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.