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Imagine this scenario - you are with a Chinese friend, who offers to take you out for a bite to eat. As you walk towards a row of restaurants, a waft of delicious aroma surrounds you. You come to a stop in front of a particular restaurant.
A newly opened Chinese restaurant, more specifically. Looks good. It’s lunchtime for you anyways, and there’s no harm in trying something new. However, before you step in line and wait to be seated, you remember this is actually your first time at a Chinese restaurant. Is there stuff that I should know before eating here? You furrow your brows, hesitating for a second if this is the right choice for you.
Chinese dining habits are quite different from Western ones, but fear not, we're here to help!
Family Centric Meals
One stark difference between Western and Eastern dining habits is portion size—more specifically, how the way meals are consumed affect portion size. While meals in Western restaurants are sized for individuals, dishes offered in Chinese restaurants are meant to be shared. As such, cooks prepare food into bite-sized pieces, or prepare it in a way so it is easy to portion, while serving it to you on large plates and platters.
As meals are shared, one may be concerned with the degree of sanitation. It’s common to find communal chopsticks, or Gōngkuài (公筷), placed with each dish. While family members may opt to just use personal utensils for serving, you should use the communal utensils in a public setting, as common courtesy.
You may also notice that tables, especially those in larger establishments, are round and have a lazy Susan (more commonly known as “that rotating table on top of your table”). Aside for efficiency purposes, circular tables represent important motif in Chinese culture; it signifies unity, and presents dining as an event where family members reunite.
Important Tip: Before you spin the turntable to get to that delicious piece of duck, make sure that no one else is reaching for food! It's a huge cultural faux pas to spin the table just as someone is trying to pick up some food.
Seating and Dining
As mentioned above, Chinese restaurants often use round tables. In Western cultures, the host or the eldest family member often sit at the head of the table. But what happens when you dine at a circular table?
At a circular table, the seat of honor is the one facing the entrance of the establishment. The closer you are positioned to that seat, the more importance you wield. In a setting where there is no doorway—outside dining, for example—the seat of honor would then be the one facing east. In a banquet environment, the table of honor usually the one positioned farthest away from the entrance.
The timing which dining begins is also contingent on the presence of party members. The appropriate time to dig in is after the guest of honor, or the eldest member of the group, is seated and has begun their meal. Sometimes they will signify the start of a meal, by saying "吃吧(chī ba)!" or "开动吧(kāi dòng ba)!" which means "Please eat!"
The culinary tool that you’ll be using for the majority of your meals: chopsticks. From juicy cuts of chicken to small wrinkled peas, chopsticks are the utensil for the task. However, although it serves to fulfill all your needs, there are certain actions that you ought not to do with chopsticks.
Foremost, do not use chopsticks to point at another individual. It is seen as a sign of disrespect and aggression. Creating racket with chopsticks—this actions is usually committed by children who handle them like drum sticks—is also a sign of bad table manners, for obvious reasons. Sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice, specifically upright, is seen as taboo. There’s a specific reason for this: the imagery is symbolic of bad luck, as a bowl of rice is often offered at funerals this way.
As chopsticks serve to be the tool for all necessities, forks and knives are generally not seen in Chinese restaurants. However, they usually are available upon request.
Hot Tea with Hot Food
While meals in Western restaurants are often served with a cold beverage, Chinese establishments often first offer their various teas. Even dishes renowned for their spice are accompanied by a pot of hot brewed tea.
Why? Well, there are a multitude of reasons. For some it’s just something they’ve always done. Others swear the tea cuts back grease and oils and acts as a palate cleanser. Most, however, agree that warm water aids digestion while cold water acts against it.
READ MORE: Why Do Chinese People Always Drink Hot Water?
Holding up the Bowl
In Chinese culture (and most other Asian cultures as well) it’s customary to bring your bowl up towards your face when eating. A bad posture—one that consists of hunching over into the bowl or using only one hand while the other is dangling at your side—is synonymous with bad manners. Picking up the bowl not only helps facilitate eating, but prevents digestive difficulties that come with compressing the stomach.
In regards to how one ought to hold the bowl, it’s quite simple: your index, middle, and ring supports the ridge on the bowl’s bottom, while your thumb holds down the top rim. This particular form is to prevent your palm and fingers from getting burnt in cases where you have hot rice or soup.
Fighting over the Bill
No, this does not mean you haggle prices with the owner. It’s more baffling than that; friends often bicker for the right of footing the bill. To not “lose face,” otherwise known as Diūliǎn (丢脸), is a considerable aspect in Chinese culture; paying for another’s meal is seen as an indicator of ones financial security and a display of generosity.
Of course, there’s always the option to go Dutch, or just accept your fate and let the other pay. Intense bickering over the bill often occurs between close parties or friends who are familiar enough with each other to engage in friendly fights.
Daunting as it may be, there’s always a first for everything. Perhaps, armed with these key points, you’re now more confident about entering that restaurant. Go ahead. While trying to do everything according to etiquette is a formidable task, what’s more important are the simple manners: be polite, appreciate the food, and enjoy your food.