Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chinese Table-Manners

I thought I'd go ahead and do a post about basic Chinese table-manners. There are a lot of other customs and manners of general behavior that feed into what is considered proper table etiquette, but they are far too numerous to go into in detail for a brief essay. This basic accounting of proper behavior and what to expect should get the Western visitor to China through dinner without embarrassing himself too badly. Place Setting When you take your seat at the table, you will most likely be met with a small rice bowl that is slightly larger than a teacup, a pair of chopsticks, and, optionally, a plate. In the center of the table, sometimes on a large Lazy-Susan style spinning platform will be arranged a wide array of dishes, all approximately the same size. The table will almost invariably be round, especially if there is to be a large number of people. Somewhere there will be a communal pot of rice, though often this is not on the table. The number of dishes in the center of the table should be about the same as the number of guests, and will always be about the same size wherever you encounter them. With scant few exceptions, Chinese do not increase proportionally the size of a recipe to feed more guests. They cook more separate dishes. You will likely not get a drink, and sometimes not a napkin. With the exception of alcohol, Chinese do not drink during a meal. You will usually be served tea after the meal, and often there will be a soup during the meal. This is for "drinking." Be forewarned: a lot of Chinese food is exceptionally hot. Be careful about what you chomp down on, for this reason and for others, and plan ahead if you do not normally eat a lot of spicy food. Chopsticks Chopsticks are not that hard to operate, though it does take some practice. If you know you will be eating formally in the near future, better practice a little ahead of time. You may use a fork if you like without offending anybody, but the reality is that Chinese food was designed to be eaten with chopsticks. I find it easier to learn to use the chopsticks than to try to insist on using a fork in a system that was not designed for it. But suit yourself. Nobody will hold it against you if you do choose to opt for the fork. The basics of using chopsticks are pretty simple. Hold your hand in as if writing with a pencil, then turn your hand 90 degrees so that your thumbnail is facing up. Place one "stick" in a fixed position through the crook of your thumb and resting on your middle finger, and hold the other with the tip of your thumb and your index finger so that you can manipulate it, kind of like a pencil. You will likely be tempted to "choke up" on the chopsticks by holding them close to the tips that you will be eating from in an attempt to gain more control. Don't do this; hold them about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up the shaft, with only a couple of inches hanging over the back side of your hand. If you "choke up" too much, you won't get enough range of motion from the chopsticks to make them usable. Practice a good bit. It takes a while to get it just right. Always hold your hand with the "thumb-side" up. Turning your hand over, for example, to reach something far away, can make it considerably easier to pick up certain items, but is considered impolite. Avoid doing so if possible. You may be served "buns," dumplings, or other unwieldy objects that are difficult to pick up. This can often be overcome by stabbing the food with your chopsticks (both of them) and eating it like a corndog. This seems like it would be horribly impolite to a Westerner, but Chinese think nothing of it. You will likely see them doing it as well. So, go right ahead, unless you can think of something better. Some food will not lend itself to stabbing. I don't know what to tell you in this predicament, except to either avoid these kinds of foods or just do the best you can, but never, ever touch your food with your hands! More on this later. Serving Your Food You will be served rice, enough to fill about two-thirds of your bowl. Don't worry if you think this isn't enough for you; you'll be offered plenty more. You will be taking portions from the communal dishes at the center of the table, which will generally get rotated around to serve all the guests. Always take only a few bites from any one plate, and always place the food into the bowl! Never put food directly onto your plate! This isn't a Western style buffet. You are not filling up your plate and coming back for seconds. Place a few bites into your rice-bowl, eat them, then get a few more. Repeat this until the end of the meal. Unlike Western rice, Chinese cook their rice to come out sticky. This is so that it will stick to the food better and is easier to pick up with chopsticks. Use this to your advantage. Roll around bites of food in the rice to pick some up and then eat it. Chinese Food At this point, you are probably wondering what the plate is for if you aren't going to put any food on it. Basically, the plate is for spitting. You probably think you know what Chinese food is like because you have eaten many times at Chinese restaurants. You are wrong. This food is nothing like actual Chinese food. The guys who own the restaurants are out to make a buck, so they make food Americans want to eat. They add lots of sugar, deep fry pretty much everything, cut out most of the spices, and follow most of our conventions, especially when it comes to cutting meat and processing spices. These two final points are critical. Westerners typically cut meat roughly in accordance with anatomy, so that bones are kept whole whenever possible. Chinese consider it a mark of culinary excellence be able to cut clear through bones in regular geometric shapes, all anatomical considerations thrown to the wind. So a drumstick comes out in about eight slices that look like meat donuts with a bone core. Ribs are cut down to three-quarter inch bits. There are little bits of bone in everything. There are also bits of unprocessed spices, such as whole peppercorns. If you simply chomp down into your food, you will often find yourself experiencing some very unpleasant textures, bone chips, and periodic "flavor explosions" far beyond what was intended. You must be very careful of the little bits of bone and hard spices scattered throughout the food. Chinese basically sort through the food in their mouths and spit out all the inedible bits onto the plate. We Westerners don't generally have the oral dexterity for this and wind up picking through our food with our chopsticks. Be careful what dishes you take from. Having an "ally" at the table who knows the dishes and can recommend what to avoid helps. I generally avoid meat altogether. Oh, and if you don't get a plate, which is fairly common, all this inedible stuff goes directly on the table. Hygiene Chinese have some very strict rules of "behavioral hygiene." They are far more strict than Western rules. Basically, some things are considered clean, other things are not clean. Nothing which is clean is allowed to touch anything which is not clean. If it does, it becomes unclean, too. Pretty simple, and common sense, right? Kind of like not eating off the floor. That's pretty much it. Reasonable enough. Most of it is pretty simple, really. Your chopsticks, the food, the bowls, and your mouth are all clean. The table, the floor, and the rest of your anatomy including your hands are not. Do not let your chopsticks touch the table. If food drops to the table, or elsewhere, do not touch it again. Do not try to clean it up. Just leave it alone. Never touch your food with your hands, unless you see others doing it and only that particular dish. Never, ever put your hands or fingers in your mouth for any reason. This is a very strict taboo. You will be considered dirty and barbaric if you break it badly. Do not place food you are going to eat on the spitting plate, either, because it is dirty. On the other hand, since that's really all there is to it, some of the logical consequences become bizarre to Westerners, particularly the fact that there is no distinction between your chopsticks, your bowl, and your mouth and everybody else's. For example there are rarely serving spoons with the dishes you are helping yourself from. You just use your own chopsticks, as does everyone else. Also, eating is a far more communal exercise in China than in the West, as you could probably guess from the description so far. Your neighbors at the table, often complete strangers, will likely take it upon themselves to "help you" by depositing things in your bowl. Not at your request, whether you like it or not, and using their own chopsticks which they have been eating with and occasionally spitting into on the way to the spitting plate. This is in violation of many Western taboos, not to mention the germ theory of disease, but it is perfectly normal to Chinese. It's best not to fight this behavior. Just accept it and get used to it. Needless to say, many Western dishes are often held to be somewhat disgusting because they are eaten with the hands, such as hamburgers, pizza, and the like. Also, our instinct if we see something dirty is to clean it up. Not in China. Cleaning dirty things involves touching dirty things, rendering you dirty. You don't do this unless you have to. Public places in China are generally much dirtier than here, but people consider themselves clean because they have habits that they think allow them to avoid contact with it. American's generally keep things cleaner but break these conventions. Two different approaches to the same problem. Formalisms Actually, the surprising thing about formalisms is how few there actually are. Western eating habits are littered with formalisms in comparison with Chinese. So luckily, there is very little to learn in this regard, but the lack of formalism can be difficult to deal with, too. For example, nobody will ever say "pass the salt" or request anything else, either. People just take what they want. This is not as chaotic and disruptive as it might sound. For one thing, the food is considered to already be salted; no more is necessary. For another, the food and any "condiments" are usually on the spinning platform, so you can almost always get what you want just by spinning it. Don't worry about sitting up straight or not leaning your arms against the table. Belching, slurping, chewing with one's mouth open and speaking with one's mouth full, snorting, and clearing phlegm from one's throat (ahem) are all perfectly acceptable and are generally done enthusiastically and loudly in my experience. It is not considered impolite not to do these things, although your hosts may remark that you are unusually quiet. No change in behavior is therefore necessary on your part, but in general you will have to learn to ignore these behaviors in others. It sounds like it should be trivial, but I've found that most Westerners who have eaten with me at a Chinese table have had difficulty controlling themselves. I've seen even something as simple as chewing very loudly set them off. You don't understand if you haven't experienced it yourself. In general, expect many violations of Western formalisms, some you don't even know about consciously. But on the bright side, there won't be many expected of you. I have been told that this was not always the case. In ancient China, there were very elaborate systems of manners. But that seems to have all fallen by the wayside with the coming of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. This is one thing that I find China and America have very much in common: the celebration of equalitarianism and the rejection of class by Chinese Communism and American Democracy winds up leading to a sort of celebration of the vulgar and the crass. China has given up on its elaborate formalized systems of manners, and America has Paris Hilton & Company setting its cultural agenda. If you engage in Western formalisms, such as placing your unused hand in your lap, it may be noticed by your hosts, and they may ask you about it. In this particular case, you may want to just hold your rice bowl with your other hand, as this is perfectly acceptable by both standards and can even make eating a little easier. In other cases, you'll just have to use your own judgment. Interacting with Others Eating is a lot more social among Chinese than among Westerners. I have already pointed out the serving of food to guests by one's neighbors. Another is the raising of "cheers," which is quite rare among us Westerners, but pretty common among Chinese. (Yes, I know I just said you probably won't get a drink at the beginning. Drinking is more of a social function than part of the meal. Just go with it.) Despite the popular stereotype that "Asians can't drink" because of a genetic difference that causes them to turn very red, Chinese drink far more than most Americans I have ever encountered. Yes, they turn red. They keep drinking anyway. I've seen six and eight year-olds order beer at public restaurants. Nobody thinks anything of it. Nobody cares. In all probability, you will be coaxed into drinking far more than is good for you if you are a man, and you may even be coaxed into it if you are a woman. The Chinese for "cheers" is gam bei, which means "empty cup." Somebody calls for it, maybe gives a little speech with his glass raised, and everybody says "gam bei" at the end and touches glasses together and drinks. Be sure to get everybody in the glass touching, especially if you are the guest. Expect to be doing this ten to fifteen times per meal if alcohol is served. Which is a lot of the time. Compliments, and especially their rejection, are a big part of Chinese polite conversation. You will receive lots of compliments if you go to China. The polite thing to do is reject them, and offer a compliment of your own to the other party. This goes on back and forth for an extraordinary length of time, with ever more strenuous rejection and insistence by each party. Basically, compliments turn into endless streams of arguments. This may sound rather normal, but you have no idea until you've actually encountered it. After awhile, it will drive you crazy. I didn't really understand this the first time I went to China, thanks to my wife not preparing me in the slightest beforehand, so I just said "thank you," and moved on with the conversation. My hosts all thought this was incredibly funny for reasons I did not understand. Eventually, people made a game out of seeing who could give the most outrageous compliment to see if I would accept it. You would not believe the things I was told. They were just having fun with me, but it was all very confusing to someone who did not understand what was going on. Probably the most frustrating thing you will encounter in this regard is the excessive offerings of your hosts. You will constantly be offered things, some of which are not appropriate to take. Your neighbors at the table will keep your bowl perpetually full. This may sound like not such a big deal; after all, your hosts are just trying to be generous. But there is likely something about yourself that you do not realize yet. You will feel obligated to take them because they were offered. You will try to eat everything in your bowl, and it will bother you a great deal that you cannot finish and they keep piling on. You will probably be sick from overeating a lot of the time, and will very much dread mealtimes after the first few. Basically, the best thing to do is just eat as much as you can, and leave you what you can't eat. Don't kill yourself trying to eat it all. They will insist that you "eat more." You just have to argue back that you are quite full, kind of like the way you argue about the compliments. You will feel the whole thing is quite wasteful, but you just have to accept it. If you are a man, you will almost certainly be offered liquor and cigarettes. If you do not drink or smoke, and you insist on not doing so while you are visiting, realize that you will offend your host very badly. They will not accept that a man does not drink or smoke, as this is an alien concept to them. It may be worth it to you, or it may not, but that is what is going to happen. Just be mindful of it. Your hosts are out to look very generous towards their guests. Even if you find some things to be wasteful or in bad taste, it is best to just let them slide and try to get along. They are just doing their best to be good hosts. We Westerners have lost a lot of this in our culture, and in some respects we are probably the poorer for it. Conclusion Chinese manners and customs are quite a bit different from Western customs, and if you haven't yet experienced eating real Chinese food among native Chinese, you are probably in for a shock or two. Luckily, the culture is very forgiving of transgression, quite welcoming, friendly, and accepting of foreigners. Hopefully, with this little bit of guidance, you will find navigating the dining experience to be a bit less stressful and more fun.

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