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Food Etiquette in China

By Emily Stockton, IMB

 

If you’re traveling to China, you are likely to be invited to a

“banquet.”  Typically conducted in private rooms at restaurants,

the meals are served at round tables and the events are steeped

in ceremony. Your hosts will be watching, not to see if you have a

perfect grasp of Chinese culture, but to see whether or not you

play along well and attempt to adapt to their culture.  Different

parts of China have different customs, and some of the ones

below may not pertain to your area of China. But these will give

you a “heads up” on things that might matter.

 

Banquet basics

  • When you are invited to an official dinner, it will be called a “banquet,” even though the guest list could be as small as eight people.

  • The person who invites a group to dinner is the official host, and he pays.

  • On the flip side, if you invite others out for a restaurant or fast food meal, expect to pay their bill. Never try to split the cost of a meal with your Chinese friends. “Dutch treat” does not play well in China. (Unless you are adept at Chinese culture, hosting a banquet in China with Chinese people as your guests is not recommended.)

  • At banquets, guests sit at a round table. The seating arrangement, determined by the host according to the status or age of each guest, is extremely important to the Chinese. Never sit until the host tells you where to sit. The usual protocol in China is as follows: (a) The host himself sits in the seat that faces the door; (b) The highest-ranking guest sits on the host’s right hand side; (c) The second highest-ranking guest is on the host’s left side. (d) The subsequent seating of remaining guests continues to be determined according to rank as perceived by the host.

 

Tea, Toasts and Thirst

  • The banquet meal does not officially begin until the host proposes a toast. The food will arrive before then, so refrain from eating the food when it is put on the table. Let your host tell you when it is time to begin.

  • Chinese people often drink wine or beer at banquets, but you can ask for Coke, Sprite, fruit juice or bottled water. But don’t chug your drink! You should only take a sip or two when a toast is made; it is not there to quench your thirst. (If there is a cup of tea at your place setting, you can sip on that prior to the meal or between toasts.)

  • If others only drink tea during a meal, it would not be polite for you to ask for a soft drink or juice that will cost your host extra money. Even if you offer to pay for it yourself, your host would not allow it; he would insist on incurring the extra expense. It’s best to get yourself a thirst-quenching drink before or after the meal in this case.

  • After the host makes 2-3 toasts, then it is the turn of other Chinese people at the table to make toasts (each person at the table usually makes 2 – 3 toasts). If you would like, you can make a toast towards the latter part of the meal. Your toast should primarily include words of thanks to the host of the meal.

  • Typically, everyone is included as a part of a toast, but sometimes a toast is made to a particular person or two persons. Therefore, don’t always pick up your glass assuming that you are included in a toast (especially towards the end of a meal). Pay close attention though, because if someone does try to make a toast to you and you ignore it, it is considered a terrible insult.

  • When the regular meal is finished, bread/rice/noodles/dumplings (starches) will be served for the final course. Generally speaking, you should not begin eating the starch until you see others do so. The final toast of the meal is supposed to be given before anyone eats the starches.

  • Outside the Christian community, drinking alcohol has little negative connotation in China, so if you don’t drink they will wonder why and may question you about it. Be prepared to give your reasons if asked.

  • In some places in China, if you click glasses with someone following a toast, you should try to let the rim of your glass click below the rim of a “superior’s” glass.

 

Navigating chopsticks

  • If you touch a piece of food with your chopsticks, you should try your best to pick                                                                                             up that food and put it either on your plate or in your mouth. Avoid letting the                                                                                            germs on your chopsticks contaminate all the food on the plate … just let them                                                                                           touch the food you intend to take.

  • Lay your chopsticks flat, parallel with the table, when you are not holding them.                                                                                       Sticking your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice could be construed as an                                                                                               insult to your host.

  • Take a bite or two of food and then put down your chopsticks and listen/talk.                                                                                                   The main purpose of these meals is not to fill your stomachs, but to socialize.                                                                                                 Take a few bites and put down your chopsticks like they do. When they pick up                                                                                              their chopsticks to take a few more bites, then you can too.

  • One exception to this “eat-when-they-do” rule: if the others at the table are                                                                                          consumed in smoking and drinking and therefore have no interest in the food,                                                                                                eat anyway. They probably won’t even notice.

  • If you drop food on the table, just leave it where it falls.

  • Ceramic spoons are part of a typical place setting. If you are having trouble using chopsticks, use your spoon to get food.

 

Turning the tables

  • Food is shared. The waitress sets dishes on the table and everyone reaches in to grab individual bites of food off of the plates.

  • The waitress sets the banquet food upon a “lazy susan,” a round turntable. When you want a particular dish that is out of your reach, you could turn the table yourself, but this is often viewed as selfish and greedy. For the most part, let the Chinese people turn the “lazy susan” for you.

  • The table should turn in a clockwise position, so it would not be proper etiquette to turn in in a counterclockwise position just so you can grab a bite from a dish that passed by you too quickly. Wait until the next time it comes around to grab a bite. (Hopefully it won’t all be gone by then.)

  • When the waitress brings in a new dish of food, she will put it on the turntable, and then turn it so that the newly arrived dish is first served to the guest of honor and then the host. You should not grab at this new food as it rotates right past you; you should wait until the guest of honor and host have the first opportunity to eat from the dish. Wait and hope that sometime soon it will come close to you. A banquet can be a test of patience.

 

Exotic food, smoke and the clock

  • Expect these types of meals to last two hours, sometimes longer.

  • Dozens of dishes will be served at the meal, and when the banquet is over, there will be an abundance of food leftover. In American culture this is viewed as wasteful. But in Chinese culture, if all the dishes have been completely eaten, it indicates that the host failed by not providing enough, and is an embarrassment to him. Comments about waste are not generally helpful.

  • In Chinese culture, it is considered rude to ask someone to stop smoking. (It is not considered rude to smoke in front of someone who doesn’t like to breathe smoke.) Many men smoke at the table at the end of a banquet.

  • If you are invited to someone’s home or you are the only guest of honor at a banquet, you should humbly and clearly inform the host of what you will not or cannot eat prior to the banquet. They may go to great expense to buy delicacies just for you, and if you do not plan to eat frogs, cicadas or scorpions, it is best to let them know up front. If faced with an awkward situation, let the Lord guide you to make the most gracious decision about what to do.

  • Most Chinese people learn traditional banquet etiquette after they become adults and engage in workplace banquet situations. You may encounter some Chinese adults still learning the basics themselves.