A few weeks ago I visited Shanghai for the first time. My Chinese hosts invited me to one of the best restaurants, where I baffled the locals with my Western table manners.
CLEARING MY PLATE AT THE ROUND TABLE
I’d barely entered the restaurant when I made my first mistake. Anxious to avoid later disruptions to the meal, I made a point of seeking out the toilets on the ground floor before we took our places at the table. It wasn’t until later that I understood the incredulous looks of my hosts. In China it is considered good form to reserve a table in one of the small single rooms in the upper floors: people like to dine and do business in a discreet setting, with each separate group enjoying its own, quiet space. When I asked why all the tables were round in this restaurant my hosts were probably secretly questioning my sanity. Tables have only ever been round in China – edges and corners spoil the harmony and are therefore considered taboo.
Unlike us, the Chinese enjoy an incredibly varied diet so dishes such as battered scorpions, sea cucumbers and cow-stomach soup were completely novel to me – and just a little suspect. I wanted to err on the side of caution and order something simple. But that plan came to nothing. People don’t order individual meals in China. Instead, everyone orders for everyone else and everything is shared. So the most varied dishes were delivered to the table in unimaginable quantities. To this day I still have no idea what some of the delicacies offered to me actually were.
To avoid offending my hosts, I took pains to ensure that I cleaned my plate regardless of what was placed before me. A fatal error. While my fellow diners took me for an incorrigible gourmand and immediately ordered me second, third and fourth helpings, I was up all night with indigestion. I just realised too late that it would have been a great source of shame to my hosts for me to leave an empty plate. Chinese etiquette dictates that por- tions should never be considered too small.
The Chinese love to eat and take great pleasure in food. Hence the occasional slurping, burping and speaking with a full mouth. In contrast to Europe, noisy eating is not considered bad table manners. The same goes for smoking at the table, but when I blew my nose, which was a little irritated by the smoke, the gleefully gobbling group fell abruptly silent. I had caused my fellow dinners to feel embarrassed. In Chinese society, blowing your nose in public is unacceptable and something you never do at the table – discreetly in the bathroom, if you must. Fortunately my business partner has paid several visits to Europe and was therefore able to correct these errors and other lapses on my part – such as sticking my chopsticks in the rice – so that I escaped by appearing tactless and without suffering a complete loss of face. And why tactless? The way I used the chopsticks is only permissible at funerals.
I will soon be off on my travels again. I look forward to discovering new customs and I hope to have learned something from the many slips I made in Shanghai.