The seat of honour.
It has been a weekend of firsts for me. My first taste of century egg, first chicken foot, first frog, first panda pig (although I didn’t realise it at the time, despite the meat being so tender it virtually dissolved in my mouth), first jellyfish and first hairy crab (which I didn’t have to kill myself!). More importantly, I got to experience three distinctly different dinners with the generous people of this country. As the current project nears its end in Shanghai, we had the obligatory celebration parties. Friday with the client and top management (it’s a great industry to be in when the client pays for dinner!), Saturday with the rest of the staff – everyone from the laundry lady to the mechanic and finally, last night, with the client, his family and friends. What a fantastic experience! Even though this was not my first night out with the locals, it was the first time I made a point of observing the similarities and differences in traditions, manners and customs between these three very different groups of people. Dinner in China can be a bit daunting. It is often held in a private dining room in a restaurant, which really puts you in the spotlight a bit. There are no crying babies or waitresses dropping things to distract other people when the pork you just tried to pick up goes skidding across the table like a little soy sauce covered bobsledder. And when you are there with the “important” people, it gets even more nerve wracking. Where do you sit? Where will the boss sit? What rituals should you follow? Will you be expected to bow without falling over or catch a fly with your chopsticks to prove your worth or spit on the floor to fit in? What if you comment that you’re a fan of Toyota and single-handedly bring an end to all future business dealings? But I realised very quickly that none of this is important. Food is a great equiliser and our hosts (and by hosts I mean of the country and not necessarily of the meal) were more concerned that we were having a good time and enjoying what they had ordered for us than whether we could handle our chopsticks like a boss. That said, learning a little bit about what to expect and what is expected of you when attending a dinner is just good manners. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
For the most part all the general rules of polite behaviour apply and where you are and who you are eating with will determine to a great extend which customs you should honour. The more formal the occasion, the stricter the protocol. On Friday night when the client was entertaining business associates, most of the procedures below were followed. On Saturday night… well… if people are falling off their chairs drunk then you can be sure no one gives a crap whether you took the last crab for yourself and on Sunday with the family and friends, it really was just like your average family dinner at home. You’d have Aunt Marge who would glare down her nose at you if you put your elbows on the table, but you’d also have loud Uncle Al who spits his bones out straight into his plate and chews with his mouth open. When in doubt, take your cue from the people around you and err on the side of propriety. Here are (quite) a few things to remember:
Meeting and greeting:
– As with any dinner, show up on time and dress well. You will feel more comfortable delicately spitting out that piece of pickled jellyfish into your napkin when no one is watching if you’re wearing heels and something pretty when everyone else is in jeans than if you’ve got your favourite T-shirt on and everyone else is in cuffs and collars. (Obviously if you’re a guy then don’t do the heels and something pretty, unless your host is a lady boy.) As a rule of thumb, if you’ll feel comfortable wearing it to the NG church, you’re probably okay.
– When you enter a room, greet the oldest person first. Remain standing when you are being introduced to someone and don’t take it personally if they don’t look particularly impressed with you as many Chinese are taught not to show too much emotion. Conversely, if you are greeted with applause, don’t assume it’s cause you’re awesome. Just applaud back.
– A good old fashioned handshake is completely okay – no bowing needed. Despite having zero personal space the Chinese are not physical people. Do not hug them or pat them on the back. But as with all good parties, this becomes a moot point when the baijiu starts flowing and the “I love you man” hugs are initiated by your Chinese friends.
– Use the person’s title before their name when addressing them, unless specifically told not to. Even if they’re just introduced as John, you call them Mr. John. Keep in mind that when being introduced to someone, the family name will be mentioned first. So Cheng Gordon becomes Mr. Cheng unless he tells you to call him Gordon. This applies everywhere, no matter how informal the event or what rank the person occupies in the company.
The seating arrangements:
– Wait to be told where to sit by the host and wait for the guest of honour to either sit down first, or to be told by the host to sit down.
– The guest of honour will be given the seat facing the door. This is known as the seat of honour. At more formal occasions that seat’s napkin might also be folded differently to the rest. At a round table the seats on the left hand side of the seat of honour are second, fourth, sixth, etc in importance, while those on the right are third, fifth, seventh and so on in importance, until they join together. At a square table, the right seat facing the door (or East if there is no clear main entrance) is considered the seat of honour.
Utensils and crockery
– Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can probably use chopsticks to some extent. (They’d also make useful utensils for digging yourself out from under a rock, come to think of it). Even though your host will probably organise knives and forks to make Westerners feel more comfortable, it will be appreciated if you make an effort to fit in with the Chinese way of doing things.
– Never use your chopsticks to pierce food as you would with a fork, but you can use them to break up bigger pieces of food as you would with the side of a spoon. When you aren’t using them, place them on the rests provided (if none are provided, you are probably in a place that supplies disposable chopsticks so you can use the Read the rest of this entry