This post is sort of in response to Miro Cernetig’s recent article in the Vancouver Sun. His “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary” is directed more towards those doing business in China. Thankfully, that’s something I’ve never had to endure during my time in China. I hate schmoozing and boozing.
However, the banquets that he describes are something more common in the Mainland of China and not so common outside. At least not in places like Vancouver and Hong Kong.
People in Vancouver have inevitably been to one or more Chinese wedding banquets or the “Full Month” baby banquet. The banquet is a 10 to 12-course extravaganza of food. With appetizer type dishes like the soup or assorted cold meat dish with squid thingies that many Chinese-Canadians affectionately call “rubber bands.” By the way, the soup always comes in at dish number 4. At a major banquet, it’s usually a Shark Fin Soup. In between are the major dishes consisting of various meat, seafood, and veggie dishes. The end of a wedding banquet often ends with a rice and noodle dish…to fill you up in case the previous courses were inadequate. The noodle dish with its long strings of noodle is meant to signify long life and a long marriage. Then there are two desserts that often come at the end of a wedding banquet. There is usually a hot and sweet dessert served in a small bowl, like a hot red bean dessert. There is also the little fried sesame balls that are meant to make you smile. At least that’s sort of what the Chinese name would imply. At the end of a “Full Month” baby banquet, there is also the traditional red egg. It’s just food colouring. Red is the colour of happiness and fortune in Chinese tradition (although some Chinese find it a tacky decor nowadays).
These banquets obviously are not the business trip variety. In China, it is exactly as Miro describes. You also have to be aware of where you end up sitting at the round table. A round table does not mean some Camelot-like equality to all people. The seat furthest in or away from the door is usually considered the seat of honour. The seats then get less `status` as you move closer to the door or outside of the table. (In Canada, we`ve usually just reserve the inside of the table for the kids so that they don`t know the server as she serves a hot dish of food. Plus, servers don`t want the liability of accidentally scalding your child.) For seating, one must jostle to stay away from the seat of honour. The person of honour may even try to put you in the `hot seat`, but you should refuse politely and try to push that person higher up in the pecking order.
I really appreciated my Foreign Affairs Officer dinners. (Foreign Affairs Officers are in charge of looking after the well-being of foreigners at their university or other institute with foreign guests) There was no pretense or business to be done. Just a simple meal and enjoyment of their company. We even humourously did the seating jostle that is usually reserved for more formal meals.
I dreaded any meal with any high up official because of the speeches and the exotic food that would be passed your way. I lucked out because I was foreign looking enough to be invited to these dinners often.
As an English teacher in China, I was sometimes treated to meals by my students. These were usually low-key and within the means of the students. Nothing extravagant. However, there was a lot of toasting. Never leave the meal without having toasted everyone at least once.
A common reason for a social meal is that a Chinese friend may be introducing you to another friend who may need your assistance with something. In China, it`s not uncommon for the foreigner to be asked out for these kind of meals. They may want to ask to practice English with you or to invite you to speak at their school.
For all Chinese meals, wherever you are, you should fight for the bill. Even if you don`t have the intention to pay, you should fight. However, if you relent for paying for this meal, you should likely really try and pay for the next meal with that person. Plus, guests from out of town are almost always expected not to pay. However, still fight for the bill. It`s good Chinese form.