Traveling abroad affords foreigners ample opportunities to explore the cultures of societies other than their own. For those who intend to conduct business in foreign countries, learning cultural traditions may be a necessity rather than an option. This is particularly true when dining in China, where great importance is placed upon dinner table etiquette. Although the Chinese are aware and forgiving of foreigners who are not well versed in traditional dining habits, visitors who take the time to learn them will experience much greater comfort in Chinese social interactions.
Never point or gesture towards others with chopsticks in hand. Tapping your chopsticks against dishes signals impatience (and it’s thoroughly annoying). Leaving chopsticks sticking upward from a bowl signals a death wish for fellow diners, so try to avoid doing this!
Chopsticks should be laid evenly, parallel to each other on the side of the plate or bowl when not in use. Chopsticks should not be set directly on the table. The more informal the environment, the more you can relax this rule.
Elders have social seniority in China. Allow your host to determine the seating arrangement. Seating arrangements are a big deal in China. Do not partake of food or drink, other than tea, until your host has begun eating.
Pass food to older people before serving yourself. Always serve food from the side of the serving dish nearest to you. Do not use personal chopsticks to serve food from shared dishes in the center onto personal plates. There are usually chopsticks just for serving food to others. This is more the case in southern China.
Respect your elders during a toast by keeping the rim of your glass lower than theirs when glassware meets. Accept the food and thank your host when he serves you from the table center. Leaving a very small amount of food on your plate lets your host know you’ve eaten plenty (you might see Chinese take this to extremes in Shanghai where plenty of expensive food is left to display status and wealth).
Slurp your Tea
Elders should be served in order of seniority. Always receive a cup of tea with both hands. Tapping gently on the table with two fingers or tapping twice with index or middle finger says “Thank you.” This practice is also used to say “Cheers”. Covering the top of your cup with your palm indicates you have had enough tea, while touching the rim of your cup says you are ready for your visit to end. Slurping tea is actually not rude in China, but to the contrary, communicates enjoyment. This is the case with soup as well as other dishes. So slurp away while you’re in China!
Dining is a great time for camaraderie in eastern culture, just as it is in the West. Try to keep the conversation light, and enjoy the wonderful dining experiences that China has to offer!