Don’t Flip the Fish: Rules of Etiquette at a Meal in China

I'm a bit drunk ! How's that for starters?

Blame the Baijiu. The stuff of legends, or leg ends. Depends where you are. I'm in Huayuan and its been a funny old day. Last night I made a call to Mr Ma, he works for the government education department. From there on it was full Chinese hospitality at its finest.

Chinese are absolute masters at making you feel welcome. Even if you're a foreigner with the language abilities of a plum you'll be alright. Lucky really. A local English teacher was called upon and then it was all go, go, go.

In came the food and out came the Baijiu. Baijiu is a white spirit that makes you shudder and leaves an aftertaste like an earthquake. Good stuff. We were all served a small bottle with a clay top that needed to be smashed off to reveal the cork. One bottle is basically one big shot glass full.

Old habits die hard, and with me being so fit, I am able to hold my drink pretty well. When asked if i wanted more, I thought why not? since your asking. They were only being polite I think, and thought I would say "no". We had a laugh about levels of tolerance and then the second round came in. One guy dropped out and lost face for Hunan.

It was a really great dinner and I learnt a lot about the do's, the don'ts and the, it doesn't maters. Here is a brief summary of what to do and not to do during dinner.

Etiquette at a Chinese meal seems complicated but its not. Do the following and you'll be fine.

  1. Don't tuck in until the host says to do so. No different to a western meal really. Common sense. You will be urged to try each dish, but you don't have to do it straight away. There is seemingly lots of pressure during a meal to eat everything and try everything. It's just their way of making sure you are taken care for. Slowly slowly.

  2. Very important: Never drink alone.

    Water and soft drinks are ok, but alcohol is a social drink. "Cheers" or "Ganbei" each time you drink, or simply tap your glass on the table making eye contact with the person you want to ganbei. You don't have to ganbei everyone each time, you can single people out. It's good to individually ganbei people at the table especially if they are the host, some other special person, or if they simply haven't been drinking very much. Get them back, because you're involved in every toast and are getting more and more pissed. **Editors note for you Americans: pissed in British/Canadian English means drunk rather than or in addition to angry.

    You don't need to drink the whole glass, even if the other person decides to do so. If they say the 'whole glass' then either politely say 'just a little' or go along with it. Up to you.

    Ganbei literally means dry glass, as in 'down the hatch'. Not always so though. Play it by ear. Basically though everyone will try and get you hammered.

    Don't feel pressured if you're not into it. It's not rude to say you don't drink or will only drink a little bit. Just be firm, but friendly and it's fine.

    Sometimes at the beginning of a meal you will be asked if you prefer beer of Baijiu. Baijiu is normal for a welcoming or formal dinner. But you can still ask for beer. Even though it is a formal meal, if Baijiu is ordered the meal will soon become jolly and relaxed. Relax with the whole occasion. The more you relax the more your host will relax.

  3. Don't worry about making a mess.

    All bones or gristle that you can't eat go on the floor or the table. These are considered separate universes so you can use them freely. If you have a fish bone, single it out and spit it out.

    If the food is spicy eat some congee (rice soup). Good for calming down your mouth.

    If you blow your nose on a tissue, drop it on the floor. It is considered disgusting to put a dirty tissue in your pocket or on the table. Remember the floor is a separate Universe. Once something is dropped on it, it is not even noticed. Same goes for litter.

  4. Don't flip the fish if there is one. Its bad luck to do so. The Chinese are superstitious and flipping a fish has the same connotations as a capsized boat. If the dish has lots of fish in it then don't worry about not flipping them. You'll have a nightmare otherwise for absolutely no reason.

  5. Don't stuff your face then just suddenly stop. Best to gradually stop eating, and rub your belly maybe. Leave some food in your bowl and some drink in your glass. If you empty it each time, someone will refill it as they are good hosts. To leave food unfinished means that you are satisfied and that the host provided too much.

    It is quite natural for a western person to finish the food as it is considered an insult maybe that you didn't like it enough to finish. Depends I guess. Anyway. If you're full, you're full, but leave a bit in your bowl and glass anyway. Saves a load of hassle.

  6. Like in any country compliment the food. Quite often you are an honoured guest so the host wants to make sure you enjoy yourself.

  7. There is no need to keep saying thank you the whole time. If you have made it this far you are already considered a friend and friends don't need to keep saying thank you to each other.

    This is one of many things that are misinterpreted by westerners. Chinese do not always say thank you. If you are a friend then it is just accepted that you mean well. To keep saying thank you is a bit dodgy and suspicious. But don't worry. Ample room is made for your cultural errors.

  8. Make a toast, or even a few. Say all the things that you think you should say. Be bold, say it with conviction. 'You feel very welcome' or 'you are happy to make good friends'. You can of course say thank you in a toast, just not all the time when someone gives you a drink, a bowl of rice or the waitress gives you a new Chopstick that you dropped.

There must be other rules, but from what I can work out, the above are the fundamentals.

June 15, 2006

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