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A Lesson in Etiquette – Dining Chinese Style

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There’s nothing more appalling, I say, than having your dinner ruined by the poor table manners of your guests. Or, by the lack thereof, of those dining around you.  G-d forbid you’re guilty of any of these dining sins!  Then you really need to read this article!!  In this public service announcement, you, and those you share this article with, will learn the fine nuances and proper dining etiquette when eating Chinese food.

Proper Chinese Dining EtiquetteWe’re most honored that the world renowned expert of all things “Etiquette”, Em-Mee Lee Post will share her knowledge (at considerable cost to us, I must add!) with us, and we in turn extol their virtues to you.  Kindly commit all these etiquette rules to memory, so that the next time you’re dining out at a Chinese restaurant (if necessary, please print a copy of this article as a cheat sheet), you’ll make the dining experience of those around you more palatable.

By Em-Mee Lee Post

Using Chopsticks (click to view video tutorial):

  • Avoid holding the chopsticks in such a way as to point your index or (worse) middle finger at the other diners, as this is a sign of anger or censure.
  • Chopsticks should always be the same length and held so that the ends are even, a practice popularly explained as due to the former use of uneven boards in Chinese coffins.
  • Similarly, do not leave chopsticks sticking upright out of dishes, owing to a Chinese practice of leaving such dishes for the dead.
  • Do not chew on the ends of chopsticks, even if they are plastic.
  • Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates.
  • Do not bang your chopsticks as though you were playing a drum. It implies you are a beggar or a child.
  • Treat chopsticks as extension of your fingers. It is impolite to use them to point at other people or to wave chopsticks around.
  • Unless they are disposable, chopsticks will be washed and reused. Consequently, don’t use them to pick at your teeth or for other unseemly endeavors.  This is why, we on The Chinese Quest, will often bring our own chopsticks!
  • Avoid spearing food with the chopsticks.
  • One should not ‘dig’ or ‘search’ through one’s food for something in particular. This is sometimes known as “digging one’s grave” or “grave-digging” and is extremely poor manners.
  • When not in use, and if the restaurant provides them, place the front end of the chopsticks on the chopstick rests. These are usually small ceramic rests placed near your napkin on the right hand side of your bowl.

Splitting the Bill:

Paying the BillGuests should not truly “split the bill” with the host. A guest who “splits the bill” is very ungracious and embarrassing to the host. If you do not accept the host paying for the bill, it is implying that the host cannot afford it or you do not accept the friendship or hospitality of the host.

However, it is expected for the guest to offer to pay for the meal multiple times, but ultimately allow the host to pay. It is also unacceptable to not make any attempt to “fight for” the bill. Not fighting for the bill means you think that the host owes that meal to you somehow. Therefore, if you are the guest, always fight for the bill but never win it on the first meal in your host’s hometown.

Other Tips (no pun intended):

  • Leave the ordering to the host.
  • For food and tea, always serve from oldest to youngest and yourself last.
  • The proper way to pour tea is by holding down the lid.
  • Tap with two fingers as someone is pouring for you to show appreciation.

    The tradition of tapping one’s knuckles on the table is based on a Chinese folk tale. There was an emperor who decided to travel around his empire in disguise with two aides to see the country. One evening, the emperor and his two aides were dining together at a restaurant. The two aides were very nervous because they had never eaten with the emperor.
    When the tea arrived at the table, the emperor personally served the tea to his two aides, who wanted to kowtow to the emperor to show their gratitude but doing so would have revealed the emperor’s identity. Instead, each took his right hand and formed a fist and stuck out his index and middle fingers and bent them at the first knuckle, like knees. Then, they tapped the knuckles on the table to signify their kowtow to the emperor.

  • Pouring for everyone before yourself means you run out of tea a lot. Signal for more by turning over the lid or propping it ajar.
  • When making toasts, holding your cup with two hands is a sign of respect.  One handed toasts signals laziness and disrespect. 

Humbly submitted for your consumption,

Mee Magnum  (“Chop!  Chop!”)

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