Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dining etiquette in China

Here are just some general tips I've picked up regarding eating with local company (or in public, for that matter) while in China:

In no way do I consider myself an expert on the matter, but I at least have some idea what to do, at this point (either that, or the people here have been messing with me for the last 4 months).

For many meals, your setup is going to usually look like this:

  1. 1 Bowl - Generally, use this instead of your plate. It's perfectly normal to mix your food in it, as well. If you have soup in this bowl and don't want to finish it, ask for a bowl of rice and use that instead. Or, simply ask for another bowl. You're perfectly allowed to use more than one bowl at a time, since you'll have another one if/when you get rice. In fact, you're virtually expected to mix your rice with some of the dishes on the table, and it always ends up being rather tasty.
  2. 1 Plate - This is for discarding bones, shells, etc. If it gets full, just have your waiter/waitress replace it or clean it. You might be told that you should NEVER use your plate to eat off of, but this isn't true; I've seen locals use the plate instead of their bowl. However, it might still get pointed out to you that you should probably be using the bowl, instead.
  3. Chopsticks - Self-explanatory. You might want to practice your skills before eating with locals; it's amusing for them to watch foreigners struggle with something that comes naturally to them at this point.
  4. Spoon - No catches here, it's a spoon. Useful for when you just can't get your chopsticks down. Use it for soup, other foods, everything.
  5. Tea Cup - Also self-explanatory.
  6. (Likely, but not always) A large bowl on the table that you will have no clue what to do with...read the following for an explanation:
Pre-meal dish-washing: Generally, people pour or get poured tea into their tea cup first. Then, they pour it into the bowl (#1), slosh it around a bit, wash their chopsticks in it, and then pour it all out into the giant bowl you see in the picture (#6). This is not required, and not everyone does it. You probably won't be called out about it if you choose not to. Additionally, if your setup came wrapped like in the picture above, you probably don't need to do it. However, it never really hurts, unless you manage to spill it everywhere, of course.

Some general tips:
  • Most importantly, always rest your chopsticks over the edge of the bowls or plates as pictured above; never leave your chopsticks lying in your food, pointed out. This is extremely rude and a very important rule to follow. I think the only time I have seen someone do this was when a woman was trying to make a statement to a restaurant of what she thought of their food (right before she walked out).
  • Avoid showing the bottom of your feet when sitting. This means crossing your legs, etc. Many people find it extremely rude.
  • Avoid using your hands to eat, if possible. Exceptions do exist, such as when dealing with shrimp/prawns. Many locals seem to use a plastic disposable glove if they eat with their hands; particularly to eat chicken wings. I suppose the general rule to follow is not to touch any part of the food you'll actually be consuming.
  • If you're male, try to avoid tiny bites using only your chopsticks, especially of rice. It's viewed as a feminine way of eating, so you probably don't want to give the wrong impression.
  • If you don't eat everything, you'll be asked by your host/hostess if you don't like the food or you'll simply be encouraged (rather strongly) to eat more...especially if you're skinny, like me. They are simply being polite, but I have a theory they are also trying to fatten me up, since fried foreigner is a delicacy here. (Just joking...I think).
  • If you don't want any more refills of something, leave it full. Unlike the food, nobody will ask why you're not drinking something.
  • If you see someone tapping their index finger near a glass during or after it's being refilled, they are saying thank you. You can do the same, be it to a waiter, waitress, or a friend. I usually just say "xie xie" (thank you), since I find it easier and everybody here enjoys a foreigner *trying* to speak their language.
  • Try to avoid saying "gan bei!" during cheers with alcoholic drinks, as it literally translates to "empty cup." This is a good way to get into a drinking contest, or it'll just get you a surprised look of "wait, what? no!" from the other person. If you just want to do cheers, say "cheers!" It's perfectly OK. I have heard "gan bei" used for "cheers" but I still suggest avoiding it, unless you know the people you're with well enough.
  • When tapping glasses to say "cheers," the person with the glass lower than the other's during the tap is offering their respect. Don't take this lightly, as it's a pretty significant notion, apparently. That being said, if you want to offer your respect through this method, go nuts.
  • Alcohol should be consumed in a glass, not out of the vessel it was brought in. It would be rather awkward sitting at a table, taking swigs from a 600-640 ml bottle of beer...
  • Soft drinks, however, can generally be consumed directly out of the can or bottle, but usually with a straw (not mandatory, however).
  • Don't wait for your waiter/waitress for service. They don't come by to check on you, they wait for you to call for them. (I personally like it this way; the servers in the US always seem to come by to ask me how I'm doing right when my mouth is full...).
  • It's okay to spit out bones or other bits of food you don't want to consume onto the plate. This may seem odd given the abundance of other rules, but it's normal. You don't need to worry about spitting everything into a napkin. Additionally, if you're at a casual restaurant and there is no plate to spit it out, use the table next to your plate. I'm not kidding.
 Chicken, fish, etc, are all usually served bone-in, so get used to that last rule.

Here's an example of a meal-in-progress. Mmm, tasty. Note the position of the chopsticks when not using them.

Prawns are an interesting dish, as there's no right or wrong way to eat them, unlike just about all the other dishes. I've seen people eat them whole, eat them with their hands while using chopsticks to help peel them, etc etc.

I generally just grab the head with my chopsticks, and eat the portion between the tail and the head, then discard the remains onto the plate.

Again, there's no real wrong way to eat them, and you can usually eat them with the shell still attached, which is a good way to avoid hassle.

You might get instructed as to a specific way to eat them, but it's generally just going to be based on the preference of whomever is giving said instructions; as a general rule, there aren't really any general rules in this matter.

Anyway, if any of you have any questions you'd like to ask, feel free to leave me comments here, and I'll see if I can answer them.


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