common Chinese greeting is, “Have you eaten, yet?” It’s
an inquiry into the state of one’s well-being and contentment.
The polite response is, “Yes,” even if you haven’t eaten
in the past twelve hours and are feeling hypoglycemic.
greeting is extended in kindness only and not meant as
a literal inquiry. This greeting arises from when food was
not always plentiful and one’s well-being was equated with
having eaten a meal.
Dining in a traditional setting with the Chinese does not require
an etiquette lesson. However, being familiar with a few cultural
nuances will build confidence and provide an opportunity to impress
your companions, whether at a grand banquet ballroom or the home
of a Chinese friend.
chinese hostess gifts
Gift-giving is a customary formality and an expression of appreciation
for a dining invitation. The Chinese are generous and will rarely
enter a friend’s home—especially for the first time—empty-handed.
It’s a sign of respect, acceptance of friendship, and thanks
for the privilege of being invited. Gift-giving is a way to maintain
"face." It allows the guest to reciprocate the invitation
with an advance token. The hostess will usually remark that a
was not necessary, and that the guest shouldn’t have gone
through the trouble for just a "small, simple" meal.
But, when this comment is translated into Chinese thought, it’s
a compliment, because the action of your generosity and effort
will leave a lasting
The appropriate gift item often depends on your relationship
to the Chinese host, hostess, and family. When visiting a relative’s
home, food items are appropriate, such as fresh seasonal fruit
(oranges, apples, Asian pears, persimmons), candy, cookies, Chinese
preserved fruit, and cured beef jerky. If visiting during the
day, dim sum, pastries, and buns are also appropriate.
Chinese elders would especially appreciate luxury items such
as dried black mushrooms, dried scallops, shark’s fin,
nest, Chinese sausage, canned abalone, tea, a bottle of rice
wine, or even mao tai. When compiling the gift package, select
an odd, or yang, number of items, as it relates to the living.
Eight is also a good number because it connotes prosperity. Never
give four items; the number four is bad luck because it sounds
like the word for death.
Gifts for business and social acquaintances are more formal.
Appropriate items could reflect the hosting family’s interests
and hobbies, such as sports memorabilia, illustrated or pictorial
coffee-table books, decorative items for the home, a bottle of
fine whisky or cognac, gourmet chocolates, or other luxury items.
If the hosts have children, popular choices are toys, games,
and play clothes with contemporary cartoon characters.
Always present wrapped gifts to your host. Consider wrapping
in color fortuitous to the Chinese: red, gold, yellow, or pink.
Avoid wrapping in white or black, as they are associated with
funerals. Also reconsider green (the color of separation) and
blue (the color of mourning).
Never give a clock because the Chinese associate it with death;
the word for clock, jung, sounds like the Cantonese
word for funeral. Watches, on the other hand, are popular and
contemporary accessories, as well as being functional. Knives
or scissors are inappropriate gifts especially for business associates,
as these items represent severing ties. The Taiwanese don’t
give umbrellas because the word for “umbrella” sounds
Handkerchiefs and white flowers are off-limits because they are
also associated with funerals. Nowadays giving cut flowers is
becoming more acceptable as a hostess gift because of relaxed
belief with the old superstitions. But little ladies like Auntie
Lao would still cringe at the sight of them. When in doubt, give
a living potted plant.
present and accept a gift with two hands as a sign of respect,
reverence, and sincerity.
It is not customary for the Chinese to open gifts in front of
the giver. They will graciously accept the gift and put it aside
for opening after the guests have departed. The purpose of this
custom is twofold. First, the Chinese consider impatience and
selfishness taboo. Second, it spares embarrassment to the giver
and receiver should the gift not be pleasing, thus “saving
for all involved. Moreover, the Chinese typically do not send
thank-you notes, although many have adopted this gesture in America,
depending on the situation in which a gift was bestowed. Because
the gratitude has been expressed in person at the time of receiving
the gift, the Chinese feel another written formality is redundant.
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dining in the home
An invitation to dine in a Chinese home is a
great honor. It’s the ultimate compliment to a friendship,
as many Chinese are culturally reserved about the intimacy and
of their homes, and instead prefer to entertain in a restaurant.
This custom arises from the days when the typical home was too
small to accommodate any but the family’s residents.
Upon entering a Chinese home, if you spot a
shoe collection at the entryway, you should also remove your
shoes. Follow your Chinese host’s lead as to where to sit for
the evening. Don’t wander through the house even when offered
a tour of the home. When touring, always follow, and always allow
the oldest members to enter a room first out of respect.
When dinner is served, again, take your host’s
lead for when to begin drinking and eating. Often, a toast of
friendship and appreciation for the evening will be given at
the meal’s start. When dining in a home, respectfully serving
the elders first still applies—as does serving the guest seated
next to you—until they politely excuse you from the gesture.
In any case, serving yourself should always come last.
For a pleasant dining experience, keep dinner
conversation to light social topics. Save world politics, the
state of the nation, or the evolving economy for another time.
Conversation should gravitate to the meal’s tastiness and
the host’s efforts in preparing the dishes. At the meal’s
acceptable to the Chinese to use a toothpick discreetly at the
table by moving the pick with one hand while covering the entire
mouth with the other. When it’s time to clear the table,
polite to offer to help but highly unlikely you’ll be taken
up on it.
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Whether in China or North America, dining in
a restaurant is a universal method the Chinese use to celebrate
and entertain, regardless of whether the occasion is an educational
or professional achievement, visiting friends, or a business
Upon arrival, the Chinese host will take charge and lead you
through an enjoyable and satisfying evening.
The traditional Chinese dinner table is round
to signify the unity of the family and often holds eight to ten
persons. Seating arrangements follow a general system, although
there are several variations. In one style, the two most important
seats at the table oppose each other: One has its back closest
to the door, and the other is directly across, facing the door.
The honored guest will usually sit at the latter position, while
the host will sit facing the guest at the former position. To
the host’s right will be the spouse, followed in counterclockwise
fashion by other family members based on age and rank. Strangely
enough, this arrangement often leaves the youngest member of
the family, or the lowest person in the hierarchy, sitting next
to the host and honored guest. When this happens, seating adjustments
may be required.
If the table is rectangular, the host sits to
the left of the honored guest and both take the two center seats
of the long side of the table facing the door, subsequently followed
by family members or business associates according to hierarchy
around the table.
For an informal occasion, a Chinese place setting
includes a beverage glass, teacup, condiment dish, rice bowl,
small plate, soupspoon, chopsticks, and napkin. Soup bowls are
often placed in the center of the table for easy serving.
Chopstick rests may also be used but are usually saved for formal
occasions. Beverage and communal teapots are usually placed on
the table when everyone is seated. Here, as always, the elder’s
glasses and teacups are filled first.
When dining formally, Chinese etiquette dictates
not to fill your own glass or teacup, but to attend only to your
neighbor’s drinking whims. In return, your neighbor will assure
you will not go thirsty. Having to refill your own cup implies
that your neighbor was inattentive, thus you would have let him
“lose face.” Thankfully, today in America, the rules are relaxed
and more forgiving, so refilling your own glass has become more
acceptable. Nevertheless, when refilling for yourself, still
check if anyone else’s glass needs filling. If the teapot runs
dry, placing the lid slightly askew will alert the waitstaff
for replenishing. In the traditional drinking style, tea is enjoyed
before or after, not during, dinner.
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Auntie Lao says the
higher a maiden holds her chopsticks in her hand,
the farther away she’ll move when she marries.
The Chinese invented chopsticks as an eating
utensil over five thousand years ago. Ever since, their popularity
has continued to grow. A pair of Chinese chopsticks is usually
rounded and more blunt-tipped, less decorated, and longer than
the Japanese counterpart. One reason for the difference is that
the Japanese dine on numerous dishes served in individual containers
placed closer to the diner. Conversely, the Chinese typically
dine family style, in which everyone shares from platters placed
within arm’s reach at the table center. Another reason is that
the Japanese long ago distinguished their utensil into an art
form to be enjoyed for its beauty as well as its utility. The
Chinese, however, value the chopsticks’ utilitarian nature first.
Chopsticks are created from many materials and
made into various shapes. Common materials are bamboo, wood,
plastic, and bone. Pre-worldwide ban, ivory was also popular.
Fancier chopsticks are made of gold, silver, part-cloisonné,
or jade. Many tops are carved with dragons, phoenixes, unicorns,
lions, or Chinese zodiac animals. In old China, emperors preferred
silver chopsticks because they were said to turn black when they
encountered poison. Luckily for the rulers, this theory usually
went untested, as royalty had official food tasters. For tasters,
many were not as lucky—with or without silver chopsticks!
|When using a set of chopsticks, Auntie
- Keep the ends of the chopsticks parallel and even
- Don’t use chopsticks as impromptu drumsticks,
batons, or pointing devices at the dinner table.
- Don’t use chopsticks for waving or for directing
foot traffic in the restaurant.
- During breaks, rest the chopsticks’ eating
ends on the edge of the plate or on a chopstick rest—never
on the table.
- Don’t use chopsticks to spear food—only small
children are allowed this infraction.
- Reserve chopsticks for picking up food only.
- Never stand chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice,
because they resemble lit incense sticks at an altar
- Don’t tap an empty bowl with chopsticks—that’s
reserved for beggars.
- Use chopsticks in tandem with fingers to steady certain
foods; use fingers only as a last resort.
- Don’t use chopsticks as hair decoration. The
Chinese don’t put eating utensils anywhere but
on the table.
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