I always chuckle when I visit the Hall of Clocks and Watches in Beijing’s Forbidden City, which features gifts to Chinese emperors presented by foreign envoys. In Mandarin Chinese, the words “give a clock” (song zhong) can also mean “sending one to one’s end.” For this reason, traditionally, clocks and time pieces are not considered the best choices as gifts for Chinese friends. Diplomacy without language comprehension or an understanding of proper etiquette can pose challenges!
As a student of China, I loved using the Mandarin skills I had to navigate cultural differences with Chinese counterparts. However, language alone doesn’t always help. As with all cultures, body language, actions, and rituals convey more information than words alone. And when it comes to eating and drinking, the Chinese are emperors of protocol! Certainly, formal banquets are different from a casual meal with friends, but generally, here are some tips that help me keep my relations with the Chinese untainted by faux pas:
• At a banquet, hosts and guests have very clearly defined places at the (usually) round table. The host always sits in the seat facing the door. His or her guest of honor sits to his or her left. To the host’s right, the next important guest is seated (or the interpreter if there is a need).
• If toasts begin, make sure to lift your glass so that it touches below the rim of the person’s with whom you are toasting. This is a sign of respect.
• If you have had enough to drink and your hosts are insisting on another “gan bei” (dry your glass: a shot), say the two words “sui yi” (as you wish) and take a modest sip. This is usually something women can get away with more easily than men and it indicates that they respectfully decline to down their glass.
• Always leave something on your plate to indicate you have plenty to eat. Make it clear that you consider the meal very ample. This gives your host “face.”
• If the dinner is not a banquet, when the bill comes, it is customary to fight noisily over it with the other party, and let the party who did not pay for your last meal together pick up the tab eventually. But you need to put on a good show of it! This play-acting takes place regularly in Chinese restaurants across the world. You’ll know it’s your turn after the next meal—and fight.
• When your guest leaves the banquet hall or restaurant, the host should walk them out to the door, often repeating “man zou, man zou” (go slowly).
Many of the more traditional protocols are fading with China’s more relaxed approach to relations with foreigners. However, erring on the side of formality is never a problem in a country whose pride in its heritage and traditions runs deep.
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