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chapter twelve: table etiquette and other delicacies

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A 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. The 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 gift 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 impression.

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, bird’s 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 like separation. 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.

Always 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 face” 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 privacy 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 end, it’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, it’s polite to offer to help but highly unlikely you’ll be taken up on it.

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restaurant dining

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 venture. 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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chinese chopsticks

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 Lao says:
  • Keep the ends of the chopsticks parallel and even in length.
  • 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 table.
  • 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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