Chinese Dining Etiquette: Table Manners And The Polite Art Of Eating

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.

Strict table manners can sometimes make us feel on the sidelines. Chinese pasta | Weekly Photo Challenge: Edge.

Strict table manners can sometimes make us feel on the sidelines. Chinese pasta | Weekly Photo Challenge: Edge.

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 with stereotypical Chinese company, it is often polite to greet each other and share dishes.

Eating with stereotypical Chinese company, it is often polite to greet each other and share dishes.

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.

There is always something familiar and comforting eating Chinese, and eating with the same people in general.

There is always something familiar and comforting eating Chinese, and eating with the same people in general.

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.

When you share a meal together, we learn to get along a bit more.

When you share a meal together, we learn to get along a bit more.

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?

Related posts

Advertisements

303 thoughts on “Chinese Dining Etiquette: Table Manners And The Polite Art Of Eating

  1. I was never taught the details. I just knew if I was in trouble. Often I’d find chopsticks whacking my knuckles.
    We never toasted but Dad always had his seat. I would always finish everything and I still bring my bowl to my mouth.
    I feel extremely uncomfortable when around nonChinese at a Chinese meal or any meal for that matter if people are poorly behaved. Especially children. I’m afraid that as much as I love cooking and eating I’m often happier alone because no one can annoy me with sticking their chopsticks into food or using them as drum sticks. Even with a knife and fork I cringe when I see someone eat tines up in their nondominant hand.
    It’s the curmudgeon in me. I will die alone hopefully at my table eating a bowl of jook 😃😋👍

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, yes. I have eaten Chinese cuisine with Chinese people. My husband’s family. And made a fool out of myself doing it!

    I almost dropped my hard-earned chopsticks when Andy’s tiny little grandmother belched. No one else noticed. 🙂

    So the seat facing the door is at the top of the hierarchy? That makes sense. (It’s different in western culture, what with the rectangular table and the patriarch generally seated at the head of the table.) Whenever I go to restaurants, I always want the seat facing the door. I never even thought about it, until I dated a police officer who complained that I was in his seat.

    Apparently, all cops prefer to face the door as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep. Seat facing the door at a Chinese meal and you are deemed ‘important’. You could see that in a good way or bad away. Interesting to hear the cop wanted to seat facing the door as well. Maybe he was still in police mode when he took you on dates. Maybe he wanted to keep an eye out for the enemy he was after, or the enemy who might have been on his back.

      Like you, I like to sit facing the door. I just like to be prepared if anything horrible comes through the door. Maybe it sort of says that we are strong woman.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this blog Mabel! So well written and it taught me a lot about Asian dining etiquette. I had no idea that it was honourable to seat grandparents where they can see guests coming and going. I also like that the tables are circular so everybody can have clear view of everyone. It really symbolises the togetherness that emerges from sitting down to a meal. I loved reading about the yum seng being drawn out as you toast. It’s nice to put differences and troubles aside for the sake of a unified lunch or dinner. Love it! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve always preferred round tables over rectangular ones – it really makes you think how it is not just about eating and food, but the company that goes along with it all. Usually many Chinese love toasting with a glass of something alcoholic, but non-alcoholic drinks are just as acceptable too. Thanks for always supporting, Bec ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Mabel, thanks for sharing about your culture. Unfortunately I have had no interaction with the Chinese – you are the first! 🙂 Food in India is a big deal, with more and more people preferring to eat out and with the older generation frowning on the practice. I wouldn’t say that we have too many etiquette constraints (perhaps it would have been better if we did!) mostly because going out to eat is a rather recent concept. In India what we do have are a lot of dos and donts regarding what one can or cannot eat, depending on the region and customs and traditions followed. Most if not all festivals (and there are lots) are associated with fasting and come with their own menu cards and recipes from which all types of meat and often the usual wheat and rice grains are banned (the ‘real’ followers of tradition go without any food or water). Seeing this trend (and a dip in the footfall), many big chains have started offering “fast” foods on these occasions. In fact this year, Domino has declared that during the upcoming 9-day long festival it will offer ONLY vegetarian food across 500 outlets in India.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mabel,

    Thanks for sharing the perfect Chinese ways of eating. I never got an opportunity to eat in such a traditional manner with the Chinese but many of these etiquettes are common with my culture. Western ways have slowly crept into table manners, many of which are aped from the Britishers. Eating together as a family is getting lost in the digital world people prefer these days. I wonder how many families still manage to eat according to their set rules and cultural rituals. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Western ways have slowly crept into table manners” This is such an important point to bring up, Balroop. It’s also a point I think many of us overlook. Eating a meal before everyone else’s food arrives, taking a whole dish for oneselves are just a few of them. Hopefully when we get to sit down to meals together, we learn to appreciate them more these days, especially when your closest ones live far apart across oceans. I’m sure you know what I mean 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Edge: Wind Mill | What's (in) the picture?

  7. I really enjoyed this explanation of the customs. I haven’t eaten with Chinese. But waiting for everyone to be ready before beginning the meal is not foreign to me. As we grew up saying grace, you always waited for everyone then said grace before beginning. I’d also heard of the chopsticks one. I always like to know customs when I travel so as not to make an unintentional faux pas. When we were in Thailand, we learnt that you eat with the spoon and use the fork to push the food onto the spoon. Putting the fork in your mouth was equivalent to putting a knife in your mouth. We gave this information to our son when he spent 8 weeks in Thailand as part of a Year 9 program. He told his fellow students but many ignored him. He was chuffed when his Thai teachers saw him eat with the spoon and nodded and smiled at him. A little understanding and respect goes a long way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes. Saying grace. I’m not one who says grace at meals but have had some friends who do. When they do, I just silently look down at the food.

      I actually never knew that putting a fork in one’s mouth is undesirable in Thai culture. Very respectful of your son to keep this piece of knowledge up his sleeve. He must have been the Thai teachers’ favourite.

      I don’t know about you, but usually when I’m eating with a group of people or a culture I’m not familiar with and I hardly know anything about it, I tend to observe how they approach their meal before following suit.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In addition to waiting until grace is said, my father always sat at the head of the table and my grandfather sat at the other end at holiday meals. Dessert was never even mentioned until at eating utensils were laid down after the meal. No one stood to leave until it was certain that all people at the table were done eating. I still behave this way when at other people homes or at a restaurant. Sometimes I get strange looks.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I always end up smiling when I read your posts Mabel 🙂 Thanks for that. I have not been to a traditional Chinese dinner, but I have been to dinner at Vietnamese friends house and they seem to have the same respect for meals. I love a good family meal and ours are usually loud and busy, with lots of “please pass me the gravy” , “are you going to finish that” etc 🙂 Cheers Mabel and Yummm Ssseenggg 🙂

    Like

    • Sounds like your Vietnamese friends were very welcoming of you and I’m guessing the food was great 🙂 Ah, typical Chinese meals are usually loud, people talking over one another, shouting stories across the table at each other, lol. Your family sounds like a very polite bunch. Would love to dine with you.

      And I always smile at your comments, Andy. Very nice yummm senggg you did there. You held it very long. Very competitive, and just the way it is in my family 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. An excellent post, Mabel. I love the quotes.

    I was astounded when I first went out for a meal with my half-sisters. Whoever was the eldest on the table placed the order, without asking the rest of us what we would like to eat. In their family, the women do not have a say in family matters. Shocking!

    Wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So interesting to hear that it’s ‘normal’ for the elders to order without anyone’s consent. What if they order all spicy dishes and someone can’t it all that… It is that way in my family a lot of the time who are big fan of spicy – sometimes I’d only be able to eat half the dishes ordered.

      Happy Mid-Autumn Festival to you too, Traveller. Hope you’re doing well and thanks for sticking around.

      Like

      • My eldest half-sister is not an adventurous eater and she will only order food that is familiar. When she first had home made sushi, she spread the wasabi thickly on the sushi rice. She cannot eat spicy food. It was quite a sight!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Lol. I hope she managed to eat that wasabi and sushi. There is something comforting in eating familiar food. It hits the spot, it can hit certain emotions and bring back certain memories. Maybe that’s why Chinese banquets tend to serve the same food over and over.

          Like

  10. “Sticking chopsticks upright in a bowl” – I do that all the time!
    “Slurping one’s food is not rude” – You have to slurp, especially if it’s rice noodles.

    I have bad table manners: In Norway (perhaps in the West in general?) it’s considered impolite to burp. I don’t give a shit. It’s natural to burp, that’s why we force babies to burp after they eat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, Cardinal. You sound like the type of person who enjoys your food however you want too. Okay. each to their own.

      That is so true. Babies burp, so why can’t adults. I have bad table manners too. I tend to drop my food all over the place when I use a fork and spoon, which is pretty much every day.

      Like

  11. Very interesting and other than a few small things, similar to the table manners I was taught growing up. Waiting for everyone to be served and for the cook or host(ess) to start eating was a big one; to this day I find it terribly rude when people start wolfing down their food before everyone has something to eat. Growing up, we were each served our own plate, but nowadays, so many cuisines encourage sharing that this is dying out a bit, especially in restaurants. The only part of that I was not used to when I was in China was everyone sticking his/her used chopsticks into the serving dishes and eating right from there (we would still serve with a serving spoon, even when sharing). Slurping from a bowl close to the lips seemed unpleasant when I first encountered it, but understanding the reason behind it (no spilling or waste) makes it a little more palatable to my western eyes and ears! Finally, seat of honor or not, I always like to face the door … in my case, I think it’s that I don’t want to miss anything!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like we share very similar backgrounds, Lek 🙂 I am okay with people gobbling down their food before everyone has arrived or my food hasn’t arrived – provided if everyone is okay with it.

      I too have encountered many Chinese using their chopsticks to grab food straight from the dishes as opposed to using a common spoon even if it is there! Maybe it is laziness, or maybe some are just ‘dirty’ that way and don’t mind.

      Maybe where we want and choose to seat at a table in a restaurant is a reflection of our personality. Maybe if we like sitting facing the door we like to be in control or at least things to be in order.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I have been around lots of Asians throughout my life, but I don’t think I ever had any meals with them other than with Derek and his family. Usually when I go over to Derek’s place on a Friday night, we sit at the table and eat while his mom, dad and sister sit in front of the TV and eat. I’ve never questioned this. lol. Usually his mom gives me a fork although I am capable of using chopsticks so I do not query this either. Usually when we go to functions, everyone just dives into every single dish that comes and there doesn’t seem to be much etiquette involved.

    That pasta dish looks incredible! Did you make it? 🙂

    PS Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is nice of Derek’s mom to give you a fork. Very thoughtful but I suppose by now she knows you can use chopsticks 🙂 Interesting to hear that some Asians just go for the dish as soon as it arrives. Maybe they are competitive, wanting to get the best bit and best piece of food 😀

      Yes, I made all the pasta dishes myself! Slowly and surely they are getting more flavourful 🙂

      Like

  13. I have some Chinese friends who let me in on their family’s culture. I not only had the pleasure of having authentic Chinese cuisine, but also the privilege of participating in engagement and wedding banquets. What long meals they were – lasting more than a couple of hours. Each one began with cold cuts… there would be pigeons at some point. I almost always avoided them because the bird was too bony and I did not like the MSG. I looked forward to the buchi, and almost always sighed with relief when the rice came. I was glad for the meal to be over no matter how delicious and enjoyable it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have some very nice Chinese friends there, Imelda. Oh yes. Chinese banquets can be very long, definitely can be up to two hours. Sometimes three if the portions are big. The dishes come out one by one, and the next dish comes after the whole table has finished the dish on the table 😀

      I love buchi, or sesame seed balls as they are also known. Along with this dessert, thick peanut butter soup is a popular dish served along with it. Don’t know if you have tried it. I love it.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Should tell my dear mother-in-law that the purpose of having the bowl so close to the mouth is to not spill the food. I am not lying when I say that she basically lies with her upper body on the table with the mouth on the bowl. However in the end of the day it appears half the food is either spilled on the table or the floor and another quarter smeared all over her face (and sometimes hairs Oo). Even Nathan eats more “clean” than her these days.
    I personally like these family gathering as we do not exactly have something like this in Germany or Finland. Sure every once ever rare decade we have a family meeting but there are no real rules of traditions to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find your MIL’s eating habits quite unbelievable. I thought food in the hair only happened to kids. Maybe when she lies down on the table (maybe trying to sleep on it, I don’t know), her long hair gets stuck in the bowl and picks up food. I imagine she is the type who likes to pick the best bits of food for herself…and then drop it on the floor.

      You know, you could always organise a big family dinner once a year….or maybe it could be too stressful…

      Like

  15. Mabel having read this I am filled with concern that I would do absolutely everything wrong. I ad not heard of all of these traditions and it seems like they have been strong guidelines for a very long time. Should a time come I would be such a situation i would hope for your guidance. At the least a cheat sheet of what absolutely not to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having traveled and eaten across the world, Sue, I am sure you would be fine if you ever ate a big Chinese meal one day. I’m guessing you have not been shoe-ed away from the dining table when you traveled and ate among and with locals 🙂 I would gladly assist you if needed. You just need to watch me and follow my lead 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  16. When I was at home with my parents, we almost always had dinner together. That was the rule even if, as a kid, I wanted to keep on with whatever else I was doing at the time. Looking back, I’m glad we had that time together and indeed, I still go home to have lunch with my parents and brother after church on Sundays. We sat in the same seat not for any superstitious or hierarchical reasons but purely out of habit. There would be occasions when we changed seats, so there’s no sense of superiority or inferiority there. Even at extended family gatherings, the only seating convention was that kids and adults tend to eat at separate tables – and that’s purely for pragmatic reasons, we couldn’t put tables together to keep everyone in one place. And, of course, the children will want to sit together because they don’t want to listen to boring adult conversations. (:

    Regarding waiting for everyone before starting to eat, it might not be so formalised but I notice this even in Western contexts. Having lunch with friends or colleagues, we will often wait for everyone to be ready before starting eating, simply out of politeness I presume. But if the orders are served in such a way that some people are left waiting longer than others, we are often invited to start eating ‘before the food goes cold’. In a smaller family context, we will usually collectively give thanks to God before eating so often we will wait for that first.

    One point of difference I do notice is that we (Asians) do tend to serve from common dishes. I notice in Western contexts that meals are usually served individually, even if they’re being distributed from a common dish in the first place (before reaching the dining table). Also, while it’s important to finish what’s in your bowl or plate I remember Mum remarking that her mother didn’t like those common dishes being finished off at the dinner table. As I understand it, the scraping of the dishes (to make sure there’s nothing left behind) implies that there isn’t enough food to eat. We don’t take it that way, in fact on the contrary we consider this to be good because it means food isn’t going to waste. And on the point of waste, I notice in Western contexts that people will throw away left-over food quite readily while we would tend to collect left-overs for the next day. It makes sense to me to make the most of what you have, especially considering that so many in the world don’t have enough to eat – if anything at all!

    And yes, it’s interesting that some habits are considered rude in some cultures but polite in others (slurping and burping)!

    PS I think you meant ‘altar’ rather than ‘alter’. (:

    PPS I’m used to eating dinners with a spoon and fork, which seems to be different from most Asian (chopsticks) and Western (knife and fork) eating habits!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you, as a kid I had dinner at home with my family a lot. As you said, it was a kind of an unspoken rule. In a way it was like a ritual. Maybe our parents wanted us to have some grounding, something to go home to each day after school.

      I smiled when you pointed out sometimes we start eating because we don’t want to the food to get cold. So true. It reminds me of the times when my dad made a fuss when white rice served to him was, well, lukewarm and not piping hot. I don’t know if anyone in your family does this, insist that rice served must be hot and steaming?

      I also smiled when you mentioned your mum not being a fan of common dishes being finished off. I take a practical stance on this and am on your side on this one 🙂 If there are leftovers from a Chinese banquets including the pig’s head, my relatives are fond of taking it away and giving to their dogs to eat.

      Such an enthusiastic and robust comment, Simon. And very sharp too. I will now correct the spelling error. Too many of these!

      Like

      • Maybe. We also tended to have dinner quite early (compared with most people I know) – at around half-past five. Mum is an early riser so she gets hungry early, plus the food is ready, plus Dad would often come home in time for dinner too, so it was a good time for him to rest after the commute back.

        I think that’s a concession (getting started before others to avoid food going cold) that usually happens when eating with friends. But occasionally if Dad was running very late, we would start dinner without him too.

        Wow pig heads. We didn’t go that far with big extended family gatherings – Mauritian cuisine is a mix of Chinese, Indian and other things anyway. But pork crackling is a favourite. Left-overs there often get shared around afterwards too.

        It’s okay to make mistakes, don’t worry about it. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

        Like

        • Well, Simon, I must say I think I take the mantle for having early dinners. I like to eat dinner at around 4.30pm – that is if I don’t have to work regular hours, think weekends and holidays 😀

          Ah, pork crackling. That is big in my family too. Crispy pork skin is a must if we had barbecued pig or barbecued pork. Sometimes at Chinese banquets, we would have a whole pig head and just the crispy skin. No meat, just that.

          I would love to try Mauritian food some day but haven’t seen too much of this cuisine in Melbourne. Always love chatting with you, Simon 🙂

          Like

          • That is quite early indeed! On my own I tend to eat dinner whenever I feel like it. Which tends to be later more often than earlier.

            Just the head and skin… wow!

            I honestly don’t know what typifies Mauritian food, but I hear gateaux piment a lot (literally chilli cake but it’s a savoury snack that can be enjoyed without the chilli). Dhal puri is also very popular but it’s not unique to Mauritius. There’s a Mauritian café near one of my aunts in Brossard, Québec, which was quite nice, but I can’t vouch for those in Melbourne, sorry. I don’t know of any in Sydney either…

            Like

  17. In answer to your last question, yes! I have! Lucky me. My daughters are both acupuncturists, and when once I visited the eldest, a group of mainland Chinese faculty took some students – I was invited along – for dimsum in San Francisco. Holy cow, was it an experience! So many people – so many tables! All huge round tables with yes, the Lazy Susan in the middle. Carts came around and the faculty selected for all of us. Chicken feet and blood pudding and other more recognizable foods were displayed and distributed. So glad I had this chance, for I might not have another. I’m pretty much vegan these days, so rice would be pretty much all I could eat 😉 Great post, Mabel!

    Like

    • It is so nice to hear that you enjoyed that dim sum experience. Love how you described it – it is exactly how I experience it each time. I bet all of those tables were packed very close!

      Usually the waiters pushing those carts are very polite and it always amazes me how they have the patience to stop at each table and make eye contact to see if anyone wants anything. There are quite a view vegetarian options at dim sum actually – like the bunch of greens, some dumplings, baos…I’m sure there are vegan dim sums around too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I think all cultures have rules or etiquette about eating together with other people. I know that many of these are similar to how I was brought up. Especially the no one starts eating until everyone is seated. Being made to feel bad for food that was left on the plate, we were given there are kids starving in Africa speeches. It is bad manners to eat with your mouth open, to wave your knife and fork around, there is even etiquette about how to hold them. It is interesting. good post Mabel.

    Like

    • Very good points. In my Chinese family whenever we have banquets there will always be food leftover, and that will always be taken-away either for the dogs or for our meals the next day. Waving your cutlery around is not only impolite as you said, but it can also be dangerous – who knows what will happen if you let a knife slip from your hand. Thanks for dropping by, Leanne.

      Like

  19. Very interesting! I enjoy learning about different cultures. Swedish and American dinner customs are very different as well. It’s more formal in Sweden. You always eat with fork and knife, even small kids. You sit straight, arms by your side. Everyone sit at the same table, taking turns etc. I miss that. I enjoy the “sharing” part of a meal.

    Like

  20. This is why I’m glad I married a Chinese woman. None of this needs to be explained. It just feels so natural.

    When I dated Western girls, pointing out these differences every time and hoping they’d embrace the diversity was like living an episode of Star Trek where nobody has heard of the Prime Directive.

    Like

    • I like the Star Trek reference. Very clever. It is no doubt hard to explain Chinese eating habits to someone from a different culture. Funny how quite a few Asians are okay with eating Chinese the Chinese way and eating Western the Western way, but funny how some Westerners can only seem to do the latter. I suppose we’re all just simply different. Maybe there’s more to it, but we can only speculate.

      Like

  21. So nice to see this beautiful post, Mabel, it reminds me of my childhood 🙂

    I could relate to many a practices followed in Chinese culture while having our food.

    Though we had many do’s and don’ts during lunch/dinner, nothing was that strict in my home.

    Now, it’s even worse with the new generation 🙂

    We were supposed to sit right and should not support our head with our hands even we were sleepy.

    Now a days, families are getting smaller and only objective of parents is to feed the kids, whatever circus the play in and around the dining table 🙂

    Even I do the same… kids are too pampered now 😦

    I do feel that all these old practices should be followed in a friendly and not too serious ambiance, practicing discipline really matters, and it should begin from home 🙂

    Yea, I really like Chinese food, and when we were in Bangalore, we used to dine at least once in a week, in a Chinese restaurant.

    But, they do serve an Indianised version of Chinese food anyway 🙂

    Also, I never got a chance to sit and dine with a Chinese family yet, may be when I come down under and visit you and family, I can have that experience, he he 🙂

    Have a beautiful day Mabel 🙂

    Like

    • So many valid pints, Sreejith. You sure know how to unpick my thoughts and the topic at hand 🙂 I think you are right in saying that families are getting smaller and kids are more pampered these days. You know, so many of us bring our mobiles phones to group meals and will look at it as we eat – we are “there” eating a meal and also “not there” so to speak.

      I am sure you teach your kids well. You are very level-headed and I am sure you are just being humble 🙂

      Indianised version of Chinese food. I have never heard of that. It sounds….adventurous and maybe it is Chinese food on the spicy side. Maybe it is something worth trying if I do visit India. Then again, perhaps you will be recommending me authentic Indian cuisine instead.

      Nice to hear from you, Sreejith. Lovely to see the happy-face maestro back. But this time I notice a sad face. A first from you. Hope all is well. Take care, my friend 🙂

      Like

  22. Very interesting and dining habits are in a way extension of the culture. Familial ties, respect to elders, patriarchy and focus towards hierarchy are some notable things from the Asian world. People change and become over open as generation changes I guess. If I see my parents, my Mum serves hot food to Papa first and comes and sits to eat. While at my place, we eat together. Just a sign of how people are changing.
    Enjoyed reading your post and it’s so well researched.

    Like

    • Thanks, Parul. You are right in that people change and as they change, so do the food they eat, their eating habits and so eating etiquette. Your mum serving Papa first that reminds me of how my mum always serves my dad piping hot rice first, even if he is just pulling out his chair at the dining table. Very interesting. Indian and Chinese culture are similar in more ways than we think when it comes to dining.

      Like

  23. Very interesting post Mabel. You share my grandmother’s beautiful name. I love learning of your traditions and it reminded me of my own youth. My father sat at the head of the table facing the door. Mom to his left and I to the right. No one ate or touched their plate until everyone washed their hands and joined the table. Dad started the meal and the bowls were passed. No clanking of silverware was allowed. Love that your family carries on the Chinese traditions. When my children were young we always sat at the table together and no one left until everyone was finished with their meal. Family meals are far and few between. Your post reminded me of how I miss those meals sitting at the table with family sharing a meals. I hope that you are able to carry this tradition on to future generations because it provides a feeling of belonging and learning to be compassionate for others in our lives. Looking forward to the next meal that will be shared with my grown children and grandchildren.

    Like

    • Good to hear too that your family observes dining tradition. There is always something comforting about sitting together and having a meal, where everyone agrees to finish their food. It might sound like something trivial, but at the end of the day we all wait for a meal. We wait until everyone is ready – sort of like the timing has to be perfect for everyone to come together. And that is what makes many a meal of company special. You make it work. Hope you have many more cozy family dinners to come.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Fascinating post as ever, Mabel. It’s always interesting to read about the different customs and traditions surrounding food. I also enjoyed reading the points made by some of your commenters about their own experiences too. In the Karyudo household, eating any kind of cuisine can quickly become like feeding time at the zoo if my kids get their way. I’m not sure the Lazy Susan would work in our case. Getting my sons to share a chocolate bar is hard enough, never mind an entire meal.

    Like

  25. I eat with Chinese people all the time :p It’s different for sure but easy once you get the hang of it. I now have two different eating styles – with chop sticks and with fork. I act very differently depending on the tool. The seating is always an issue as my laowai status makes me a defacto guest at all meals. I constantly fight to not sit in the seats of honor (facing the door). It gets old explaining that you’re not special to coworkers, friends or in-laws.

    Other advice for non-Chinese diners at a Chinese meal…let’s see…don’t eat all of the food as it is rude (meaning they didn’t feed you enough). Chewing (and talking) with an open mouth is totally OK but takes some getting used to. Oh, and when toasting, low cup shows the most respect. Aim low and keep going lower!

    Like

    • Haha, so you get ushered to the best seats at the table 😛 I’m guessing your acquaintances want to pump you up, making you feel like an important person or trying to get you on their good side.

      Lol. When you finish your food it is always an opportunity of the Chinese to order another round of dishes. Or drinks. I actually never heard of the aim low toasting convention. Interesting. I have no problem with that, though. I am short with in height with short arms 😀

      Like

      • Haha, indeed. It is a good excuse to order new food. My mom was just in China and was taken out to several ‘with the in-laws’ banquets. Of course, more food was order despite everyone being completely stuffed. She was so confused. “why do they keep ordering food!” and I had to explain that the dinner isn’t finished until a whole bunch of food is wasted.

        I have a post on my blog explaining strategies for surviving a Chinese banquet with heavy drinking involved. It’s called Chinese Banquet, a survival guide – you might like it (and be extra happy you’re a girl. Banquets are brutal on us boys). I’d post a link but I don’t like to link to my own stuff on other peoples blogs.

        Like

        • Your mum should be very appreciative of the food coming her way. It is great when you get a lot of food to eat, but another thing when it is all paid for 😀

          I checked out that post on your blog. I love it. Thankfully I don’t drink – and wouldn’t have been able to handle the competition physically anyway.

          Like

  26. It seems a wonderfully social way of eating, Mabel. 🙂 My husband always eats swiftly and then jumps up to do the washing up before I’ve even finished. 😦 We have an elderly Chinese neighbour who is very sweet. She’s always passing over apples from their tree because they don’t like apples. Lost track of how many apple pies I’ve made this year 🙂 Hope you’re having a good weekend.

    Like

    • Your husband is so kind to start washing up even before you have finished. My mum does that too with every single family meal. I have mixed feelings about this, though. Usually the point of a meal together is to relish the company together, so I understand your sad face 😦

      Also, very kind of your elderly Chinese neighbour. She should just move her apple tree and plant it in your yard 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Hmmm, I think my family is messier than yours Mabel. Anyway, there were basics…re use of chopsticks, I also learned how to lay the table with chopsticks etc., eating from the imaginary pie slice portion in front of oneself, for a shared dish with others on the table, etc. We didn’t pass shared platters of food around table when I grew up. That’s actually quite Western practice.

    But that’s pretty all the rules.

    Like

    • Laying the table. Such an important point. In a traditional Chinese meal, you usually need to position a plate, a bowl, chopsticks, chopstick holder, a paper napkin, a spoon in the bowl and an empty glass for each person. There’s always a pattern to that. Just like there is an art to eating, there’s also an art to setting the table.

      Don’t know about you, but my parents thought me how to set the table while I was a kid.

      Like

      • Our table had no rm. for glass, plate plus bowl at same time for each person. 8 people had to be accommodated in the kitchen. So soup had to be served truly “separately”.

        Like

  28. Wonderful story – and your photos are lovely; the meal looks delicious.
    Does Taiwan count as China? I have not been to mainland China but did have meals at round tables, sharing dishes on lazy susans, when dining with my friend and her husband and their group in Taipei. We visited with her when he was working there (years ago now). Those were the best meals I’ve ever had. They thought I was just complimenting them when I said so, but I meant every word.

    Like

    • My pastas tasted delicious. At least to me. Thanks, Sandy.

      Taiwan is separate from China…so probably not, haha 😀 But it did sound like had Chinese meals with lovely and generous Chinese company. I don’t know if Lazy Susans are are a thing in the States. Probably not.

      Sounds like you sampled a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine when you traveled over there 🙂

      Like

  29. Very informative post!! I’ve spent my whole life eating at Chinese restaurants, with my family (we are Korean), and Chinese friends. I always wondered why the tables were round, and now I know! 🙂 Totally agree with you about the lazy susan thing, though I’ve been in some restaurants where they made a GIANT lazy Susan on the table, so everyone could reach no problem. 🙂 In Korea, a lot of the traditions are very similar, with one notable exception. You never lift your bowl of rice to your mouth to eat. And now I’m very curious as to why…?

    Like

    • Haha, for the longest time I wondered why tables were round too! GIANT lazy Susan – now that is a great way to distinguish between the smaller ones. Sometimes it can take up two people to lift one of these giant ones, lol.

      That is SO interesting to hear that in Korea you don’t lift your bowl of rice to your mouth :O Maybe it is rude and it’s just that. Maybe it is a sign that you are greedy and rushing to eat your meal, I don’t know…

      Like

  30. I love the name “lazy Susan” and it was very interesting to read about its story in that link. Thanks!

    I’ve experienced some different customs from the ones you describe: many times, I will be the one in charge of ordering the food! (As the “guest”, I guess). When we eat out with C.’s parents, they always hand me the menu.

    Like

  31. What a wonderful conversation here with all these comments. It is so interesting to read of everyone’s experiences. It was only recently that I was invited to a Chinese – Malaysian birthday party, and it was only when I saw the photos afterwards that I realized I was the only blonde head at the table. I was unsure of the customs but reading your post has helped it make sense, and most of it is just about being polite. It can sometimes drive me nuts if one of my adult kids leaves the table when others are still eating as I think that is rude! They didn’t grown up with that, so it seems that somewhere along the line our table manners have been diluted!!

    I really think all tables should be square or round. It would make for easier conversations with others! And sharing a meal and conversation is the best thing about family or group dinners. Great post, Mabel.

    Like

    • I really feel very humbled reading all these experiences. Very eye opening to hear about some of them and realise how similar a lot of us are. You must have felt very welcomed at the Chinese-Malaysian birthday party. Sounds like you didn’t feel like a sore thumb being the only Westerner there and the host and the guests accepted you for who you are. You don’t have to fit in in order to enjoy a meal.

      “most of it is just about being polite” Really a thought-provoking way to describe dining etiquette. I think it’s also about being mindful about the way others react to food and how they consume it. Either that, or maybe we want to please someone and get into their good books. At Chinese wedding banquets that are all about business, often this is the case – for instance, if you toast heaps and drink heaps, the Chinese are more inclined to see you as worthy and a worthy connection.

      Yes, agree that conversation makes a meal all the more better. As I mentioned to spiritofdragonflies, it takes something for people to come to eat a meal together – certain people gathering together like it’s meant to be. And that is what makes a meal with company all the more special.

      Like

      • Well, thanks for the heads up if I ever go to a Chinese wedding for business reasons! I will know to drink heaps!!! Although intrinsically that might go against my grain. It might be difficult for others to do the “polite” thing if it contrasts with one’s own values. Perhaps i would find a happy medium between the two extremes to maintain politeness. As I said, a great conversation. What an excellent way to spread awareness and understanding! Well done, Mabel.

        Like

        • If you ever do go to a Chinese wedding, I’d encourage you to mix up your drinks – toasting with alcohol beverages and then discretely changing to non-alcoholic ones. You will last longer in the competition 😉

          There really is nothing like great conversation and coming together. Food is usually secondary when it comes to enjoying a meal together with the ones that matter to us.

          Liked by 1 person

  32. The part where you shared about the taboo of sticking chopsticks upright because it represents worshipping the dead hits a chord. My college teacher – who’s a Canadian – did exactly just that, and it frightened her dance student until the poor girl almost jumped out of her skin. The Canadian teacher eventually said that she wasn’t aware of this custom at all.

    My parents, however, never really instilled the Chinese customs in me – like the use of chopsticks or seating arrangements. Yes, we may be a Chinese-Malaysian family, but I was more comfortable with the fork and spoon. I know how people would 夹 the fish ball from the soup, but I tend to stick the chopsticks into fish ball first (partly because I’m never good at it?). *covers face*

    I don’t know, I just find it weird/rude that someone starts eating before everyone has had the chance to make themselves comfortable at the dining table.

    Like

    • It really must be a shock to the Canadian teacher too to see the student so scared. You live and you learn. But it really isn’t practical to stick chopsticks upright in a bowl – they’d probably topple over at some point.

      Growing up my parents insisted I learn to use fork and spoon first. Chopstick came shortly after. I’ve never actually stuck my chopsticks into a fishball like that…I find that hard, actually. Lol.

      Like

      • She was alright once the student explained the reason to her. My parents were okay if I wanted to use fork and spoons, but the problem would always arise whenever we needed to stay at relatives’ houses. A particular aunty could sense that I wasn’t good with chopsticks because I couldn’t speak proper Cantonese and Mandarin back then, so she’d always make sure that there’s a spare pair of fork and spoon for me. (My parents are good with chopsticks, though.)

        I know right, it used to embarrass my parents so much whenever I do that.

        Like

        • Your aunty sounds very understanding back then. Not all of us can use chopsticks. Some of us might have fiddly hands and can’t simply get chopsticks to work. My right thumb doesn’t have a good grip and can’t grip things well, and using chopsticks for a long meal does make this thumb tired.

          I wonder if my parents are embarrassed that I don’t hold my chopsticks properly. Hmmm.

          Like

  33. Mabel, I love the way you have highlighted the nuances of Chinese dining etiquette. You surely have an eye for details. The use of lazy Susan seems like a very practical concept as it saves the trouble of getting up for servings. You have quoted brilliant quotes in the post. I particularly like this quite a lot “Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners.”
    The post also reminded me of the time when I had been to Shanghai for a project and prior to that we were briefed of Chinese etiquette. Honestly I could never manage to use chopsticks, and still can’t. When my family had joined me later, I found that my daughter could easily eat using chopsticks.

    Like

    • You are right. The Lazy Susan is a practical concept for sharing dishes around a table. One doesn’t have to stand up and pass the dishes around so often. I don’t know if Indian culture uses it. Maybe, maybe not.

      Maybe your daughter can teach you how to use chopsticks. She sounds very smart 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  34. Another interesting post, Mabel. I think most of the time I got into trouble was because I didn’t hold the rice bowl right. Apparently we were not supposed to let the bowl sit on our hand. I would be yelled at if my parents couldn’t see my thumb from where they sat.
    I, too, don’t understand why you don’t lift the bowl to your mouth to eat. Wouldn’t that be easier? 😉 It took me a while to learn how to eat with a plate instead of bowl, since I couldn’t lift the plate to my mouth. Ha.
    Have a great day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “we were not supposed to let the bowl sit on our hand” I think this is a very good way of describing how to hold the rice bowl. I think your parents are right. Whenever I have to hold my rice bowl, I have to put my thumb over the rim in order to steady it. Holding the bowl in my palm isn’t just as steady 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  35. Dear Mabel
    There is another round table symbolic Oriental restaurant because the circular table, everyone can see each other’s face, no one will be ignored, so let family or friends feel emotions become a very important thing such as food it good? Good or bad mood?

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I think the yum seng thing is more of a Malaysian/Singaporean-Chinese thing than say a China/HK-Chinese thing. I’m HK-born but grew up in Australia, and it’s not something that I’ve seen done in China or HK when celebrating; people do toast and say, or shout, “yum bui/gam bei”, but they don’t hold the words.

    On the other hand, I attended a Singaporean friend’s wedding in Singapore a few years ago, and that’s when I first knew about the yum seng. The yuuuuummm seem to last for ages, and I think it was really interesting and added to the atmosphere of the occasion.

    Like

    • Interesting to hear. ‘Yum bui’ is also something my family and/or extended family/close family friends say a lot when we eat out together. There can be many ‘yum bui’s’ throughout a meal. With my family, sometimes when a new bottle of alcholic beverage is cracked open, it is time for another toast.

      Yummm sennnggg never really does get old. It is always fascinating to watch and participate in.

      Like

  37. I’m half Chinese and the only grandparents I had were immigrants from Hong Kong. There were a lot of dinners but never any with chopsticks for some reason. I assume my grandparents wanted their children and grandchildren to embrace the western culture. However, all of the proper forms of etiquette you mentioned I somehow knew about. I feel like I was told about them as a child, or it’s just part of my blood to know. I can use them, but my mom (who is Chinese) can’t.

    We ate a lot of jook, truckloads of it by now.

    Like

    • Like you, I grew up using fork and spoon first, and then chopstick. Perhaps my parents did want me to fit in with Western culture. Nevertheless, I do like using chopsticks and it feels weird to not use chopsticks when I’m eating noodles – with the exception of spaghetti.

      I love jook, especially when it is creamy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ramen is made specifically for chopsticks; life isn’t complete without the addition. I haven’t used chopsticks for quite some time now because I’ve only been eating spaghetti.

        Creamy jook is comfort food. Lovely dish to consume on a rainy day.

        Like

  38. Chinese dishes are immensely popular in India, especially Kolkata. Though all the Chinese restaurants do not authentically follow the Chinese manners you have mentioned here, but I find a stark similarity between Chinese and Indian table manners. Perhaps you know, elders are much respected here also for the same reasons you have stated, and they are given the most comfortable seats. Everybody has to adjust with them at the dining table. We also wait for everyone to be seated and then, most of the times, the eldest member requests everyone to start eating. I think there are some basic similarities between different Asian cultures. Whenever I read your posts, they enlighten me about other cultures and society. Thank you for that…. 🙂

    The pasta looks quite inviting…it seems you are a pretty good cook as well… 😀

    Like

  39. A wonderful post, Mabel! I have been dining with Chinese people but more in international theme. I have been to Chinese wedding with Chinese food served and I remember the amount of food is a lot! It’s just like they should serve food to guests with unlimited food 🙂

    Like

    • You are right. Lots of food at Chinese weddings, and there can be up to ten courses. Also, drinks seems like unlimited too. It is acceptable to eat and eat and drink and drink at many Chinese meals. Prepared to be stuffed 😀

      Like

    • Butir-butir kecil hitam? Aku tak nampak butir-butir hitam too 😀 Tapi hidangan ini ada brolkoli, lobak-lobak, ayam, capsicum, cendawan dan “pesto” – pesto tu yang gelap hajau tu. Pesto ini ada tumbuhan basil, kacang, keju, bawang putih dan minyak zaitun.

      Aku masak hidangan ini, termasuk “pesto” itu. Terima kasih, Wadiyo. Jumpa lagi.

      Like

  40. I wish I had known that the first time I ate with Le’s family. I think I offended everyone that day 😀 But I will pay more attention for my upcoming trip to China ! Also I have noticed that each time people were drinking they were saying cheers then everyone stop to do cheers and drink together. Is it common as well ?

    Like

    • Hahaha. I don’t think Le’s family minded how you are with them or else you wouldn’t still be with him today 😀 I think that cheers is quite common, that the drinking part is usually silent for a few seconds. Now that you mention it, I wonder why. Then again, you can’t talk and drink at the same time.

      Like

  41. I’m pleased (I guess) to announce that my family does not adhere to all these traditional dining etiquette sh*t. We’re pretty much anything goes these days. Although when we eat out these days, I guess because it is either me or my brother paying every time, my dad would just sit back and let us take charge.

    Also, I’m sorry to say your Chinese pasta is not very Chinese at all. Where’s the meat? No meat = peasants level! Not Chinese at all! 😀

    Like

    • Your family sounds very relaxed. It sounds great. My dad would usually get rather agitated at things like the rice not being warm enough or if we finish all the food in the end.

      The meat in the pasta bowl(s) is at the bottom of the bowl. The veggies are more beautiful to look at. My kind of food presentation = lots of colour 😀

      Like

  42. great article, mabel. i am chinese and do a fair amount of chinese cuisine with chinese :), you definitley have all the chinese dining etiquette points covered to the hilt, especially for an official/festive/celebration dinner. the food can be a little oily for me at times but a few yummm seng will wash it all down :). regards, ken.

    Like

  43. Mabel, this post is very well timed! I’m going to a big Chinese dinner with my boyfriend’s family (they are Chinese) soon and I will use the advice you’ve given me. I won’t start eating until everyone is seated, for example. Thank you!! (I also found it very interesting why the table is round rather than rectangular). xx

    Like

    • I hope you had a great time at the Chinese dinner. There would have been lots of food, and also lots of laughter. The preference for a round table is certainly an interesting phenomenon – rectangular edges can also be sharp, and in feng shui anything sharp isn’t auspicious.

      Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts. Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.