August 15th, 2012

Dining in China: Mastering a Communal Meal for Business or Pleasure

by Jacqueline Whitmore

By Jorie Scholnik, Guest Blogger

A typical Chinese banquet.

This summer I had the opportunity to accompany Santa Fe College’s study abroad program to Beijing and Xi’an for two weeks. One of the main differences I observed between the United States culture and the Chinese culture was the proper way to dine.

When our group sat down for a meal, we all had our individual rice bowls and chopsticks, but the food dishes were placed on a Lazy Susan. The Lazy Susan would circulate, and everyone at the table would have to share. Based on this experience, I have put together some communal dining tips so you can feel comfortable eating a meal in China with friends or colleagues.

1. Look around before you spin. There will be multiple people around the table placing food in their bowls as the various food dishes circulate. Make sure that everyone at the table takes enough food and has removed their chopsticks before moving the Lazy Susan. You may want to ask, “Is it okay with everyone if I rotate the food now?”

2. Make sure everything stays on the Lazy Susan. If you move a food dish closer to your rice bowl in order to help yourself, place it back on the Lazy Susan so that the next person can take some food after you. Also, when placing a dish back on the Lazy Susan, ensure that the dish doesn’t stick out. You will avoid a lot of spilled drinks as a result.

3. Resist taking the last bite. It is proper etiquette to leave the last bite of food on the main dish and not eat everything in your rice bowl. In China, clearing your plate signifies that there wasn’t enough food provided which could unintentionally offend the host.

4. Practice patience while the food is circulating. If you want more food from a dish, wait until it circulates to you again. Make sure everyone has a chance serve themselves and taste the food before getting a second helping.

5. Keep it clean. If you have a cold, never place your personal chopsticks into the main dish. Either help yourself to your food at the beginning or request a serving spoon so that others aren’t exposed to your germs.

6. Sharing food doesn’t mean forcing someone to eat everything. Don’t force someone to eat something. Even though you are abroad, people may still be following certain dietary or religious restrictions.

7. Learn how to properly hold chopsticks. Practice makes perfect. Test your chopstick skills with food at home before you go abroad. If you are still having trouble, politely ask the server for a fork. The server will only bring out a fork upon request.

Jorie Scholnik currently works as an assistant professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, where she teaches career and etiquette classes. She has also been working under the direction of Jacqueline Whitmore at The Protocol School of Palm Beach for the past six years. She earned her master’s degree in counseling and her undergraduate degrees in public relations and psychology from the University of Florida. She did not try any scorpions while in China, but offered to take pictures for the other students who did.

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