as informal learning, which, according to Livingstone, is “any learning activity, both individual and collective, undertaken in order to gain new understanding, knowledge, or skills without externally-imposed criteria or the presence of an institutionally authorized instructor.” [27] More women were selected for interviewing because the literature indicates that women still do two-thirds of all household work despite their increasing participation in paid labour. This research focused on recent immigrants with five years or less of residence in Canada because studies on lifelong learning indicate that major life transitions lead to significant learning [28] particularly in the first five years following immigration. The goal of the paper is to make visible the food work and the informal learning that has so far remained largely invisible and unexplored in the research literature.


I. Informal learning in the WALL survey: Food/Cooking, and health/wellbeing

The recent Canadian survey on Work and Lifelong Learning (2004) indicates that 97 percent of both women and men claimed to have carried out unpaid housework. The vast majority of participants in housework (82 percent) also indicated that they engaged in some related informal learning, suggesting that informal learning is probably the most widespread unpaid work, yet the least studied. [29] Of all the housework activities surveyed, food- and health-related informal learning scored either very high or the highest in terms of participation rates among all Canadians of different backgrounds (see Table 1).

Table 1

Participation rate (%) of informal learning on food/cooking and health/wellbeing by gender, and place of birth. All eligible participants.*

*Only those who reported doing some housework-related informal learning were asked questions about the topics.

**Chinese immigrants are not included in the foreign-born group.

Participation rate (%) of informal learning on food/cooking and health/wellbeing by gender, and place of birth. All eligible participants.*

-> Voir la liste des tableaux

Table 1 indicates that food- and health-related informal learning is very high among both the native-born and the foreign-born Canadian adults. On average, little difference exists between the Canadian-born and the foreign-born participants in their involvement in learning about food and cooking. The same is true for health and wellbeing. In comparison, Chinese immigrants have lower participation rates in such activities. This is likely because Chinese immigrants, who are mostly recent arrivals in the WALL survey, are less settled, thus have to devote more time to paid work and its related learning in order to survive in the host country. [30] However, data involving informal learning related to food and cooking, as well as to health and wellbeing, indicates gender is a key factor, since more women are involved in learning about food and health than their male counterparts across all three groups. The gendered pattern is most obvious among the Chinese immigrants, with far fewer men than women reporting learning about food and health, though this result may be influenced by the WALL study’s small sample.

The gender gaps in food- and health-related informal learning among both native-born and foreign-born Canadians may reflect the fact that women, regardless of their ethnicity and place of birth, often take on the responsibility of feeding their families and demonstrate a concern for the health and wellbeing of their family members. In the following section, I will examine in detail food-related household work among the new Chinese immigrants surveyed, and the informal learning involved in food preparation, cooking, and grocery shopping.

II. Interviews with Chinese Immigrants in the GTA [31]

“I do all the cooking now because that’s a good way to save money.”

Of the 20 people I interviewed, 95 percent of them, male and female, married and single, reported a sudden increase of household work after immigration. Much of the increased work was related to the preparation and cooking of their staple foods. For example, many immigrants–mostly women–talked about spending more time in Canada making traditional Chinese foods such as steamed bread, noodles, and dumplings, whereas they used to buy such foods in China. One reason cited for this change was that they did not know where to purchase such foods in the host country, but even more frequently the reason was that they could not afford to buy them here, particularly when they first arrived in Canada. [32] Several women also recalled dining out regularly, eating with parents or hiring people to do the housework (including cooking) in China. However, due to challenges in getting professional jobs and a subsequent sharp decline in family income after immigration, many of the Chinese immigrants talked about the need to cut back on their food expenses. “I do all the cooking now because that’s a good way to save money,” said Juan, a 40-year-old woman and previously a college professor.  [33] Yun, a 46-year-old woman and an engineer before immigration, gave a similar account, detailing some of the reasons for her increased food work:

In China, I used to buy many foodstuffs in our cafeteria, like the steamed bread, it is very cheap: 5 big buns for just 1 yuan. [34] So, why bother making them yourself? There is more housework here because I want to save money. I have to make the bread by myself. I have to mix the flour, wait for it to rise, knead the dough… It is very time-consuming.

As a lone mother with a three-year-old son, Jie reported that increased cooking is not only the consequence of her increased household responsibilities but also the result of the changes in her workplace after immigration. “In China, the company provides lunch. But here we have to prepare lunch. We have to bring lunch every day,” noted Jie. Ying, a medical doctor by training but a lab technician in Canada, cited her own health as the reason for more food work. “I am not used to Canadian food.” Ying said, “I must cook by myself. I must cook Chinese food. Otherwise, I will lose weight.”

It is worth noting that, while most of the male respondents in the interviews also reported doing more cooking after immigration, none of them attributed this increase to the need to economize, but rather cited the lack of the social supports they used to enjoy before immigration. For example, Guang, a young man who used to live with his parents, learned to do his own cooking and grocery shopping after immigration, as he lives alone in Canada. Liang, a new immigrant and a student at the time of the interview, said he does most of the cooking in his family because his wife is pregnant and is working full-time. Zhong, who did not do much housework prior to immigration, began learning to cook because his wife, previously a nurse but now a factory worker, comes home exhausted after her day-long physical labour.

Increased food-related housework coupled with employment challenges has negative health consequences. For instance, Guang, the only single man in my interviews, said that he became thinner in the first year of immigration because his lack of knowledge and cooking skills led to irregular meals, an unbalanced diet, and malnutrition. Of the three lone mothers whose husbands returned to China because they could not find a job in Canada, Jie, a woman with a young son, indicated how the double burden of taking sole responsibility for housework and childcare while working full-time in an Information Technology company has resulted in enormous mental stress and a serious health problem since her arrival in Canada. Lisha and Juan, the other two lone mothers, said that increased food work affects their life adversely. “I feel that life is harder here, just working and cooking everyday, and no entertainment,” said Lisha. As Juan notes, “[b]efore, we always went out to play. Now we have to stay at home. So sometimes I feel life is so boring.”

“I eat more salads because they are good for health.”

Many women reported that increased food work leads to changed diet and improved cooking skills after immigration. Most of the interviewees, both male and female, talked about learning to cook traditional Chinese food such as steamed bread, dumplings, and regional dishes in Canada. Others, mostly women, reported learning to make Western-style or other ethnic foods, such as pizza, sandwiches, sushi, Western cookies, and desserts, from a variety of sources, such as friends, classmates, or coworkers, as well as from TV programs, newspapers, magazines, the internet, and cookbooks. For example, Jie has learned to make sandwiches for lunch as they are easy to prepare and do not require heating. Fang said she learned to eat raw salads “because they are good for health.” Despite her claim of not being used to Canadian food, Ying showed a keen interest in learning about Western/Canadian food and introduced some new foods into her diet: “[n]ow sometimes on my table, we cook some Canadian food, like salad. It’s very easy and healthy. I didn’t like potato before. Here, I learn to eat, to do potatoes.” Yong is the only man in my interviews who mentioned learning to cook Western food, such as roasted turkey for the Thanksgiving holiday. Through cookbooks and recipes, Ying and Jie said that they also learned the English language and Canadian cultural practices.

Several women talked about managing the health of their family members through the food they cook and the groceries they purchase. As Ying told me, “[m]y son is a bit fat, so when I cook meals, I always make sure that he gets more vegetables and eats less fat.” Hua, a 45-year-old woman, learned to care for her husband’s health by regulating his diet:

I take health into consideration when I do grocery shopping. I choose different types of green vegetables for this week and other kinds of green vegetables for the following week, just for nutrition’s sake. My husband likes to eat fatty meat. I will stop buying meat when I see him putting on weight. If he continues to gain weight, I will stop cooking anything fatty for him.

A few women also talked about modifying or changing their traditional methods of cooking for health purposes. For example, Lisha learned to reduce smoke from stir-frying by lowering the oil temperature when she cooks as a way to accommodate the lack of powerful fans in Canadian kitchens. Fang, a 58-year-old woman, elaborates on this point:

In Chinese style of cooking, there is more stir-frying. It is not very healthy, and pollutes the air, with the smoke, the dripping grease/oil. I’ve now changed some of my ways of cooking. For example, I used to enjoy fried fish. Now I eat steamed fish. I eat more salads. When I cook green vegetables, I dip them in boiling water first and then dress them with sauce. If I stir-fry them, I will pour a little water first, then oil, before I put the vegetables in the pan, so that it won’t produce too much smoke. It is good for health and improves the living environment at home.

Fang also reported less use of the microwave oven for perceived health purposes. “We just bought a new small oven,” Fang said, “because we learned that microwaved food is not good for health, so we stopped using it, and bought a small oven, as the large one uses too much electricity.” As electric ovens are not commonly used in China, and baking represents a totally new concept to all the participants in my research, quite a few women learned to cook some of their food in the oven. They reported enjoyment from baking cakes and bread or roasting chicken legs and yams. They also sometimes use the ovens simply to heat food.

Consistent with literature on food work, [35] my research indicates that Chinese immigrant women take primary responsibility for food-related work such as cooking, food preparation, and grocery shopping—even though most of them are engaged in paid jobs outside their homes (with the except of Fang, who could not find a job due to her poor English language skills). Men “pitch in” or “help out” only when their wives are not available (as in the cases of Liang and Zhong, whose wives were pregnant and working full time and engaging in strenuous manual labour, respectively).

Consistent with the WALL survey, my interviews suggest that women are more concerned with health than men, and have learned in a variety of ways to maintain their own health as well as the health of their family members. They do this through cooking and eating healthy foods such as raw salads, more vegetables, and less meat, and by modifying or changing their usual methods of cooking, such as steaming, boiling, and baking their foods instead of the traditional stir-frying or more recent trend of microwaving their meals. In contrast, none of the male interviewees mentioned learning anything about health or engaging in any health-improving activities.


This paper has examined food-related housework, health, and informal learning. Data from interviews indicates that reduced economic resources have resulted in a sudden increase in everyday cooking, mostly of staple foods, as most of the new immigrants encounter great challenges in getting professional jobs after immigration. In contrast to the WALL survey, which indicates less involvement of Chinese immigrants than their Canadian-born and other foreign-born counterparts among both men and women in learning about food/cooking and health/wellbeing, my qualitative data demonstrates that these new Chinese immigrants, especially women, are actively involved in learning about food and cooking, both traditional Chinese and Western food, and pay great attention to healthy food when grocery shopping and healthy ways of cooking when preparing their meals. However, both the WALL survey and the interviews with the Chinese immigrants indicate that food-related housework continues to be gendered, with women doing much more than men, and that food- and health-related informal learning follows a similar gendered pattern, again with more women than men learning about healthy food and healthy ways of preparing and cooking food for themselves and for their families.

Consistent with previous literature on immigrants’ food habits, my research indicates that immigration leads to gradual but not entirely passive dietary changes, with many immigrants learning intentionally to incorporate many other ethnic foods into their daily diets, either for health purposes (for example, eating more salads) or for the sake of convenience (making fast food like sandwiches) or for cultural integration (such as cooking roasted turkey for Thanksgiving).

However, unlike some studies, which indicate that younger Chinese immigrants generally tend to change their food habits more readily than older immigrants, [36] my research reveals that dietary changes are influenced by gender, availability, and convenience more than age. Chinese immigrants are less affected by age and length of stay in the host country than by contact with the local people and English language ability. Nevertheless, age and gender play an important role in food-related health and informal learning. Older women [37] are more concerned about healthy cooking and healthy eating, both for themselves and for their families. In contrast, young mothers or mothers with young children are more concerned about cooking nutritious food for their children than for themselves and other adult family members.

In sum, food work among Chinese immigrants, based on the WALL study focusing on those coming to Canada between 1999 and 2004, increases dramatically after immigration due to a sudden decline in economic and social resources, but so does the informal learning associated with it. Food work continues to be performed mostly by women, despite their age and years of residence in the host country, but it is carried out differently in Canada than in China due to health and other social concerns. Thus it is important for future researchers, in their studies of immigrants’ food work, to take into consideration both what changes and what remains unchanged.

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