When it comes to eating in Chinese culture, there are quite a few dining etiquette rules one should be mindful of. It could be eating with a Chinese family at a boisterous Chinese banquet. Or it could be a more casual dining affair with Chinese colleagues from China over business lunch.
Coming from a stereotypical Chinese-Malaysian family, these Chinese eating customs surrounded me all my life. I’ve always found them odd to be honest, but always found myself sticking by them.
Eating around Chinese people with a traditional mindset is arguably an art in itself. More precisely, this tends to entail watching the way one behaves before and during meals together.
There is usually a ‘pre-determined’ seating arrangement at the Chinese dining table, a marker of hierarchical and patriarchical family structures in Chinese culture and a reminder of one’s place at home. Usually grandpa, grandma or the parents tend to take the most venerable seat at the table, namely the seat that faces the door which gives them full view of who comes and goes. This is reminiscent of the notion of honor. In Chinese culture, elders are deemed wisest and so deemed more deserving of respect or to loosely put it, to have earned ‘the best view’ and perhaps ‘watch their back’ more desirably too.
Growing up in Malaysia, dad took the family to yumcha downtown Petaling Street each Sunday. We usually got seated at a table for four against a wall. “Sit inside,” dad always firmly and rather brusquely instructed me. I would slide into my designated chair, inches away from the oily tiled wall and dad sat next to me. “Now. Let me order the food,” he would say in the same commanding tone, determinedly looking up and down the aisle for the dim sum pushcart.
Before one starts eating around Chinese company, it’s customary to wait for everyone to be seated and for someone to invite everyone to tuck in. In Asian cultures, a meal is a chance to recognise and take stock of the people in our lives. Togetherness, family and guānxì (关系 / connections) are virtues in Asian culture; there is peacefulness in togetherness so to speak. “Sik. Lei sik” (食. 來食/ Come. Let’s eat), is what my grandma always said to signal the start of extended family dinners. She would then scoop boneless bits of yellow-skinned chicken (白切雞 / bái qiē jī) for us kids.
Eating the Chinese way, one is constantly reminded about age-old Chinese superstition. More often than not these dining superstitions on how to eat are subtle reminders to be thankful for the present and food to eat. Sticking chopsticks upright in a bowl is frowned upon as it resembles joss sticks at the altar – symbolic of death which is a taboo topic among stereotypical Chinese. Banging chopsticks together – symbolic of beggars begging for money and being out of work is shameful to many a Chinese family.
Hold one’s rice bowl close to their mouth as they eat – food won’t fall to the ground. Earning one’s meal through hard work climbing the career ladder is prided upon in Asian cultures. As my mum constantly said to me over dinner as a kid, “Finish your rice”. If I didn’t and had some left in my bowl, she remarked across the table, “There’s still some rice here”. Consequently, showing appreciation for a meal is common Chinese dining etiquette. Slurping one’s food is not rude, just as asking for another serving is not impolite either especially if it’s a ten-course meal served up.
Sharing is caring and it’s an affair at Chinese meals, in line with the notion of togetherness. At many Chinese banquets, tables are round as opposed to rectangular. No matter where one sits at a round table, they can see and communicate with each other better. The concept of circle (圆 / yuán) is symbolic of union (团圆,tuán yuán; reunion) and the moon (圆月, yuán yuè / full moon) – two important lifestyle and cultural markers among Chinese people. Also, very rarely is a single Chinese dish eaten by one person themselves; each dish is generally shared and put on a revolving table or Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Interestingly enough, the Lazy Susan arguably is deemed no more a Western novelty. With my small stature and short arms it’s hard for me to even reach dishes placed right in the middle of a Lazy Susan meant for a table for twenty – someone always has to push the dishes across to me. They have to be nice.
For some of us who don’t believe in superstition, these so-called Chinese table manners might come across as ludicrous. This includes me. I don’t put my bowl close to my mouth, but I do try not to spill my food all over the place. I can’t see why I can’t start eating the moment I sit at the table, but I still let the folks give direction before doing so when I’m eating with them. Why? It just feels…right.
Chinese dining etiquette is more than just unspoken cultural rules and routine. It begets a sense of ‘coming home’ as others wait for us to be seated and serve us food that they cooked or bought. Likewise, we might not mind one bit waiting for others to be seated, sharing food all round and respecting our elders at the table – all in all we’re greatful for the company around us. Eating with Chinese company, we come to be a bit more selfless and maybe realise that it’s never always about oneself but others around us too, keeping us grounded. As novelist Laurence Sterne said:
“Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners”
A typical Chinese meal together is a meal of company. The etiquette rules pull you to be a part of something: it’s about being different but being sincerely, wholeheartedly willing enough to share the same values for a moment together. As part of many bigger Chinese meals (think reunion dinners and wedding banquets), it’s usually customary to toast to the occasion, what we like to call and actually shout the words ‘yum seng‘ (飲勝 / drink success or gān bēi / 乾杯) as drinks are raised in the air. The louder and longer the yum seng, the more auspicious it is touted to be. I never really took much of a liking to it. At each extended family dinner, I’m usually the last to stand up for the yum seng toast, last to raise my glass of tea…and as if on cue, everyone else around the table will burst into a deafening chorus of yummm senggg – which can go on for a minute or more like this Chinese dinner.
Eating is a daily affair. It can feel mundane if we eat the same dishes with the same people regularly, even if it is just once at year at a certain time of the year. But though we may not feel excited gathering to eat together, our sheer presence at the table does matter. When we sit down for a meal together, there’s an unspoken agreement to be together and put aside our differences for a moment, no matter where we’ve been and what we’ve did. As author Emily Post said about treating others:
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
Each time I look around at the rest of the family shouting yummm senggg at the top of their lungs, my mouth twitches upwards ever so slightly. There’s something special about sharing and being a part of a typical Chinese meal. It’s uplifting to say the least. And fun. Each time my family drags on the yummm senggg in unwavering rousing unison of a chorus, I hold my glass of tea up a little higher, twitch turning into a smile. Always.
Have you eaten Chinese cuisine with Chinese people?