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Chinese Banquets - A Survival Guide


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I wrote this a few years ago and have updated it since, but still relevant.

 

If you are visiting, or especially working, in  China, at some stage, you  will be invited to a banquet.  Despite attempts by the all-powerful 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 decor 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 (it's always a 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 '干杯 gān bēi'. This literally 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 白酒 (bái jiǔ), a spirit made from rocket fuel flavoured with essence of vomit (see below).

 

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  for ever 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.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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On 9/27/2020 at 2:12 AM, liuzhou said:

The glass probably contained 白酒 (bái jiǔ), a spirit made from rocket fuel flavoured with essence of vomit

 

Sounds like it gives Malort a run for its money.

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Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

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4 hours ago, weinoo said:

Well, I'm lucky, being left-handed and all.

 

IMG_9537.thumb.JPG.78cd2256e4f93f5aacd12cac497cf206.JPG

 

And drinking Malort!

Another proud member of the Left Handed Universe!  My chopstick skills are pretty fine for a lefty white guy.  Even our Asian friends say so!

 

Though that looks like a full bottle....get to drinking, lefty!

 

 

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My sister is left handed. She does fine at these. She has to adjust a bit depending on seating closeness. Not that different from knife & fork. 

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2 hours ago, TicTac said:

Another proud member of the Left Handed Universe!  My chopstick skills are pretty fine for a lefty white guy.  Even our Asian friends say so!

 

Though that looks like a full bottle....get to drinking, lefty!

I had just come from the liquor store up the block with that bottle! We were in Chicago on a late November road trip last year (seeing Elvis Costello and the band in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison), staying at a little hipster hotel called the Robey, on the final night of the trip. So I figured I'd bring a bottle of Malort back to NYC with me, in order to disgust people here.

Edited by weinoo (log)
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Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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2 hours ago, TicTac said:

My chopstick skills are pretty fine for a lefty white guy

 

I didn't say chopsticks can't be used in the left hand. In fact, I can use them in either hand or both hands simultaneously. My party trick.

The problem is the crowded banquet table.

 

Anyway, my whole post was very tongue-in-cheek.

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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Nice guide, very funny!   I remember that spirt. We drank a decent amount on our trip.  Reminded me of the worst bottom shelf vodka w just a whisper of sake.  One night, after a few too many shots, I remember my vision blurring and thinking I might go blind.

 

Always wished to get invited to a meal like this but it doesn't appear likely given burb's life and limitations on meeting new people.  The kids are our only hope. I encourage them to be-friend anyone who isn't American, especially Asians, for just the chance to cozy up to the parents and get them them to cook for us.  Is that wrong?

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That wasn't chicken

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Not in mainland China, but my wife and I went to a Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco many years ago. I have never experienced anything like it before or since, and I feel like at least a few of the bullet points in @liuzhou's post are very close to the truth in our case, but the evening left my memory just a little bit fuzzy.

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