…Or, how I likely made an ass of myself at dinner.
For the unaware, last Tuesday (August 13) was Qixi, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. While many lovebirds in China spent the night with their beloved and/or searching for their beloved, the head of my department at CAUPD took me and other staff and interns out to dinner. While I suspect the purpose of the dinner was not romantic, I imagine it was to show appreciation for the work that the team has completed over the past few weeks. Regardless, there was a great deal of celebration, including food and drink. While this all may sound pleasant enough, one must mind their manners when out to a formal dinner in China!
To start, seating in China is incredibly important. The host will take their seat at the head of the table, or in the case of a round table (most common in China), at the seat facing the door. From there, the guest of honor is invited to sit at his/her right, and the rest of the guests are seated by their standing in the hierarchy with more important people closer to the host.
Wouldn’t you know it? I was seated at the host’s right side. Fancy schmancy!
The next thing that came was the toast. As in the US and many other countries, in China, the host will start the night off with a toast to the celebration, guests will then clink their glasses and drink up. As the waitress came around with tea and drinks, I noticed she set a giant bottle of beer right in front of me. I was under the impression that this bottle would be for me and my immediate tablemates, but it seems that it was my personal bottle of beer. Well, that’s fine, I like to wet my whistle from time to time… However, as the toast progressed, I realized there is not just one toast in China, but toasts are continual throughout the meal.
THIS! This is where I suspected I would be in a bit of trouble!
As I drank to honor the first toast, I was met with another toast from a tablemate, thanking me for the presentation I put on earlier. Well, thank you, too! And not more than 5 minutes later, I was toasted yet again by another one of my tablemates. You are also very welcome! I didn’t know you were so eager to learn about skyways and underground cities! Unsurprisingly, another tablemate came up and thanked me for my presentation and welcomed me to China. I’ve been in China for 6 weeks now, but yes, thank you! And pretty soon, my bottle of beer was empty, consumed wholly on an empty tummy. And magically enough, there was another bottle of beer in front of me! Oh! For me? You shouldn’t have!
And yes, I was soon feeling the effects of all the toasts.
For better or for worse (for me, it was the latter), the conversation soon turned to more academic matters, such as urban planning practices that Chinese planners can learn from their American counterparts. I was knee-deep in a circular rant about organic farming, government subsidies for corn production and the ever-present question of why people are going hungry when there is enough food produced to feed everyone. The two fluent English speakers at the table had to ask a number of clarifying questions of me as the conversation continued to circle. “But why are people still going hungry?! CARS?! WE FEED CARS! PEOPLE! PEOPLE NEED FOOD! CARS?! And GMOs. Don’t even get me… Organic food is good. Monsanto. Bad.”
Luckily for me, other than the two fluent English speakers likely picking up on the fact that I was not making a great deal of sense, the food arrived and acted as a distraction to my fading rants. And luckily for me again, I am somewhat adept at using chopsticks so there were no noticeable effects from all the previous toasts. SCORE ONE FOR ANNA!
The night progressed with more cheers, good food (thankfully, the food was able to quell the effects of the continued toasts), and plenty of discussion (no longer nonsensical by thanks to the presence of food). We then got the bill, and began to pack up. However, as it was Qixi, the waitress brought a box of mooncakes for the host. He then directed her to give the box to me! ME?! REALLY?! I proceeded to say that it was too much, and questioned if it should be given to me. They told me to have it, and I obliged. Upon consulting Wikipedia, I should have made more of a fuss and refused even further, but I was assured by the English speakers at the table that I did just fine.
All in all, I had a lovely night and learned what it’s like to go on a formal business dinner in China. Lessons to learn? Make sure you can handle your booze, if not, refuse politely. Know how to use chopsticks. Try not to get too into discussions about agricultural practices. Refuse any gifts, but then eventually accept. Then when you’re alone in your hotel room, gorge on the delicious mooncakes.