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Lefties in the kitchen

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Many years ago, as part of my academic environment duties,  I was required to invigilate examinations. You know. Those people who stand there making sure you aren't cheating.


It was and I'm sure remains the most boring job on earth. You stand there for up to three hours or more, watching candidates write down the wrong answers. To maintain impartiality, we never invigilated our own subjects, so I did all sorts of exams, none of which I understood, but I still knew how to recognise a wrong answer.


There was always more than one of us, the total number depending on the candidate count. To relieve the utter boredom, we played games.  I came up with an idea. I told my fellow invigilators that I would tell them how many people were left-handed in the room within 1 or 2 and they could bet with or against me.  I always won. (The bets were non-financial. More like "if I win, you go get the next round of coffees'.) It was always 10% lefties.

Later as some of you know , I moved to China, where, at first I worked in a similar environment. Not one student was left-handed.


Before you think this is well away from being on-topic in a food forum, let me say this has a huge impact on food culture. Here is what I wrote on the subject many years ago.


If you are  working in China, at some stage, you  will be invited to a banquet.  Despite recent attempts by the communist party to curb excessive use of public funds on banquets, they still happen, albeit more quietly and less often than in the past.


There are a few rules to remember if you want to survive the experience.


1. Arrive on time. This will give you the opportunity to sit on a sofa and study the décor while you wait for everyone else. Then, as they arrive, you will have the opportunity to watch the other guests sit around eating sunflower seeds and throwing the shells on the floor as they wait for the host (or top man) to arrive.


2. Wait to be told where to sit at the main table. Get yourself comfortable and wait to be told to move to another seat. Once everyone has finished arguing over the seating plan, prepare to move again when three unexpected guests join the party and everyone has to shuffle up to accommodate them around the table (this is always circular, designed to sit ten to twelve guests but usually manages fifteen.


3. If you are left-handed, make an excuse and go home. No-one in China is left-handed and the condition is considered to be dangerous. It is impossible to eat with chopsticks if you are left handed as you will continually crash into the guy next to you, sending food flying everywhere.


4. Wait till the top man says eat, then eat a little and put your chopsticks down. This is not really the start of the meal, but a test to check that everybody can find a pair of chopsticks and that no-one is left handed. 


5. Top man will then propose a toast. If you're lucky he will do this in the form of a speech less than ten minutes long. Take your drink, bang your glass against everybody else's round the table, and say 'Gan Bei'. This means 'empty glass' which is what you will have in your hand by the time it gets to your mouth. Consider yourself lucky. The glass probably contained Bai Jiu, a spirit made from rocket fuel flavoured with essence of vomit.


6. Now eat. Do not worry that there are only twenty dishes on the table for a party of fifteen. Your hosts will proceed to drink themselves under the table with endless toasts, leaving all the food for you to enjoy. 


7. Interrupt your eating every now and again and wave your glass at a random guest. This is called toasting. If you can make a twenty minute speech in any language at all, then you will be regarded as an all round good guy or gal.


8. When your hosts put the head of the fish and the feet of the chicken into your bowl, SMILE. This is a great honour. At least that's what they tell dumb foreigners.


9. It is a good idea to pause in your eating and offer everyone at the table a cigarette. If they tell you they don't smoke, try to educate them as to the benefits of smoking. (It is no accident that the Chinese for "banquet" and "cigarette ash" only differ in tone!)


宴会 yàn huì (banquet)   烟灰 yān huī  (cigarette ash)


10. When some unknown, drunken idiot crashes through the door and insists on toasting the entire room, don't worry. This is the restaurant manager.


11. When you have managed to get through all the dishes, do not despair. Another twenty will arrive.


12. If you are drinking beer, do not eat rice at the same time. The Chinese believe this is extremely dangerous. Rice should only be eaten after beer. Then it should be shovelled into your mouth as if you are expecting all rice to be confiscated  forever in thirty seconds time.


13. When suddenly, for no apparent reason, your rice is confiscated and everyone leaves, this means the meal is over. Go home.


If  I have posted this before, then  I apologise, but not convincingly!

I can't begin to imagine how it would be for a left-hander working in a busy Chinese restaurant. Chaos.


Edited by liuzhou typos and clarificatiuon (log)
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Very nice summary, @liuzhou. This accurately reflects my experiences with banquets in China* as well (though I wouldn’t be able to put it as eloquently).


*except Xinjiang, of course, where things are just odd.

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10 hours ago, FauxPas said:

@liuzhou, left-handedness is definitely not viewed very kindly in some cultures/countries. I do hear that left-handed Chinese table tennis players are seen in a very positive light though. They are thought to have an advantage. 





Yes, but remember it is not so long since the forcing of left-handed children to use their right hands to write was common in the UK and possible elsewhere in the western world. Certainly, within living memory. I remember a primary school classmate being scolded for just that.


As the article mentions the Chinese for 'left', 左(zuǒ) also means, among others, queer (not in the sexual orientation meaning); unorthodox; heretical; wrong; incorrect; different; contrary; opposite etc, just as the English 'sinister' is derived from the Latin for 'left'.


It doesn't however mention that the same Chinese word is also a common family name, where it is not seen negatively. Always dangerous to confuse etymology with meaning.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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