• Shona McCarthy

A Guide to Chinese Dining Etiquette

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

(One of the many Chinese restaurants you can eat at in Yokohama Chinatown. Taken by me in 2019.)

When I was growing up, my Chinese relatives took me to Chinese restaurants many times. These places were often somewhat ritzy and beautiful. As a family, we would sit together and stuff ourselves with food till we were completely full and could bear no more. Steamed fish in soy sauce with spring onions. Black pepper beef. Lemon chicken. Birds nest. Pork belly. I can still remember how the rice would smell when it would get hit with the sauce, how my grandmother would always order a few mystery dishes I didn't recognise. And the way my family would argue about who would take the bill.

Thanks to the cultural diversity of most cities in the world, locating quality Chinese Restaurants in your local city will usually be very easy. This can be a great way to have an hour long vacation, so to speak. With all the concerning things happening in China right now, it would be a better idea to engage with Chinese culture outside of China itself.

But many people who aren't from a Chinese background don't realise what standard Chinese dining etiquette looks like. There were many things I came to take for granted about my own experiences. For example, I would by mystified when I went to a Chinese restaurant with my Western relatives and instead of sharing each dish the Chinese way, they would each have a share size dish to themselves. My poor Scottish grandmother sat there eating a serve of lemon chicken big enough for two or three people. How she held it down is, in my opinion, a testament to the Scottish constitution. But all that discomfort could have been avoided if people understood Chinese eating culture a little better.

So, here I will share some things I've learned the hard way. These are principles that apply not only in restaurant dining but also any eating with Chinese people of the older generation.

Refusing the food that is offered to you is usually considered bad form. It is considered good manners to accept anything you are offered gratefully. This can be worrying for people with dietary restrictions. However, the way Chinese dining is typically structured makes it very easy for you to accept a dish without actually eating it. The food tends to fill the middle of a table. It will usually be a range of dishes, some purely vegetable, others with different kinds of meats cooked many different ways. Some will be tofu. Most will sit atop a lazy Susan. Others will sometimes crowd the rest of the table if you and your party have ordered much. Each diner will usually have their own pair of chopsticks, a little bowl of rice, a small tea cup and a small saucer.

The expectation is that if you are offered a dish, you will take just a little, put it in your rice bowl and pass the dish along. This way you don't look greedy, but you also don't look too apathetic. But there in lies the trick. Just because it is in your bowl, doesn't mean you have to eat it. If you accept a little of every dish you are offered, it is very easy for you to sit there, slowly eating anything you want to, while ignoring everything else in your bowl. Play it safe by surreptitiously burying hated items under your rice. Often no one will notice what remains. It might be tempting to eat much of anything you like. But I advise against it. You see, no matter how much you've eaten, sooner or later, someone will always turn to you and say, "You've eaten hardly anything! Eat more!" And they might even place some items in your bowl without asking you. At this, you are expected to respond with a polite smile and a "thank you". If they insist upon seeing you eating it, just bite off a little, chew it and tell them how well cooked it is, even if you absolutely hate it. Saying you hate a food someone has served you is like saying you hate them, everything they stand for, and the region of China they came from. So never say it, even if you think they will probably agree with you. If they really press you to eat more, politely say you are unworthy of such wonderful food and you are grateful for their hospitality.

People won't always expect you to know how to use chopsticks. If you don't know how, no one will mind if you ask for forks. I am personally annoyed when I go to eat at an Asian restaurant and they automatically assume I want a fork rather than chopsticks. And I will ask for chopsticks if I'm not given them.

Should you be struggling to use chopsticks, please refrain from stabbing or spearing the food. This is considered rude. Please also avoid leaving your chopsticks pointing into your bowl full of food. This makes it seem you are courting the dead. Passing food from person to person with chopsticks and pointing your chopsticks at people is likewise frowned upon. If you are having trouble lifting your food, simply cup your rice bowl in your free hand, raise the edge to your lips, and then use your chopsticks to scoop the food directly into your mouth from the bowl. Simple.

If you would like to really wow and impress your hosts, never pour your own tea. Instead, serve others and then serve yourself. If others serve you tea, take your index finger and your middle finger and tap their tips to the table twice. This is a way of saying, "Thank you for the tea." It dates back to ancient times when royals sometimes wanted to frequent their kingdom disguised as a civilian. Their servants couldn't bow to them openly, so they would "bow" with their fingers instead. The behaviour later became common amongst the Chinese people.

(One of the many Chinese restaurants you can eat at in Yokohama Chinatown. Taken by me in 2019.)

Don't worry if you have food in your bowl at the end of the meal. People usually take it as a sign they've been a good host and given you more than enough to eat. It's usually time to go when most of the people at the table are sitting back in their chair, rubbing their stomachs and looking a little sweaty or uncomfortable. The temptation to overeat at a Chinese Restaurant can be irresistible. At this point you can say it might be a good time to go, that it is getting late and that the others may have plans tomorrow. If people have decided to pack up leftovers, don't be overly fastidious about collecting every last drop and morsel. It can be very embarrassing to the people accompanying you, especially if your host knows other people at the restaurant. It can make you appear stingy. At the end of the meal, it is always a good idea to remark how good the food was and how satisfied you feel by it. This tells your host that you are grateful for their efforts. It might mean you form a good relationship with the restaurant and they might let you try dishes they are experimenting with one day.

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