Justin and I are coming close to our three-month anniversary (of being in China, that is), and at this point, we’ve been asked out to dinner by many of our Chinese friends. I would be remiss if I did not take time to warn you (in case you ever come here) that their table manners, restaurants, meals, and just everything having to do with dining is quite different from the rest of the western world. So I’ve compiled a list of things to expect when dining in China, so you won’t be caught off guard like I was:
1. Slurping Noodles is socially acceptable. My mother always taught me not to slurp my food in polite company, but apparently in China, slurping is perfectly normal. In fact, just yesterday a fellow teacher treated Justin and me to a nice, hot bowl of beef noodles, and as I’m still getting accustomed to trying to eat soup with chopsticks, I ate very slowly and carefully, being careful not to drop any noodles and splash everyone at my table with soup (which I’ve been known to do). Our teacher friend was very concerned that I wasn’t enjoying my food, and even started to apologize for buying me noodles, saying that perhaps I would have enjoyed some fried rice a little better. I assured him that I really like noodles, and Justin explained to him that I just like to eat slowly, but he didn’t seem to believe it. In effort to convince him, I started grabbing giant gobs of tangled noodles with my chopsticks and taking huge bites, slurping even the longest noodles until I managed to get them all the way into my mouth. This seemed to satisfy him and convince him that I was enjoying my food (and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun slurping my noodles in public without shame)!
2. People will eat as though they’ve never seen food before. We were eating lunch in a restaurant downtown with our friend William awhile back, and it happened to be the first time we’d ever shared a meal with him. If you’ve read any of my other posts about William, you’ll know that he’s well-dressed, a bit flirty, and considers himself quite the ladies’ man. We were having a pleasant conversation with him when the food arrived to our table, and suddenly our charming William turned into a rabid beast, lowering his face down into his rice bowl and making little grunting sounds! There were bits of food and rice flying every which way, and his chopsticks were loudly clanking against his dish. He was eating so quickly, as if he thought the food in front of him would disappear any second! It reminded me of the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the way Mr. Fox would go from polite gentleman to wild animal as soon as food was placed on the table.
William is not alone in this, either. I see many boys (and some girls!) in our school cafeteria raising their bowls to their lips and using the chopsticks to shovel the rice directly into their mouths. I once heard a little ninety-pound, four-foot tall Chinese girl bragging that she could eat three bowls of rice in one sitting (I, myself, can only eat two in one sitting, and that’s only if I’m really famished), and I didn’t believe her at first, but after observing the dining hall behavior for a while, I’m starting to think she was telling the truth. Anyways, it was quite disconcerting to watch William eat his lunch that day; I was staring at him horror-struck with my mouth gaping open, a little put off of my appetite. Justin didn’t seem to notice a thing, and continued eating his meal (though not quite as vociferously, thank goodness). All I could think was, if William really wants to find a foreign girlfriend (which he claims is his life’s dream), then we will really have to teach him some proper table manners.
3. Expect the food to be fresh….very fresh. As in, it was breathing only moments ago, before the chef chopped off its head back in the kitchen. In America, many restaurants (especially fast food chains) spend a lot of time and money trying to convince the public that their food is fresh. “Fresh, not frozen!” they cry. “We use only the freshest ingredients!” was a new marketing ploy Wendy’s was using before we left the States. In China, they don’t mess with expensive advertisements. They simply show you your entrée while it is still alive, croaking or clucking, swimming or crawling, whatever it may be.
One restaurant Justin and I visited has what appears to be a white bathtub full of fish right next to the kitchen. This is not a nice aquarium filled with plastic greenery and turquoise pebbles; this is a crude, simple tank for fish to swim around in for a few hours and wait to be eaten. Last time we were there, we saw the chef come out to the tank with his net, and pull out a flopping, bass-sized fish and begin walking it toward the kitchen. A woman at the table next to us began shouting across the room at him in Chinese, apparently unsatisfied with the size of her fish, because he turned around, dumped the fish back into the tank with a splash, and pulled out a bigger one. He pointed to it, seeking her approval, and she shouted back to him in Chinese, giving him the go-ahead. He took the fish into the kitchen, and moments later we heard the loud WHACK of the cleaver…about twenty minutes later, the waitress brought her a steaming platter with the entire fish laying on it, eyeballs staring mournfully at her while she dug in with her chopsticks.
This kind of “fresh” dining may sound gross to you, but Justin and I have grown accustomed to it. At least we don’t have to worry about eating unnatural preservatives, or eating food that has spoiled over time. However, we are still occasionally surprised by the fresh food that is brought to our table. Case in point, the chicken soup that Justin ordered a few weeks ago:
4. Family style dining, with plenty of double-dipping from everyone. It may surprise some of you to know that I am now a full-fledged, shameless double-dipper. I will try to reform this habit once I return to the United States, lest you stop inviting me to your parties, but for now, I am embracing it. This is because most food in China is served family style; that is, you order one giant platter of gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) for everyone at the table to share, along with a big bowl of cabbage, sweet and sour potatoes, and whatever else your group decides to order. The waitress will not bring anyone individual dinner plates; usually she will bring tiny appetizer-sized plates (which many of the diners at the table end up using to house bones or spare bits of food they don’t want) or small bowls of white rice. The first time we ate a family style dinner with some Chinese students, we were a bit shocked to see them just start digging in with their chopsticks. They would take a bite of something, suck the ends of their chopsticks thoughtfully for a few moments, then take a stab at the next dish, not seeming to mind spreading their saliva and germs to every platter on the table. (You can imagine how horrified we were when the waitress brought out a giant tureen of soup but neglected to give us individual bowls–bon appetite!) However, as I mentioned before, I have grown accustomed to it now and I participate in family style dining without any qualms (though I still give a wide berth to the family style soup).
5. Toasting and Treating. Just so I don’t put you off of Chinese dining entirely, let me end my list with something pleasant. Justin and I were surprised to discover that it is customary for one person to treat others to dinner; that is, there is never any splitting of the bill. We discovered the hard way that by accepting an invitation to go out to eat, we were agreeing to allow that person to pay for our dinner (oops, maybe we shouldn’t have ordered that expensive steak!). We’ve tried to split the bill unsuccessfully on many occasions, but the Chinese see it as practically being heresy, so we’ve discovered that the best way to “get even” with our friends is by inviting them out to an equal number of dinners and foot the bill for them. I think it’s a very nice part of the culture, and at least there are never any awkward arguments of, “How did your appetizer end up on my check?” or the like. I’ve learned not to fight it! Once our friend Catherine took us out to dinner, and I accompanied her to the cash register under the false pretence of just going for a napkin. While she was fumbling to find her wallet to pay, I pulled out a one hundred yuan bill and quickly handed it to the cashier. The look on Catherine’s face was furious, and she even seemed a bit embarrassed and flustered, as if by paying I had insinuated that she didn’t have enough money to cover the bill. She was really upset about it for a while, and continued reminding me that I “shouldn’t have done that” for so long afterwards that I silently vowed never to pull that trick again.
We’ve also found that Chinese people really enjoy toasting, especially when there are many people sharing a family style meal. During Thanksgiving week, we were treated to a giant feast-sized meal by some of the teachers in the English department at our school. The meal went on for hours, with plate after plate of food being placed on the large lazy susan in the center of the table. We must have had at least twenty dishes–Justin and I started to lose count! And there was plenty of toasting to every occasion: “To American Thanksgiving!” when we told them that Thanksgiving was later that same week, “To hiking!” when one man admitted being very fond of the hobby, and even “To vampires!” when the discussion turned to a favorite American drama, The Vampire Diaries. Justin got really into this idea and attempted to start many of his own ridiculous toasts–some of them were received better than others. It is also not uncommon to hear shouts of gan bei!, literally translating to “drain the glass,” the Chinese equivalent of the phrase “bottoms up!”
There are so many more oddities in Chinese dining that a list of five doesn’t even begin to entail. I didn’t even have a chance to mention how Chinese people like to spit their bones directly onto the table (i.e. chicken bones, fish bones, etc.) rather than discreetly turning their backs to fold them into a napkin like I usually do. You can imagine how shocked Justin and I were when we hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our house for the Chinese students and they all began spitting their duck bones directly onto our nice wooden dining room table! Justin started to say, “Oh no, here’s a napkin….” but I gave a surreptitious shake of the head, and he got my meaning. If you can’t beat them, join them! or When in Rome, do as the Romans do! or…well…I’m sure one of those clichés fits here. So we started spitting our duck bones onto the table as well, and everyone felt welcome to enjoy their Thanksgiving feast in their own native way.