Category Archives: The Basics

Couth, Foreigners, and Table Manners

Table manners in a Chinese cultural environment are pretty loose. They exist and are different from the West, but are not too onerous. The priority is enjoying your food. The rules are designed not to interfere with gustatory pleasure. It is still possible for unsuspecting foreigners to unintentionally run afoul of propriety.

I once watched a group of newly arrived foreigners unknowingly set flame to a business banquet. There was a group of ten of us sitting around the typical circular table at a Chinese banquet. The conversation and Kaoliang were flowing, and as is typical the hosts were talking up the restaurant’s speciality—the pièce de résistance—whetting the guest’s appetite for the best and most expensive dish, a crustacean they called mini-lobster. (I think it was crayfish). The collected foreigners had been so primed by the mouthwatering descriptions that when the host twirled the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table to present the honored foreign guests with first choice, they loaded their plates full of lobster. The platter didn’t get past the third foreigner before being stripped bare. My foreign colleagues were stunningly oblivious. Chowing down on the meal’s highlight while offering compliments to the host around partially eaten mouthfuls. The Taiwanese stared on with their jaws scraping dust mites off the floor. Even the most obtuse traveler should have been a bit more savvy. Don’t help yourself to a giant serving from the communal plate. If it is countable, just take one. Sometimes the problem is be a bit more subtle.

Long ago I traveled to see a girlfriend in Hong Kong. While I was there, her mother invited me to come to their house for dinner. I managed to thoroughly botch the evening, though—thankfully—I was the only injured party.

Her mother offered to cook anything, and asked what type of Chinese food I’d like to try. I asked for hot pot. (I know! What was I thinking? My only excuse is I was young and foolish). When I arrived at their home a veritable feast was laid out across every available surface; tidbits just waiting to be dipped into the hot pot’s broth. I was excited. After a bit of preliminary conversation, mostly translated into Cantonese by my friend, and mute smiling and head bowing from the rest of us, the meal began.

Each member of the family was given a fairly standard sized rice bowl. They in turn began preparing their dipping sauces and cooking their food. When it was my turn I was given a giant bowl. It was not a rice bowl; not even a soup bowl—it was a whacking great bowl, something that might have been used to make bread dough for a Hutterite family. In the finest tradition of Chinese hostesses everywhere, my friend’s mother had preloaded the bowl with soup and a myriad of delicacies she’d already boiled. Let me reiterate—it was a big bowl, and it was pretty much full.

I sat at the table, almost completely hidden behind my prodigious bowl, occasionally glimpsing over its top—or around its side—to join in the dinner talk. Slowly I ate my way through that entire bowl. I was full, but not nauseated. Satisfied. Content. It had been a great meal, and I looked forward to spending a bit of time digesting and enjoying a tête-à-tête with my friend’s family.

It was not to be.

The mother, upon seeing my empty bowl, made a face I couldn’t decipher and refilled it. Now, I have always been a polite boy, and my mother, in the grand tradition of Ukrainian babas everywhere, had taught me to always clean my plate, especially when eating at someone else’s home. It’s polite.

I didn’t particularly want to eat the second bowl. But, I had traveled all the way from Canada to Hong Kong to see my girlfriend. Her family had graciously cooked for me. I was damn well going to be courteous.

So I started eating, more slowly this time. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. It was a ginormous bowl full of fine Chinese edibles. I was past the point of appreciating the food. What once had been sublime cuisine turned to ash in my mouth as I tried to power my way through the entire second bowl. I finish it all—such was my commitment to etiquette, politeness, grace, and gentility.

My girlfriend’s mother saw the bowl was empty again, gasped, made yet another inexplicable face, and proceeded to refill the bowl. I was sick. I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I couldn’t choke down another mouthful. But, I wanted to make my mother proud. So I picked up the bowl and started eating again. I ate the bowl inchmeal, morsel by choked down spoonful.

Finally I finished the whole bowl—bowl number three—and these were titanic basins of food. I proudly put the empty bowl on the table—propriety served. I leaned back in the chair, unbuttoned my pants, and began moaning like every father after Christmas dinner. I was stuffed to the gills and felt gross, but beneath that gut-churning vomitous feeling was also pride. My mother had raised a good boy—so well-mannered.

My girlfriend’s mom spotted my empty bowl, gasped, said something in Cantonese under her breath, patted me on the shoulder, and, of course, filled my bowl again. I wanted to cry.

Unable even to contemplate another mouthful, I finally sobbed to my girlfriend, “Why? Why does your mother hate me so?!?” She giggled and told me to just stop eating.

I’m not sure my girlfriend really understood the subtext of that meal. Probably, like myself and her family, she didn’t really know what was happening. From my [Western] perspective, the proper thing to do when invited to someone’s house to dine was to eat all the food on your plate. It shows that you enjoyed the food, are satiated, and appreciate the host’s efforts. For my Taiwanese friends, that’s why if you’re invited to someone’s home in the West normally they will ask you to serve yourself, or just put a token bit of each dish on your plate. They know that whatever is on your plate you’ll have to finish. Many of my Asian friends have been disconcerted by this Western manner of serving; it seems borderline impolite, or at least lacking warmth.

Chinese table manners are almost the opposite. It is acceptable—indeed polite—to leave some food on the communal serving dish or your personal bowl at the end of the meal. It shows that there was enough food and that you’re full and satisfied. (Rice is the exception, you should eat all the rice in your bowl). Placing food into someone else’s bowl is a gesture of affection. The exact feeling varies a bit with context. My girlfriend’s mother was acting the perfect Chinese hostess. My pain came from my own lack of cultural awareness.

Lantern Festival: The Perils of Chinese Folk Customs

Lantern Festival (元宵節) marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It falls on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar’s first month. During Lantern Festival, Taiwanese municipalities hold displays of intricate lanterns. The festival dates back over 2000 years, initially the lanterns were rudimentary, likely crafted from bamboo with a simple covering. During the Song Dynasty the lanterns became elaborate and colorful, often portraying scenes from folk tales. Now they are usually made from a metal frame encased in fabric. The designs can be stunning, depicting scenes from Chinese history or mythology, along with the obligatory gaudy Hello Kitty lanterns, or similar nonsense. [What would a Chinese festival be without camp?] The pièce de résistance, the center of the display, and the largest lantern on the festival grounds, is the depiction of the coming year’s Chinese zodiac animal. The lanterns draw large crowds every year.

What I really like though are the sky lanterns (天燈). These are small lanterns made of lightweight paper, oblong in shape, with an opening at one end. Below the opening is suspended some type of fuel, usually ghost money, that can be burned, providing hot air that allows the lantern to rise into the sky, similar to a hot air balloon. People write their hopes, dreams and wishes on a lantern and release it. The lantern carries those messages to heaven. Lantern Festival has several origin legends. One holds that it was a time to worship Taiyi (太乙), the ancient Chinese God of Heaven, believed to control people’s destiny. I’m conjecturing here, but it makes sense that during a festival associated with Taiyi, people would want to send messages about their destinies heavenwards for his consideration. Whatever its origins, the sight of an evening sky full of lanterns—each holding someone’s aspirations—is poetic, ethereal and beautiful. In Taiwan, the best place to see sky lanterns and perhaps fly one is Pingxi (平溪) in New Taipei City.

I have only ever released a sky lantern once. As with most things I do in Taiwan,… it didn’t go to plan.

A good friend took me camping with his family in Miaoli (苗栗) during Lantern Festival. We were part of a large group traveling together. The group had arranged various activities for the children [and the retarded foreigner in their midst]. These activities included the normal things you would expect on a Taiwanese camping trip; loud karaoke on one giant generator-driven TV screen, movies on another TV screen, Mandopop blaring on several stereos, and of course lots of hotpot. As a Canadian, I don’t feel the necessity to overwhelm nature with noise and boiled meat, but they had also planned to release some sky lanterns. Though Pingxi is the place to go, sky lanterns are flown all around Taiwan during Lantern Festival. I was excited.

As the evening wore on, they pulled out the lanterns and invited me to write my hopes for the future on one. Despite feeling a bit awkward, I really opened up and laid myself bare. I poured my soul out, all my aspirations, my deepest and most dearly held yearnings were written on that lantern. I don’t remember everything I wrote, but I know I asked heaven to bring me my soulmate, true love, someone to share the joys and pains of my life. I got some light mocking, as this is not a Chinese style wish, but it was my ambition.

When I had finished, I took the lantern, placed some ghost money in the holder, and lit it. I watched mesmerized as the lantern slowly floated upwards carrying my deepest desires for the future. The lantern rose gently for about thirty feet, where a gust of wind took it and swept it into a tree. The lantern promptly exploded into a ball of flames, crinkled up, pitched, rolled and tumbled to the ground with the slow fiery grace of the Hindenburg. After dousing the blazing wreckage of my dreams, my friend sauntered by, casually threw an arm over my shoulder and said, “Oh well, maybe next year,” and strolled off to help his children with their lanterns. I was devastated. I stood looking down on the smoldering hulk of my lantern for a long time. I felt like Charlie Brown standing under the kite-eating tree. Sigh. Slowly I turned away and plodded back to my tent.

These Chinese folk customs are all very quaint—until they explode into a pile of flaming debris at your feet. I did not find love that year.

Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.

They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.

People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.

Hey Ya It’s Weiya

Weiya (尾牙) season is upon us. Weiya is the banquet held for employees during the Chinese New Year season to show appreciation for their hard work that year. During the course of the year there are several ya’s (牙) in Taiwan, when companies communally pray or baibai (拜拜), make offerings, burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong (土地公) the God of the Soil and Earth. These workplace ceremonies occur on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar month. 尾牙 literally means the tail, or last, ya (牙). Thus, weiya is the final climactic workplace obeisance for the year. Originally in China, weiya was a feast giving thanks to the earth for providing a fruitful harvest. Over time weiya moved from a strict harvest festival to an employee appreciation banquet as there wasn’t a tradition of employee bonuses in China. It developed into a way for business owners to thank their workers and continues in this form to the present day in both China and Taiwan. During the month and a half before Chinese New Year virtually every company holds a weiya.

As with any other festival, religious observance, get-together, or celebration in Chinese culture, food is the most important part of weiya. The boss treats the workers to a banquet and then puts on a show to thank his employees. Often the boss himself will entertain, putting on his own song-and-dance show, embarrassing himself, and opening himself up to light mocking from his social inferiors. It is an interesting example of role reversal in popular culture and parallels Europe’s medieval carnivals. The historian in me finds that intriguing.

Most employers pay performers to provide weiya entertainment. Corporate engagements during weiya season are a great source of work for all types of performers at all levels of the entertainment industry. Large rich corporations may hire nationally or even internationally recognized performers, but most companies hire substantially more modest talent. (I’ve gigged at a couple weiyas, so…you know).

Besides eating and entertainment, the other important part of weiya is the series of lucky draws that occur during the banquet. I suspect that in pre-bonus China, lucky draws functioned as a way to randomly give bonuses. A face-conscious method of acknowledging employee contributions without raising one worker above others. In a similar way, traditionally, employers would point the head of the cooked chicken towards the employee who need not show up next year, a nonverbal face-saving method of firing. [Although, getting fired by chicken sounds brutal to me]. Most weiyas will have both cash (hongbao 紅包) and household items as prizes. Prizes reflect the company’s profitability and can be substantial, expensive sports cars are not unheard of, though washing machines, kitchen appliances and computers are more normal. The cash grand prize can reach into the 6-figures (NT$), even higher during Taiwan’s tech boom. Generally an effort is made to have a wide array of prizes of diverse value to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the company’s various departments.

Like many foreigners I have tended to try to avoid weiya. When I worked at a smaller buxiban (補習班) it was impossible to avoid, but when I moved to my first university I never went to weiya. Most the foreign staff avoided it, viewing it as an infringement on winter vacation. But now, if possible, I always go. It is not painful at all. You just sit around and enjoy a Taiwanese style banquet with other members of your department. And, I’ve won 10,000NT each of the last two years that I was able to attend. Not bad. I’m going for the grand prize this year.