Food for Thought by Mike Revzin
When I first moved to China, I found the waitresses annoying. They would bring a menu and just stand there, waiting for me to order.
“Why are they so impatient?” I would think. “It takes time to look at all the choices.”
Equally annoying, often times they would only bring one menu per table.
After I had been in China for awhile, I learned – from observing and by talking to people – the explanations for the things that I found annoying.
A waitress who handed me a menu and then stood there was waiting in case I had questions, such as which fish or vegetables were freshest. For the Chinese, this sometimes turns into a lengthy, involved conversation.
When Chinese go out together for a meal, they are less likely to split the bill than we are. One person is more likely to be the host, order the food and pay for everything. That’s the reason for only giving one menu. (In a casual situation, such as colleagues of an equal rank having lunch together, they do split the cost, and usually each person gets a menu.)
Some table manners that we would consider rude – such as spitting fish bones onto the table – are perfectly acceptable. But some gestures that we wouldn’t even notice would be culturally taboo. For example, you should never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice – that is how Chinese honor their ancestors at shrines by symbolically leaving food for them.
In major hotels in China’s more cosmopolitan cities, you can usually get the same kinds of meals that you eat back home. But, in places that mainly cater to Chinese visitors, you might have to be more adaptable. Breakfast might consist of dim sum dumplings or fried breadsticks; tea might be the only beverage, despite the many Starbucks you’ve seen elsewhere in China.
All this is not to say that, in restaurants in China, things can never go wrong. You can politely point out a mistake, for example, if the waitress brings the wrong order. The main thing to keep in mind when dining in a foreign country is that “different” does not mean “wrong.”
Photo Source: Mike Revzin
Mike Revzin, who worked in China as a journalist, operates ChinaSeminars.com to help American businesspeople learn about China. Follow him on Twitter @MikeRevzin.