Tonight I attended another dinner with my colleagues, or “call-e-gurrs” as they would put it, so I figure it’s about time to write about the experience. It’s worth writing about because the dinner with coworkers experience is so drastically different in China than it is in the good ol’ USA. Whether you plan to move to China or never leave the comfort of your western hometown, some of this stuff is so strange that I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.
When I first attended one of these dinners, I spent the entire time sitting in bewilderment. It appeared as though the woman to my right was constantly giving long-winded speeches, none of which I could understand, which always ended in about twenty minutes of toasts from every other person at the table. Throughout the entire meal, we would stop eating for seemingly random toast breaks. In my mind, if there’s hot food on the table in front of me, there’s no reason to stop eating, but Chinese people are bound to tradition and I quickly realized that as a guest, I must oblige.
Here are a few of the top things to be aware of when you’re a dinner guest in China.
#1. The guest of honor always gets the best seat, which faces the door.
If you’re anything like me, you likely don’t know who the guest of honor is or where you stand in the line of importance, so it’s best to just wait until someone tells you where to sit. We always sit at round tables, so it’s hard to tell exactly where the best seat in the house is, but it will always be one facing the entrance. Whenever I’ve arrived at one of these dinners, everyone stands to greet each other and there’s usually a few minutes of squabbling over which seat is the best, followed by offering of that seat to whoever is the most important person. The next people in line will be seated to his or her right and left and the people of lowest position will be seated directly across from the guest of honor, with their backs to the door.
I’m still amazed that simply due to the fact that I was not born and raised in China, I am always either the guest of honor or one of the next in line. I feel like I’m a clueless kid that doesn’t bring much to the table, but these people are honored to have me eat dinner with them.
#2. Toast and toast some more.
Chinese dinners have more toasts than any drunken wedding reception. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never attended a dinner where people stop eating mid-meal to stand up, leave the table and toast each other for multiple minutes before returning to the meal that is getting cold. And this happens multiple times throughout a dinner. It always begins with a lengthy speech from the host or the guest of honor and everyone is expected to stand during the toasts. In the US, when food is served, we’re all usually famished and ready to scarf it down, but in China, be ready to eat a leisurely meal with many breaks spread out over two or more hours.
Tonight I was offered toasts by the President of the University, Vice President of the University, Dean of the Humanistic Department and so on. For every single one, I was expected to stand to receive the toast, cheers and sip my drink before returning a toast. Public speaking has never been my forte, so I’ve learned to come prepared to any dinner with a brief, modest toast that can be diversified and used for multiple recipients. It’s absolutely rude not to toast back, so make sure you don’t miss that step.
#3. Watch the booze.
I’ve only met one Chinese person that really likes to drink. They always have beer at dinner, but one bottle of beer will be shared between multiple people at the table. The dinner table always has small glasses (about the size of a shot glass) at each table setting, which is used for small sips of beer. I’ve learned not to drink a whole bottle of beer if I’m the only foreigner at dinner with Chinese people, because they’re always pretty astonished. When it comes to drinking, a common question I’ve received from dozens of Chinese is “How many bottles of beer can you handle?” and they’re always shocked if the answer is more than one.
#4. Get ready to fight over the bill.
To put it bluntly, Chinese people are very poor (especially in Yongchuan) compared to most Americans, but they have a lot of pride when it comes to finances. Tipping is unheard of and you will offend them if you try to pay more than what is asked of you. In a taxi, for example, if the fare comes to 10.80, the driver will not accept more than 10.00 and will be offended if you try to give him 11.
In the US, when I have dinner with friends, we usually split the bill. But in China, it’s always a battle to see who will pay the entire thing. The popular line is “I want to treat you” and they’re very aggressive about it. I rarely have the opportunity to pay for my own meal.
#5. Burping is completely acceptable.
No one warned me about this one and I’ll never get used to the sound of grown women burping at the table. My students burp during class, too, and no one blinks an eye.
#6. If you’re a picky eater, stay at home.
Sometimes I ask what I’m eating, but I rarely get a straight answer. And sometimes they just laugh and say “you don’t want to know.” While sometimes the mystery meat can be a bit frightening, I gain great peace from the repeated assurance that no one in this region of China eats cat or dog – thank God. Apparently cat and snake are common in certain parts of the south, but only in specific restaurants. In any part of China, it’s common to eat parts of animals that we wouldn’t eat at home – brain, intestine, tongue, etc. When in doubt, you have two choices – be adventurous or stick with the rice.
On the other hand, China has led me to some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. I’ll never be able to duplicate some of the dishes at home, so I’m pretty sure that I’ll be missing Chongqing food for the rest of my life.
#7. Tissues/ Napkins/ Papers
Due to the bathroom situation in China (public restrooms rarely provide toilet paper), everyone carries packs of “paper” around with them. This multipurpose tissue is used to wipe down the table when you sit down for a meal and it’s almost always passed around the table after you finish eating. I never understand why I need a tissue/napkin/paper after the meal is already finished, but they act very confused if I don’t accept, so I’ve gotten into the habit of just taking it and wiping my mouth politely.
#8. Hot beverages.
Ice is not available. I haven’t seen an ice cube in months. Chinese people believe that cold beverages are bad for your health. If I have any complaint – I’m tired, not feeling well, cold – the solution is always “you need to drink hot water.” Even if you choose a bottled water, beer or soda from a cooler in a restaurant or shop, it will probably be lukewarm. You get used to the warm beverages pretty quickly.
#9. Spit out the bones.
They believe that meat and fish tastes better when it is cooked and served on the bone, so be careful not to swallow any bones when you’re eating. The solution is to simply lean forward and spit the bones out on the table. It takes some getting used to, but at the end of a meal, every person will have a small pile of bones on the table in front of them.
#10. Get up close & personal.
Because chopsticks are the utensil of choice, eating rice, soup and noodles can be challenging. That’s why Chinese people aren’t afraid to bend over and put their face right in the bowl. Scooping rice from the bowl to your mouth is much easier with a shorter distance to travel.
#11. Sharing is caring.
The only time you’ll order your own meal is if you are in a noodle shop or cafeteria. In general, one person will order many dishes to be shared among everyone at the table. Everyone digs in with chopsticks and there is often a lazy susan in the center of the table to make sharing easier.