As we all know, food and eating play a major role in Chinese society. Not only that, but dining can be an extremely awkward experience if you're not familiar with local conventions. In this article we confer with Tan Juan, a graduate student at Sichuan University, about all the burning questions we have about how to behave when we're eating.
+Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?: ordering
Who should order the food and what is a good balanced meal in Chinese cuisine?
Usually guests order the food since they are invited to dinner. For ordering (as well as many other aspects of society), there is kind of an "-er" rule: the older, the higher, the more distinguished, and so on. A good order in China has to take care of everyone seated at the table: their taste, their taboos, and the number of them. A balanced meal covers cold dishes, meat dishes, vegetables, and soup. Young people probably won't mind if the group finishes all the food, but older hosts might prefer to order slightly more food than can be finished as a sign of great hospitality and to ensure that the guests have had plenty to eat.
In proper restaurants, is it true you shouldn't order rice until the end?
Ordering rice at the very beginning of the meal is a little bit rude, as it shows that you don't know how to appreciate the art of cuisine. What if you are very hungry? Wait. If you can't stand the hunger, listen to your stomach and dump your manners. Fruits are served at the end of dinner as dessert, indicating that the meal is over.
If the person who has invited you asks you to order, should you try to order only inexpensive items?
Since Chinese tend to avoid speaking directly, leave out expensive dishes so the host can order what s/he is really able to afford. On the other hand, if somebody invites you to the most extravagant restaurant in town, why not take advantage of it?
Are there any foods that have special meanings?
Some dishes do have special meanings either because of their origins or their names, i.e., the name is pronounced similarly to another word. For instance, the word for glutinous rice cakes (niángāo) resembles "年年高盛" (niánniángāoshéng) (much abundance next year), and the word for fish (yú) sounds like "连年有余" (liánniányǒuyú) (prosperity every year). They are both must-have dishes at Spring Festival dinners.
Is it true that you should not finish all the food at the table? What about the leftovers?
It is not true. It is good if you can finish everything, but no one will point a gun to your head if you can't. At family gatherings, food is usually finished. No one wants to waste food. Business dinners, on the other hand, are a completely different story. "Impress with excess" is their motto. It's acceptable to take leftovers home, but most people do this for their pets only.
+Yes Means Yes and No Means Yes: Learning to Refuse>>>
If there is something I cannot or do not want to eat, how do I refuse politely?
It's OK to refuse, although this might be interpreted as an indication that you think the dishes are not good. If you are invited to eat more, please do eat a little bit more even if it is spoonful. It makes the host happy.
What if the host puts the food in your bowl, a sign of politeness which you are uncomfortable with? Don't panic! Just say "thank you" and leave the food there.
In special cases, for instance, you are vegetarian and your host encourages you to eat meat, just refuse, but do explain why. No one will push you too hard. Vegetarianism is now more fashionable among young people; the old generations, however, cannot quite understand this since they experienced severe food scarcity in the 1960s, and the price of meat is still higher than that of vegetables, so it is viewed as more valuable or precious. They may not understand, but they will accept it anyway.
If you are being pressured to drink alcohol but you don't want to, how can you refuse? Also, if you're a woman, is it considered bad to drink alcohol or smoke?
Alcohol is a key player in dining culture here. Alcohol means brotherhood and friendship. Refusing to drink would be considered impolite and unfriendly. If you are scared by our excessive hospitality and love for alcohol, say you are allergic or find another good excuse, and don't have a drop—even a sip will give your hosts license to push you to gānbèi umpteen times.
A cup of wine represents a lady's grace and taste. Even a small cup of liquor is OK. Reluctant female drinkers have an advantage in this sense over their male counterparts: People don't push alcohol too hard on women.
Get Ready, Get Dressed ... Go!
I have just been invited to a dinner with my boss and her associates. What should I wear?
If it is a very formal occasion such as an opening ceremony or a significant anniversary, women should wear an evening dress, especially if there is to be a cocktail party. For a business meal, something less formal—say, a coat with a skirt—should suffice. For men, a suit is adequate.
>I should note that there is one most important occasion you should pay attention to in terms of getting dressed: Meeting potential parents-in-law. Particularly if they are traditional Chinese, the first impression you make is extremely important. Make sure what you're wearing is nice, clean, and doesn't reveal too much flesh.
Are there expectations for seating, or can I just sit down anywhere? And when should I sit?
Nowadays seating arrangements don't matter as much as they once did; you can generally sit in any seat you like, although if there is a "big shot" present or if the host is an aged person, normally the best seat is reserved for him or her. In Chinese thinking, the best seat is the seat that faces east or the door. As far as when you should sit, wait until the guest of honor is seated to show respect. But if it's just a gathering or an informal dinner, there's no need to wait—just sit.
How do you know when you can start eating? Is it taboo to be the first person to start?
Watch everyone else. To be safe, wait until everybody has started eating, especially if you are the youngest at the table. Usually you can start after the host makes a few remarks and begins eating.
Spinning & Chopping
If you want to eat something from a dish very far away, is it rude to reach across the table with your chopsticks? Is it better to ask somebody to pass the dish, or to pass your bowl to somebody near the dish?
At large tables, there will be a large, revolving glass plate. Choose from the dishes that are within reach. If there is no such convenience the table is most likely not that big, and the occasion not that formal, in which case you can reach out your arm or even stand up.
Are there any rules about when you can spin the revolving plate?
There are no specific rules for table scratching but take care that you don't spin when others are in the middle of taking food.
Other than putting your chopsticks upright in your rice, what sorts of behaviors should you avoid when eating in a formal setting in China?
Sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl is a social faux pas as it resembles incense in a shrine. Never play with your chopsticks. Don't gesture or point with your chopsticks; it is very rude. It is also impolite to pick and pick in the same dish: choose one piece and take it. Not everyone loves your saliva like your lover does!
If you need to sneeze, burp, or blow your nose, try to find a way to do it without attracting attention. Leave the table, go outside (say you want to use the toilet), or use a tissue to reduce the noise.
Of course you can talk while eating, but do so in a low voice. Chinese love harmony.
If your phone is ringing, leave the table before you answer it.
In most instances, it is better not to smoke at the table. An exception is at business meals. Cigarettes and alcohol go hand in hand and tend to make people feel closer. This brotherhood has brokered more than one dinner-table business deal! Women are usually considered non-smokers, so don't push them to take cigarettes.
Proper usage of chopsticks seems to be an important point. Is there anything else we should know about this?
It's true that Chinese are picky about this. Tapping chopsticks on bowls or plates is inappropriate because only beggars do that. When you want to use spoons or other utensils, put down your chopsticks first. Try to avoid dropping your chopsticks on the floor so that you don't need to constantly call waiters to bring another clean pair. If you have not decided which dish to try, it is not polite to dance with your chopsticks in the air. Just put them down and use them when you are ready to take a certain piece. If you have to leave during the dinner, lay them down on or beside the bowl. Usually there are chopstick rests at formal dinners.
What about spitting out bones?
Usually at formal dinners, there is a plate for you to spit out bones and other non-edible remains. The only rule is that you have to do it gracefully, especially in a fancy restaurant. If this really makes you uncomfortable, avoid ordering or eating meat on bones!
If you need to leave the table during the meal—for instance, to take a phone call or go to the toilet—or if you need to leave early, how do you excuse yourself politely?
Tell the truth. But if you need to leave early, be sure that your reason is persuasive enough and that you are very determined. Your leaving may spoil the dinner. At very formal dinners with many people, no one will notice you. At a family dinner, they will understand. But if you're attending a business dinner, it will be difficult as there is always someone who wants to drink with you. And excuses are never strong enough. There is still one way out: Wait until everyone is drunk!.
The Dreaded Bill Fight
This is the most difficult question: How do we know who pays?
In China, this is a very complex problem. If someone has clearly said that it is her/his treat, it is perfectly OK not to offer money. But if it's not clear, usually someone will offer to pay, or the bill will be split. If you're not the one to pay, you'll be expected to the next time. No one wants to pay every time!
>Depending on the relationship between the diners—for instance, teacher and student or boss and employee, the higher-ranked will pay. Offering to pay is not a bad thing; on the other hand, not offering is not necessarily considered rude here.
What should I do when a fight breaks out to pay the bill?
The general rule is that the person who wins the fight will pay, but actually the counter will take money from the one whose reason is the most convincing. For instance, if, during the fight, you tell the counter that your opponent is a student, they won't take money from him or her.
If you really want to pay, win the fight. If you don't want to fight, persuade the counter. If you can't persuade the counter, try to persuade your competition. If you fail at all of this, prepare yourself, and win next time!