Another year has gone by, which means another Spring Festival has been celebrated throughout China. For a foreigner teaching English in China, who has the unique opportunity to experience formal family dining around the holidays, eating can be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps nothing (not even language) comes into play as much as Chinese eating customs and dining etiquette. Chinese people love to eat together, with tonnes of dishes being shared, rather than eating as an individual. It can feel like an overwhelming experience being faced by all that food and not knowing where to start, and what to do.
If you're heading out to China, or you're thinking about it, then don't worry. I have put together eight tips, so you can enjoy your food without the stress of a 9 am beer or filling up too soon!
*Please keep in mind that local dining customs and etiquette can vary drastically based on where one is in China. For this post, I tried to stay as close to basic, universal tips as I could. Enjoy!
In Western cultures, we tend to make dinner the main show, with the most formality and the biggest size. When it comes to Chinese dining and eating customs, however, lunch is by far the largest meal of the day. Breakfast mainly consists of leftovers from the following dinner or a small portion of noodles/soup. In many places, dinner is by far the smallest meal of the day. The father of the home I was staying at said that this way they can burn off all the calories throughout the day, and avoid sleeping on an overfilled stomach. Going all out at lunchtime is the way it goes, and don't worry, an afternoon nap is always acceptable.
As far as picking a seat goes, many times the host or hostess will indicate a seat for you to sit in. If it's a square table, the host (or person of highest ranking) sits at the head. If it's a big circle table (think a private room of a fancy restaurant), the host or boss will typically sit in the seat directly opposite the door (so that they can have direct eye contact with anybody walking in the room). Important guests will typically be asked to sit next to the head seat of the table. If picking your seat, try to avoid these seats, but in an informal family setting these dining etiquette rules may not be as strict.
It is customary for the host to put the freshest/best/special dish directly in front of you, so you have easy access to it. In situations where that speciality item is not appealing to you (octopus head, pig feet, etc.), it is still quite rude to reach across the table for something else for your first bite. Always try it first, and if you aren't consistently eating it, the host will get the hint and move the dishes he or she thinks you like in front of you.
The first couple times at the dinner table I ended up being the first one to finish my meal and was amazed at the amount of time after I had finished that my host family had continued. I was baffled at how much they could eat until I finally realised that they were setting their chopsticks down to talk, drink, and take small breaks throughout the meal. The tricky thing here is that if they see you put your chopsticks down, they'll urge you to keep eating. Best thing to remember here, pace yourself and be cordial at the same time, and you'll run into no etiquette problems.
When sitting down at the table, you may get asked the question “White, red or draft?”. What this means is, “Would you like to drink Chinese white wine, red wine, or beer?”. Couple things to keep in mind about these drinks; Chinese white wine (baijiu) is not white wine at all, but a clear, distilled spirit made from a type of grain, which normally falls between 40 and 60 percent alcohol. It feels like a rocket going down your throat, and the taste is…normally not suitable for the western palate. Red wine is red wine, but don't expect any vintage Bordeaux here, China is catching up to the wine world, but not that fast, and the same goes with beer. Alternatively, if you're a guest from another country, bringing a bottle from your home country is always nice. The choice here is entirely up to you. You are completely welcome to drink something different from the rest of the table, and no option is rude (although you will catch a little judgement for the low alcohol content of beer, just assure them you'll drink twice as much to keep up with them!).
In western cultures, there's normally a toast at the beginning of the meal, and then one goes about drinking their drink at their own pace. At the Chinese family table, there is one, single pace, the table pace, as every time you drink you also toast. At random times throughout the meal you'll see somebody at the table reach for their glass and raise a toast, normally it's for everybody at the table drinking, but be careful, as sometimes it may just be directed at one or two people. If it's a table toast, raise your glass and try to touch glasses with everybody at the table (pro tip: toasting with the rim of your glass lower than others is a sign of respect). At this point, the amount one should drink is sometimes discussed as well. For example, the toaster will say “just a sip” or “empty it!”, to which you should always follow their lead. Drinking as a lone wolf will let everyone know your either rude or an alcoholic, neither of which is a grand title. Wait for your host to invite you to drink.
Once you've selected your drink, there will always be small cups around the table that alcohol will always be poured into (whether it's red wine or a bottle of beer, NEVER drink from the bottle). Pouring for another person is a huge sign of respect, so the host will almost always pour into your cup for you. The polite thing to do here is to offer to (and look like you're about to) pour for yourself, but in the end, let the host pour. As you become more familiar and friendly, it's normal for everybody to start pouring for themselves.
Whether it's breakfast, lunch, or dinner, your host will ask you if you'd like to drink alcohol, which is indeed a bizarre request to hear at 7:00 in the morning. The first time I quickly turned to my friend and asked “am I supposed to say yes?” to which she replied “Oh god no!”. So, refuse the drink at breakfast, easy enough right? At lunch and dinner, the same question will be presented. The golden rule for the “do you want to drink?” question, is never to immediately say yes, or seem eager to drink, as this can be taken as pretty rude. The polite thing to do here is either refuse (even if you do want to drink), or turn the question back to the host. Either way, the host will decide if you drink (whether you refuse or not, if they want to drink, they'll pour you a glass).