I am still in the throes of working out table etiquette here. It is similar to home, but when you sit at a table with someone you cannot communicate with, it’s a bit tricky. I had to ask Alex this morning to clarify the rules.
The word ‘san’ is Chinese for three, and it is pronounced like the word ‘sun’. Last night Alex did not come home for supper so it was me and his father. Shrimps were on the menu. Good, hot, tasty shrimps. But we were sort of shuffling the plate to and fro between us. There were not a lot of them, maybe a dozen or so, and I was really enjoying them. But his father did not eat any. This became the difficulty. Should I eat them all? That would be really greedy. Should I offer them to him? I did, but then he refused. But often he will not eat something until the end, and then finish off whatever is left over. Did he want to keep them to the end and have them then? I didn’t know and due to language problems I couldn’t ask.
So these seem to be the rules for table etiquette.
Eating with strangers.
This is a little more formal. In normal circumstances you would eat a little but not too much of each dish. You would then offer it back to the others. Remember too, that these are communal dishes that everyone just helps themselves to with their chopsticks. But you would gesture to say ‘you have some’ etc, a fairly universal sign language.
At first, when it was offered back, it would be refused…you don’t want to seem pushy or greedy. But then you would offer it again, and they might take some, with a face that says, okay I will have some to please you, and thanks very much. This would continue on, to and fro until all the food was gone, or until you were full.
I think that if you were with strangers and just sat there are ate the whole dish of something, especially a delicacy, you would be considered pretty rude.
Generally, entertaining is done in a restaurant and I think maybe it is not so common to cook a meal for guests in your own home. When eating in a restaurant with strangers, one person or family is the host and does the ordering. To show hospitality you order heaps. So if there were ten people you would order for fifteen or so. You never want to look mean or stingy when entertaining guests, it is part of the culture. And it is similar at home, if we take guests out, we never want them to leave the table still hungry.
When we first came to China it was common to see large tables of people, who once their appetite was sated, would leave, but with the table still laden. Today, I am pleased to see ‘da bao’, ‘the bag, in use, that is, food is put in containers and some of the left overs are taken home. Food wastage here when dining out seems excessive to me, although in the home people are very careful with food quantities. I had some Chinese friends I would eat out with regularly, and it took me a long time to educate them to buy just enough for us but not overdo it.
Eating at home.
Here the rules are more relaxed, but last night I just wasn’t sure what to do. I enjoyed the shrimps. I ate about 3 or 4 then offered them to the father but he refused. I had some more, eventually eating about 8 or 9 of them, leaving 3. After all, enjoying them and being a greedy pig are two different things. I thought maybe he would eat them at the end of his meal, but no, there are the three sad little shrimps still on the table for breakfast and they will be there for lunch and dinner too if they aren’t gone beforehand. So apparently, I could eat them all if I want to. I should eat some, offer to the others or leave for the others, but if towards the end of the meal they are still there, it is okay for me to eat the lot.
Often there are some really good dishes on the table but I feel terrible if I eat too much of it. So now I know what to do next time. It’s all a learning curve. Lol.