In China, A Meal is More than Something to Eat
In many countries and places, the true culture of the place can be found in the food, but it isn’t always what is eaten, although that is important, that truly showcases the social fabric. How the food is eaten is just as important. As globalization makes the world ever smaller, food may be the last true indicator of an area’s society.
Meal Time in China Conveys the Family Hierarchy
The majority of tables in a Chinese household are round, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place of honor. The most esteemed guest or the head of the household will generally sit in the chair that faces the entrance to the dining area. To the left and to the right of the head of the family will sit the next members of importance, and this hierarchy will continue on around the table meaning the youngest member of the family ends up directly across from the oldest.
Once everyone is seated, it isn’t yet time to dig in. The more traditional families will require the youngest to invite the eldest to enjoy the meal. It is also important to note that the best dishes or favorite dishes will be placed directly in front of the head of the family and the treasured guests. The first person to pick up their chopsticks and begin the meal will also be the head of the family, but once that action has begun, the younger generations can relax and enjoy the meal. Respect and duty have been served.
Etiquette at a Chinese Dinner Table
Wherever you are seated at the table, you should begin your meal with those dishes that are nearest to you. Adding a few morsels to your plate with your chopsticks before passing the dish on to the person on your left or right. No one should dig around in the plate with their chopsticks looking for a particular piece of meat or another item because this is not only very rude, but it is also extremely unhygienic.
At a formal dinner or banquet, there can be anywhere from 12-16 dishes on the table. There will generally be a handful of cold dishes such as fruit or other items typically served chilled or at room temperature. Then there will also be eight to ten dishes of heated food items. If there are items on the table that are very expensive or foods that are considered rare, this is considered an honor to the guests.
In the Chinese household, a family member may show affection by placing a particularly good morsel of food on a loved one’s plate. This is considered the equivalent of telling someone you care about them. People that have a hard time talking about their feelings of affection can generally get the point across in this manner.
At the End of the Meal
Once a diner has finished eating, he or she will place their chopsticks neatly to the side of their bowl or plate. It is considered very rude to leave them stuck inside the unfinished food bits, and it is against etiquette to leave them sticking up from a rice bowl. This act invokes leaving incense on the altar of a dead ancestor, so it is considered rude and disrespectful to do so at the dinner table.
The rules of etiquette may have morphed over the years in the Chinese household, and in any other household in the world, but there is still a lot to learn in the eating rituals of other cultures. Having a meal with a family in China, or even a Chinese household in another country is a good way to experience what it means to be Chinese.