Chopsticks and tea

There are many rules that you learn as a child. You learn that you shouldn’t hit other people. You learn to say please and thank you. Some of these rules are taught to you explicitly, but others you pick up just because you learn to do what everyone else is doing. And it was through a combination of these that I came to learn the rules of Chinese dining etiquette.

In most Western cultures, children are taught not to put their elbows on the table. By contrast, my parents told me that I should always have my hands above the table. This is going to vary widely from culture to culture, because the Chinese community is hardly homogeneous. However, I do find that many traditions do hold up.

For example, when you are dining in a banquet-like setting in a Chinese restaurant, you will most likely sit in a round table with a lazy Susan in the middle. This is so the dishes can be easily shared, but did you know that the eldest person at the table should always be offered first dibs? This is to show respect. Similarly, the youngest person (within reason) should be pouring tea for the adults at the table. You wouldn’t expect a 4-year-old to do this, but it is generally true that one of the children should pour the tea for everyone else.

When they do, the recipient of the tea should typically tap the table with the index and middle fingers of one hand. This is true of formal banquets, as well as more casual settings like noodles or dim sum. The story told in the video embedded below is in line with what I was taught.

As the tale goes, an emperor was going undercover in the city. While at a meal, he poured tea for one of his guards. Under normal situations, the guards would view this as a tremendous honor and they’d get down on the ground to kowtow (bow) to the emperor. Of course, the guard couldn’t do it here, because he’d blow the emperor’s cover. Instead, he used his fingers to symbolize the kowtow motion on the table. And that’s how the tradition was supposedly born.

And yes, you always fight for the honor of paying the bill… even if you really don’t want to (or should) pay it.