A SOJOURN IN BEIJING: Episode 8

THE POLITICS OF A CHINESE MEAL

There’s a scene in the 1994 Taiwanese film “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” in which one of three single daughters brings her Western boyfriend home for an afternoon meal with her foodie family.

The father has spent all morning in the kitchen preparing, chopping vegetables, as the mother puts the finishing touches on a veritable feast that is obviously an average meal for these folks.

As they sit around the circular table, one of the daughters dutifully compliments her mother on her signature dish.

“No,” the mother says. “It’s too salty.”

The boyfriend, using Western logic that if the mother says the food is too salty, then she really must believe it, chimes in.

“Yes, it is a little salty.”

For which he received a swift kick under the table.

The lesson here: the host can criticize her food creations, and is almost expected to do so, but no one else can.

It’s part of the politics of the Chinese meal, and in Eastern culture in general: You should never be too direct. A delicate indirectness, a coyness, is preferred.

Any savvy interpreter will know what is going on.

In my years coming to China, sharing meals with family, friends and even strangers, I have undoubtedly broken every rule of etiquette in this rather refined world.

Yes, I have blundered. I have unknowingly smashed tradition.

Like a barbarian. Or a bull in a China shop.

My introduction to this culinary world was inauspicious.

I was living in Los Angeles and had just started to date my wife, when she invited me to a dinner with her coworkers from a small accounting firm in Monterrey Park.

I didn’t know it then, but this was somewhat of a marked occasion for her to show off her Western boyfriend. There were expectations demanded of me. I knew none of them.

That day, getting off on the wrong foot from the very start, I wore a pair of Texas cowboy boots my wife later came to detest. I spoke not a word of Mandarin, not even the general niceties.

If there was any dinner conversation, people must have figured, it was going to be in my language.

The food was ordered, the dishes served, as everyone silently watched as I picked up a fork and happily began eating.

No one spoke up. But, later, a coworker gently scolded my wife. “Couldn’t you at least find a guy who knew how to use chopsticks?”

Ouch.

I got better. I practiced. Now, when I eat with mixed groups and watch a Westerner pick up a fork, I almost feel sorry for his Chinese partner.

But the chopsticks stumble was only my first.

The Chinese have their own philosophy of eating. Rather than consuming individual dishes, diners eat family style: large dishes are ordered, from which person takes the portion they want.

There is distinct line between the use of public and private chopsticks. A public pair, or perhaps a serving spoon, is usually presented with each dish, intended to be used to bring the food to your plate.

You never plunge your private chopsticks into the public bowl, any more than you would slide your fork across the table to stab a hunk a meat from your boss’s prime rib platter.

The Chinese tell a joke to drive home the private/public chopstick divide. It involves a host at a restaurant, the guy footing the bill, who ordered all his favorite dishes, using his private chopsticks to serve others, licking them each time, imploring his disgusted guests to “Have more! Have more!”

You get the point.

But that’s what I did at first, allowing my private chopsticks to wander about the table in culinary self-discovery, despite scolds from my wife.

There were other blunders. In large groups, there are a few delicate moments when the dishes arrive at the table. There is a bit of conversation. You look at the food, smell it, and enjoy its presentation. Then, the most-honored guest is encouraged to make the first move, or someone begins serving him or her.

Not when I’m around. Often, I was so hungry, I dove right in before anyone else had a chance to savor the moment. And it got worse: If I really liked a dish, I would often finish it off myself, leaving little or nothing for others. I would often look over at my wife to see her glowering in my direction.

But I also did something worse, something never done in any restaurant anywhere in China. Other than the ones I ate at, of course.

After any meal, the area around my plate resembled a battlefield of dropped food, like a two-year-old had perched there, slinging gruel from his baby chair. But food gets slippery with chopsticks. I dropped things between the public bowl and my own plate.

My crime, often to the silent gasps of my dining mates, was this — I picked them up and ate them anyway. My wife has warned me: In China, and in many developing countries, you simply cannot trust the hygiene at restaurants or any public place. Once dropped onto the table, that delectable little morsel of lamb or beef is as good as gone. You can’t eat it; it’s simply not done.

What people don’t realize is that I am someone who observes the “six second rule.” Even if I drop food onto the floor back home, as long as I get to it within six seconds, it never happened. All is well.

It took me a while, but I finally got the memo. And yet I still look longingly at pieces of food I have dropped. Don’t tell my wife, but when no one is looking, I have scooped them up and bolted them down.

Hey, I don’t waste food. I wasn’t raised that way.

I break rules even after the food safely makes it to my plate. In the art of Chinese eating, each serving is kept separate from the others on the plate, like dabs of paint on an impressionist’s easel. Each bite is separately enjoyed, celebrated for its unique taste.

My plate, to the horror of my wife, usually gets so scrambled, the food shoved around, it comes to resemble a chef’s-special stew, so that it’s often difficult to distinguish exactly what I am eating.

Ah heck, it all goes to the same place anyway.

The Chinese also observe several unique dining habits. When eating in large groups, they prefer private rooms, each with its their own server, a habit that lends an exclusivity to any get-together. Many here can’t believe that high rollers such as American actors and politicians sit in main dining rooms with the rest of the crowd — and that they actually prefer tables where they can be seen.

Hardly exclusive, from the Chinese point of view.

There are other differences: In group outings, the bill is never divided. There is usually one member of a large party who picks up the tab, and who invariably over-orders, summoning too much food, which sometimes gets wasted.

In smaller groups, the scramble to pay the bill often becomes an unseemly free-for-all. I have seen grandmothers slug it out like sumo wrestlers. When we are eating with friends here, and our dining partners get the jump to pay the bill, my wife will often demand, “Do something!”

As if I am supposed to rise from my seat, dash across the crowded restaurant, tackle the person, pick up the fumbled check and then present it victoriously to the cashier.

Ain’t gonna happen. You want to pay that badly, pal, be my guest.

And so, yes, I have played the Western fool at the Chinese dinner table. But every tiny step forward is a battle won.

Take eating sunflower seeds, for example.

The Chinese eat them incessantly, more than Americans eat popcorn or potato chips combined. But there is an art to the task.

You crack the shell with your teeth to get to the seed. Proficient eaters can quickly mow through an entire bowl. My wife, of course, had some early pointers: Never crack the seeds with your two front teeth; always the side ones.

I practiced. I got better.

The other night, we were sitting at home with my in-laws. My wife and I were drinking red wine and we were all eating sunflower seeds.

My father-in-law looked up and complemented my style.

I blushed. Finally, I was doing something right.

A small step forward, perhaps, but the war is far from won.

TOMORROW: The Taxi

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