Friday, September 22, 2006

Mealtime Etiquette

Chinese Etiquette at Mealtimes

* Fill your neighbours’ teacup when you fill your own, and don't leave the pot with the spout pointing directly at anyone.
* Try and finish all the rice in your bowl.
* But as for the dishes, when you’re full, stop eating, don’t eat to be polite.
* Don’t blow your nose at the table.
* Don’t reach for food with rice on chopsticks.
* If you invited them to dinner, you pay the bill. If you didn’t, you can offer to pay, but will be refused.
* Relax and enjoy yourself. For Chinese people, eating is an enjoyable experience to be shared with friends. If you spend your time worrying about offending people, you’ll miss out.

Eating in China is meant to be fun, and some of your best stories to take back home may concern the things you ate and the conversation that went on over the dinnertable. The most important thing, therefore, is to remember not to get too hung up about things. Your Chinese host is much more interested in impressing you with his nation’s culinary wonders than making sure you use your chopsticks properly. Noone will mind in the least if you don’t know any of things below, we’re just telling you them so you better understand what’s going on.

If you walk into a private room in a fairly nice restaurant, the table will be laid out already with chopsticks, condiments etc. You may notice that the napkins are folded rather ornately, and not all folded in the same way. One in particular may look rather phallic... Tempting though it may be, don’t grab the seat next to the cotton schlong - that’s the seat for the host. It might well be directly opposite the door you came in from, so that the host can see when people come in, and finds it easier to catch the waitress’s eye.

In China, eating is a thing to be done with friends. Everyone is given a small bowl or plate of their own, and the food is on dishes in the middle of the table. There are no serving spoons, everyone just picks food off the plates with their chopsticks. Once you get used to it, it’s a lot easier than fiddling around serving yourself a big spoonful of everything, but if you really find the prospect distasteful, you have two options. If you say directly that you don’t want to eat this way, you might be thought of as a prude. You could instead try something a little bit cunning – say that you have a cold, and ought to use a serving spoon to avoid infecting other people. If your host overrides you and says it doesn’t matter, ask the waiter directly. Your other alternative is to say that you can’t really use chopsticks, then you can use the knife and fork to shovel food your way before everyone else digs in. By the end of your time in China, you’ll have forgotten your worries and will be diving in like a native.

When you start eating, dishes will be brought to the table one by one, cold ones first. If there’s a turntable, the host will probably spin it round to offer the first taste to whoever’s the most important guest. If it’s you, and you’re feeling confident, you could join in and try spinning it on to someone else who you think should eat first, or back to the host. Don’t say that they’re more important, just say that they should eat first ‘Nĭ xiān chī-你先吃!’ It doesn’t actually matter remotely who does eat first, it’s just a nice way of being polite, and for the host to show that he wants you to have a nice meal, and doesn’t want you to feel you have to hold back or stand on ceremony.

Throughout the meal a good host will encourage his guest to eat, telling them to ‘try a bit of this’ (Cháng diănr zhĕge – 尝点儿这个) and ‘have a bit more of that’ (Duō chī diănr nèige – 多吃点儿那个). A very friendly host might even grab food with chopsticks and dump it right onto your plate before you have time to refuse. You can either just say thank you and eat what he gives you, or you can join in the game by encouraging him to eat too.

Alcohol is often a very important part of the meal. In a more macho setting, drinking can be serious competition. Most of the time, it’s pretty relaxed. The standard procedure is for the host to propose a toast at the start of the meal – he might say something along the lines of welcoming guests, or looking forward to doing business together. People also toast individuals – often just a way to get that person drunk, and so as the alcohol flows, the excuses dug out for toasts become more transparent.

You might find that pretty soon your little bowl or plate is so full of bones etc that you can’t use it. Have a look at what everyone else is doing. In some restaurants the staff will come along and give you a new plate when the first is full. In others (smaller, cheaper establishments), it’s normal to just put bones etc on the table. Some restaurants have wipe-clean tables and throw away tablecloths for this very purpose.

Some people don’t like it if you reach to pick up meat or vegetables with grains of rice still stuck to your chopsticks, and quite a lot of people don’t like it when others blow their nose at the table – even if they turn around or stand up to do it. Just sniff quietly, or go to the bathroom. Some things vary from region to region and from person to person. For example, for some people will think it a little uncouth if you hold your rice bowl with your hand underneath the bowl. According to them, that looks like the way a beggar eats, and the correct technique is to grip the bowl at the rim with the fingers. Other people have never heard of this idea.

When you’ve finished eating, you don’t need to carry on eating to show that you liked it. Just say that you did. It is your host’s duty to ensure that you are not just full but ready to burst, so all the time you keep on eating, he hasn’t fulfilled his obligations yet.

When it comes to the bill, whoever did the inviting usually does the paying. It’s normal for everyone to offer to pay the bill, and often people make quite a show of trying to pay, but give up in the end. In Chinese the way you say ‘I want to invite you to eat’ is the same as ‘I want to pay for you to eat’ – in other words, the idea that whoever invites also pays is ingrained in the language, and inherent in the concepts of inviting and paying. To do it any other way, you’d have to invent new language.

One last thing – you might think it seems Chinese people are rather rude to waiting staff. It’s true the standard way of attracting the waitress’s attention is to shout at her rather than to wait to catch her eye. It could be argued that Chinese restaurants are noisy, so one needs to shout to be heard, or that the waiting staff expect this treatment, and therefore it’s not rude. Another explanation could be that eating is so important to Chinese people (that’s certainly true), that such niceties as being polite must not be allowed to interfere. On the other hand, Chinese people will probably think you are rather polite and sophisticated if you are a little more subtle. If you do need to catch the attention of a waiter/waitress, the best term to use is ‘Fúwùyuán 服务员’ which translates roughly to serving person. Twenty years ago waiters were called ‘Xiānshēng – 先生’ meaning Mr, and waitresses ‘xiăojiĕ - 小姐’ meaning Miss. However, in today’s China ‘xiăojiĕ’ has taken on the meaning of prostitute, and so you probably shouldn’t say it.

© Beijing-visitor.com

Hostels in China

Hotels in Beijing - Bookings

Chinese Etiquette