In this post, I discussed what you can expect to happen at the end of a meal in China. Before that bill ever arrives there is an entire adventure of actually eating the food you are (sometimes forcefully) served. If you don’t understand some of the basic table manners in China, the dinner experience will completely baffle you.
When you arrive at the dinner table, wait for someone to tell you where to sit. There is a “head position” even when the table is circular. Your guests/associates may or may not want you to sit at the head of the table, but since you probably wont know where that is, just wait for someone to tell you where to sit. If you do choose your seat, the only thing I try to be aware of is any air currents (from air conditioning units or open windows), I don’t want to be downwind because there will almost certainly be smoking at the table, and I don’t like the free second-hand smoke.
Once you are seated, as an honored guest, you will likely be asked to order one or more of your favorite dishes. If you have one, don’t be bashful, go ahead and order it. Your hosts will then order about two or three dishes per person. If you are like me, this amount of food will astound you. There is simply no way in the world that you and your guests could finish all of the food. If through some miracle you do finish the food, the host will probably be very embarrassed and order several more dishes. You should eat all that you want at the table, but know ahead of time that plenty of food will have to be left over at the end in order for the host to feel good about himself.
A common ritual in restaurants in China is to swish some tea around in your rice bowl, drinking cup, and if you have one, your plate. Then pour the tea into the garbage can or just onto the floor. This is done to sanitize the dishes. I have seen people do this even in very nice restaurants where the dishes were obviously cleaned very well. If your host “cleans” your dishes with tea, just say thank you and let them do their thing.
After the dishes are clean, and before the first food is eaten, there will likely be several rounds of toasts. Be prepared to make one of your own. Because this can be tricky (based on your relation to the person you are toasting), I’m not going to go into detail in this post. For now, just be prepared to say something nice to the host or anyone else you’d like to thank at the table. Wait until others have toasted and then speak up during that little lull.
You will have a small rice bowl, and all of the various dishes will be in the middle of the table. Rather than mixing the vegetables and meats from the middle of the table with your rice, just take a bite of rice and a bite of the dishes. In order to show they care about you, two or more people may take food from the middle of the table and place it in your bowl. It doesn’t matter if you want that food or not. These people are usually taking food that is more expensive or more exotic and giving it to you. Each time someone gives you something, you can refuse once or twice, but they will ultimately succeed in getting the food in your bowl. In the end, let them win. Try your best to eat at least some of what others place in your bowl. If you really don’t like it, let it sit there in your tiny rice bowl and that will deter them from putting more of the same stuff back in your bowl. Never take the same food someone else has placed in your bowl and put it in another’s bowl. You may notice that parents will often prepare hard-to-eat foods like fish (because of the bones) or shrimp and give ready-to-eat bites to their young children. It is quite likely that you will receive this specialized treatment as well.
I used to get really frustrated at this, because to me it felt like I was being patronized. It feels like people are putting food in front of you because you are incapable of putting it there yourself. Let this frustration pass. Notice that your Chinese friends are putting food in each others bowls as well. When you are ready to score points, you can start randomly putting food in others’ bowls! For some reason I really get a kick out of this. I often choose really peculiar things to place in my friends’ bowls. They will always accept the food, and always at least try it– usually they will eat anything I put in their bowls.
Some time in the middle of the meal you may decide that you would like a napkin. Often the napkins are in a little plastic container somewhere on the table. When you get one for yourself, first distribute napkins to everyone else around you. Also, throughout the meal, be aware of the amount of water/drink your neighbors have in their cups. When it gets low, fill up their cup for them. If you ever fill up your own cup, look around and put at least a few drops in someone else’ cup first.
Throughout the meal you may notice that there is simply no concept of eating with your mouth closed. It is completely appropriate to eat with your mouth open, to slurp, and to smack your lips when eating. In fact, if someone smacks their lips or otherwise makes a lot of noise while eating, others around them will certainly comment that the meal they are eating “sounds delicious.”
Be careful to pace yourself. Even though you will be fed enormous amounts of food, do not be tempted to eat it all at once. The best thing would be for you to continue eating (even if it is at really slow pace) throughout the entire meal. Sometimes these meals will last three or four hours.
Also, at the end of the meal, fruit is often served in place of desert. Surprisingly, in all my years in China I never saw a fortune cookie. Your Chinese friends will likely have never heard of fortune cookies, and will have a difficult time understanding really what they are if you try to bring it up.
Once the meal is really finished, you can look forward to act two.
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