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  • Angie Mak

Why I Can’t Eat The Plate (And Plastic Wrappers)

How the pervasiveness of individually wrapped soda crackers in Hong Kong hints at a greater social-cultural woe.


I stopped buying soda crackers in Hong Kong. I actually adore soda crackers to a point that I suspect I could rival the Cookie Monster in a biscuit-eliminating competition--but it's the packaging that peeves me. Every two crackers, I'm stumped by another cellophane packet.


Don't get me wrong, I'm not so lazy that I can't be bothered to rip open that beautiful, easy-tear plastic cover of Anti-Famine Prevention. (If I were that indolent, I'd lobby to have the soda crackers made into a ring of cake that sits around my neck, so I can just direct my jaw slightly to the side and chomp.)


I'm more industrious than a Ring of Slobbishness. When I'm done eating a packet of crackers, the best thing I can think of doing is binning the wrapping. I'm ranking just slightly above Jerry Seinfeld in his joke about eating habits at the cinema - "I finish eating, I open my hand, I drop it on the floor. I'm not picking it up. That's what I paid for."


No, what bothers me is that the crackers are cushioned in bag of convenience that, if all goes well, heads straight to the landfill. Along the way, it might fly off the rubbish collecting truck and end up drifting helplessly in the sea, only for me to maybe come across it on a hike on a mountain trail about a year later. Or maybe not. Maybe a whale or a sea turtle will tango with it first.


I'm actually wolfing a cellophane packet of low-fat fruit-flavored biscuits as I write this, and the guilt is only mildly disturbing.

A CULTURE OF CONVENIENCE


We have a phrase in Cantonese that roughly translates to 'convenience'. But “fong been” (“fang bian” if you want it in Mandarin) is more than just a habit. It's a school of thought that drives our whole Chinese culture, and is the psychological explanation for many of our thought processes.


Fong Been is pain avoidance. Fong Been drives a logic that says that whatever is easiest for ME is going to be the best for me, consequences and others' needs be damned. Fong Been is the obsession that sits atop every Hong Konger's mind as they battle public transportation, waiting in queues, and even, dare I say, childbirth. Fong Been is the king in customer service. Fong Been is the reason why Hong Kong people excel at efficiency. We've mastered all processes that enhance Fong Been.


On the other hand, NOT Fong Been is also our best explanation for 90% of what we do as Hong Kongers. Our defining characteristic is that we never do or never want what is NOT Fong Been. Oh, how I learned this the hard way as a second-generation Chinese immigrant who is now living back in Hong Kong.


NOT Fong Been is the reason why shopkeepers will only answer you with a puzzling, either-way-goes grunt if you make a product query that would take a lot of effort to follow through. NOT Fong Been is the reason why we don't get a follow-up invitation to visit someone's home and we get the Zone of Silence instead (or what I lovingly call the Chinese No. Westerners would call that a cricket moment).


Soda crackers and surgical masks in individually wrapped packaging are the epitome of Fong Been. Buying something that came in one single box or bag so that you would have to figure out how to transport it in smaller pieces would be NOT Fong Been.


AVOIDING THE MUNCHABLES


My aversion to extraneous packaging was borne out of a beast in my childhood that I'll call Munchables (names have been changed so I don't get sued for defamation and trademark infringement). "Munchables have too much packaging," my third-grade teacher would crow incessantly. We sat obediently on the carpeted floor in cross-legged contemplation as she read to us day after day from a book called "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth”. (The newer, 2009 version of the book is “The New 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth”.)


"Don't buy packaged foods like the Munchables, because it's bad for the planet," my teacher insisted.

What WERE the Munchables? I wondered. It turned out it was a combination lunch packaged in a plastic box, a picnic-like meal that you had to assemble yourself. This child's version of a DYI-hors d'oeuvre was triplet of processed cheese slice, another layer of miniature ham or bologna, and a savory cracker. We never ate anything like that because we were a Chinese household living in 1980s suburban America. Immigrant families didn't have budgets for regular soirees with convenience food. Duh.


Finally, I spotted them at the store one day. They were in the refrigerated foods section, near Dairy. I had heard so much about them, I actually persuaded my unsuspecting mother to buy me a box. Well, two. I needed to do some market analysis, I figured. How can you know what's not good for you if you never give it a try? Knowing your enemy and small-scale exposure was the key to an informed decision, said my third-grade logic.



ADDICTED


By golly, I was hooked. The contents of that innocent little plastic box, covered in cellophane, were lovingly protected by a cardboard sleeve with adorable little windows cut out in it so the cheese and crackers and bologna could wink at you in all of their high-fat, high-sodium processed food glory. FORGET THE PACKAGING PROBLEM. WE NOW HAVE A JUNK FOOD ADDICTION PROBLEM.


How severe is the problem? I'm actually wolfing a cellophane packet of low-fat fruit-flavored biscuits as I write this, and the guilt is only mildly disturbing. My biggest concern is how I can exploit this food-grade plastic wrapper into a decent blog post so I file that writing deadline this week. That's how much cognitive dissonance has poisoned my mind in 30 years. I blame my uncharacteristic behavior on all the accumulated plastic I've ingested in my drinking water thus far. Told you that plastic was bad for us.


EATING OUR WAY OUT OF THE PROBLEM


Back in the 80s, when Munchables first came out, (some) people were appalled by the plastic packaging it came in. Thirty years on, we wouldn't bat an eye. These days, many a scientist has tried to invent an edible form of packaging, including edible plates, but it hasn't proved to be feasible. The difficulty of having a plate that would disintegrate before you ate the food it was supposed to protect, as well as various hygiene issues, is a problem that still hasn't been solved. Would I buy a Munchables if it came in an edible box? Apparently, edible packaging doesn't taste particularly good (more like cardboard), and it's a lot of hard work to eat. Which defeats the purpose of a convenience food like Munchables.


Stomach, 1. Planet Earth, 0.


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