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The Chinese Social Dinner Ritual
One of my major responsibilities at my job is to socialize with our clients, all kindergarten principals and teachers. The principals are mostly older men whereas the teachers are all younger women. While this is of course not a particularly rowdy crowd, they still adhere to the rigors of Chinese entertaining etiquette. And while Chinese hospitality is truly one of the most welcoming in the world, its rules are often as exhausting as they are interesting.
It goes without saying that the guests must be taken to a nice (i.e. expensive) restaurant. In China this also means that the restaurant must be absolutely huge, either multiple floors or the size of a warehouse. The dining rooms often make me think of wedding reception banquets. Ironically, within the gigantic restaurant the host usually rents a private room complete with a TV (usually for karaoke) and a waitress or two at your beck and call. The table is always round and the host (or the one paying the bill) sits opposite the door. Important guests are invited to sit next to the host, though different provinces modify this tradition by having guests sit to the East of the host. For the rest of this article I’ll use the plural (hosts) because for all the dinners I’ve attended there has been one lead host and a sort of entourage (subordinates at his company), all responsible for entertaining the guests.
When first entering the room, nobody sits at the table. The host and the guests repeatedly invite each other to sit, but no one actually does. “Please, sit down.” “Ok, ok,” and without sitting he turns to another person, “Please, you first.” “No, no, you sit down.” “Please don’t be so polite. You sit down.” After a few minutes of this, everyone sits down together. This is one of those times when a simple misstep because of a difference in culture, while it wouldn’t create a disaster, would make an awkward situation. For example, if the guests were to walk into the room and sit right down, the hosts would probably pause a moment and then all sit down in silence, an awkward beginning to a social dinner.
Usually when the guests are “wai di ren” (“outsiders,” not necessarily foreigners but just from outside the city or province) the host will leave the room to order the entire meal. At least half of the dishes should be a specialty of the region. If the guests are locals then the menu will be handed around and everyone will get a chance to order a dish. In both cases the host must ensure that entirely too much food is ordered, so much that it can’t all fit on the table at once. If your parents have ever told you to “eat all your dinner because there are starving people in China who would be happy to have it,” forget about it. These social dinners are wasteful to the point of absurdity, all to make sure that the hosts have sufficiently provided for their guests. Quite often about half the food is left sitting on the table.
I should make a special note about the local specialties I have sampled just in this last month. Let’s see, in Nanning, Guangxi Province I ate black beetles about twice the size of a walnut. They actually weren’t that bad but there was very little meat to them. I stopped eating them just because it was too much work for my meal. In Fuzhou, Fujian Province I ate snake and perhaps the tiniest edible shellfish in the world. Again neither is as bad as you might think but the shellfish were also too much work for too little reward. I’ve also eaten quite a few vegetables that probably don’t even have English names and seen countless ways to prepare fish, chicken, and beef. So imagine how relieved I am when I hear that the local specialty is something normal like lotus root or fish soup (complete with fish heads, of course). I should add that these adventures in dining happen few and far between when not on business trips. To be sure I could eat stranger things if I sought them out, but most of the really adventurous dishes are found in the South. Nobody has ever invited me to eat dog or cat (because that stuff’s expensive). However the standard, everyday food here is much different from what you would find passed off as Chinese food abroad. The main differences that make a lot of Chinese food unappetizing to Westerners are: 1) they love meat with fat and bones; 2) for fish and chicken, add the skin and serve them intact (i.e. heads, fins, feet and all); 3) fish, and on rare occasions even chickens, are brought out to the table live and wriggling to prove freshness; and 4) most vegetable dishes are drowned in oil. I’m pretty much used to these things now. I’ll admit though that I have acquired a fondness for McDonalds and KFC even though in the States I avoided these places completely.
Back to the dinner ritual, it is also the duty of the host to apologize for the food and the restaurant. “I’m so sorry. This dish is too salty. The beer isn’t cold enough. There are not enough choices of food here. And the service is so slow.” The guest should respond by contradicting all of these statements. For any male readers, this is not a new concept; when one’s girlfriend complains about how fat she is, you’d better contradict her and fast. Such comments serve as the hosts’ check that they are doing a proper job of entertaining their guests.
Sounds complicated so far? I haven’t even reached the most important steps of the dinner ritual. In most cases, food consumption is subordinate to toasting. Social dinners, even with kindergarten teachers, are usually a series of toasts with pauses to scarf down food in between. About 95% of the time they use beer, but on really special occasions they break out the dread of all foreign guests, “bai jiu,” Chinese whiskey. I gag a little just writing about the stuff. Drinking lighter fluid would be an improvement. Anyway, before you can even pick up your chopsticks, the host must lead the whole table in draining a glass of beer. The term for this is “gan bei,” which can mean “cheers” but most often means “bottoms up,” and definitely so if you clink glasses as you say it. When clinking glasses, to show respect for one’s superior (boss or elder), one lowers his glass; otherwise put, the top of the subordinate’s glass should touch about the halfway mark of the superior’s glass. Sometimes this leads to a contest of who can put their glass lower. One tactic is to scoot one’s glass across the table, or, if sitting close enough, one can start with their glass below table level. If sitting too far away to clink glasses, one can tap the table with the glass. And if a superior invites a subordinate to toast, the subordinate should leap to his feet for the toast. After the host finishes the first toast, the rest of the meal is spent exhausting every conceivable combination of guests and hosts toasting … and then doing it all again.
Once the drinking has begun, an unspoken system falls into place. If the waitress is attentive, she immediately refills everyone’s glass, beginning with the more important guests, then the more important hosts, then down to the subordinates. (The beer is purchased by the 40-ounce bottle. The glasses vary in size but generally get smaller as one travels south.) If not the waitress, then certain people, usually of the subordinates or women, take up the job of pouring. It is rather disheartening, especially towards the end of the night, when no sooner have I drained my nth glass than it is immediately full again. Just when you feel relief at seeing the last bottle emptied, the host orders 5 more bottles. And just in case you held out any hope that you may not have to actually drink those bottles, the host also orders them all opened at once. So there’s no going back because you can’t waste a full bottle of beer.
You may be asking, “So why all this drinking?” In China, especially in the North, drinking with business partners or would-be friends is a way of solidifying the partnership. Let me rephrase that: getting sloppy drunk together makes you “ge mr,” “brothers,” a Beijing term. Unfortunately for me, every Chinese man seems to feel obligated to challenge foreigners to drink. This is sometimes an issue of ego (“I can drink as much as him!”) and more often because they believe foreigners really love to drink. (I blame the Germans and their colonial breweries in Qingdao.) If I decline, they usually think I’m just being polite because I think they don’t/can’t drink. Also, Chinese hospitality dictates that guests must be given alcohol, and of course they can’t drink alone. Finally, each area has their own brew so this is an extension of giving guests local specialties.
Now, in the US I never drank at all and therefore am a quintessential lightweight, but it’s still very rare to meet a Chinese guy who can drink more than me. Apparently there really is a difference in the Chinese physiology and their bodies are unable to process alcohol very well. According to one article I read about this, Asians (particularly Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people) “have a slower-than-normal enzyme in their ethanol catabolism,” i.e. their bodies can’t process alcohol as quickly. (http://oregonstate.edu/groups/chronicle/issues/Winter2001/articles/redface.cfm) After a few glasses they get red in the face and are pretty much drunk. The problem is that Chinese drinkers just won’t quit. Most of them are looking for some sort of indication that the alcohol is having some effect on me. But since their faces turn red and mine doesn’t, they’re not satisfied until I’m obviously drunk. So far they’ve got about a 60% success rate.
The thing that baffles me about Chinese drinking culture (zhong guo jiu wen hua 中国酒文化) is that one “loses face” (gets embarrassed) for refusing to drink, but doesn’t if he drinks himself into incoherence and throws up. No really, throwing up might even endear one to friends and colleagues because of the extreme discomfort endured to drink with and “give face” (show respect) to them. In the same way, prefacing a toast with “I don’t like to drink” or “I’ve never drank this before” and then drinking anyway also really gives face. That was my problem when I first got to China. I was trying to politely refuse a drink, and it was taken as a bigger incentive to make me drink. “Oh really? You never drank in the US? Then drink with me now!” “You don’t like to drink? Then just have a glass with me now.” But it never ends with one glass. Upon the second invitation I would say, “Hey you said just one glass.” “Come on, aren’t we friends?” And if I refused to drink then, I really would be lessening the friendship or at least leave the person feeling a bit slighted. So I’ve had to participate in this drinking ritual, more importantly now because my “face” is also my employer’s “face” in addition to my country’s. However, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. China is definitely no place for recovering alcoholics.
As the night starts to wind down it’s time for the guests to proclaim how full they are. That doesn’t mean they get to stop eating or drinking. I learned the hard way that if I waited until I was actually full to say that I was full, I would have to eat at least another two bowlfuls before my hosts would finally accept it. After two or three such painful dinners I finally learned my lesson. I now have a strategy; when I’ve eaten to the point that I’m just not hungry I say, “I’m so full, but this [local specialty] is so good that I have to eat a little more.” After another bowlful and much toasting I say, “Really, I’m very full. I can’t eat any more.” Often at this time the hosts order some snack food, soup, or something quasi-dessert-like. Oh, and there’s more toasting. Around this time I am genuinely full and beg for mercy from my hosts. Upon the third “I’m really full” declaration, my hosts are satisfied that I have consumed as much food as I am physically able. At that point there remains on average about 30 more minutes of conversation time and of course more toasting.
Lest there be any confusion between Chinese and Japanese culture, burping is NOT a polite show of approval for the meal. However it’s not impolite either. It is impolite to use a toothpick without shielding your mouth, and for some reason almost everyone needs a toothpick after the meal. I’ve eaten in hole-in-the-wall restaurants with people spitting on the floor, tossing bones ands shells all over the table, smoking throughout the meal without using an ashtray, talking and belching loudly, but covering their mouths when they stopped to use a toothpick.
When the waitress brings a complimentary plate of watermelon triangles it’s time to pay the bill. Now, at most of the social dinners I’ve attended, it was already clear who would pay. Since it’s a business dinner, the host gets reimbursed by his company anyway (and sometimes even when it’s not a business dinner). It’s at least clear that when one person invites another, the inviter definitely pays. When an “outsider” is visiting, the local pays. But heaven help you if you’re at a dinner where everyone else is a local and there was no clear invitation from anyone. It’s a matter of face (honor) and the argument can get ugly. When it’s two women arguing over who gets the honor of paying the bill, it doesn’t get too far out of control. Some feelings may get hurt but that’s all. When it’s two men, after they’ve been drinking themselves silly, and their “face” is at stake, well, I’ve seen fistfights. It doesn’t make much sense to the Western mind how two friends can argue over who should get to treat whom, actually get physical over the matter, and then be friends the next day when they sober up. This is just one of those cultural differences. As a teacher, my students treat me with a lot of respect, even once the course is over and we’re just good friends. I’m always considered their teacher. But I’ve had students slap my hand away or physically restrain me when I tried to hand money to the waitress. I’ve tried excusing myself to go the restroom and then sneaking over and paying the bill. When my students learned of my trick, they just demanded that I take their money with equal forcefulness. So if you’re a foreigner in China, my advice to you is this: do try to pay for the bill, and be forceful especially if it’s the second or third time eating with that person. Be prepared that you may have no choice but to accept your friends’ generosity. And if you really want to pay for a meal, be sure to clearly invite your guest and make sure he/she knows you will pay for the meal beforehand, unless you like fistfights.
When the bill is settled it is finally time to stagger out of the restaurant, say my goodbyes, tell the other people to “walk slowly” (慢走，man zou, meaning be careful), go back to the hotel, put another notch in my belt, and pass out. And you thought the company’s token foreigner didn’t work hard for his money.
Written August 26, 2003 by Shelley Timmins (shelleytimminsatyahoodotcom)
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