Every journey, I’ve always looked forward to the chance of a meal with the locals, it’s always the little details that can reveal the big picture about this country and society. After all, no matter where you live and what you do, we all have to have at least three meals a day. The little details and customs on the dining table, is where I find the best entrance into the local culture.
Photo credit: sanfamedia.com via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND
Eating is Not Just Eating
It’s still hilarious to recall when my foreign friends asked me with a distinctive face, why do Taiwanese people always say “Let’s go eat rice!” instead of Let’s go get food or something along the line? It’s not like we always ended up eating rice anyway, there’s noodles, dumplings, and etc.
From this pre-meal conversation, one can know how important rice is in the daily life of Taiwanese people, let’s go eat rice has become a figurative phrase for an invitation to join the meal instead of stuck you in a bowl of steamed rice.
Nothing Beats the Food
The joking phrase of Food First, Family Second actually has a more ancient meaning in the traditional Taiwanese slang. You might’ve heard them trying to explain something along the line of eating is bigger than the emperor, but in reality it means that even matters on a national level should be postponed until the meal is finished. That’s how important a regular eating schedule is culturally.
Now with all due respect, let’s explore some things you should know in a meal:
- Seats of Honor and Where to Seat
In the Chinese table manner, seating from the very beginning is an important segment. It was originated from the Confucianism ideology where the elders hold a definite authority and order over the younger ones, the same goes for the ruler to subject relationship. Generally speaking, the seat farthest away from the door and situated in the middle against the wall is the seat of honor. Next to it rank the seats from right to left in the order of right first, left first, right second, then left second. Whether it’s a square or round table, the rules apply. As a foreigner you’re most likely going to be considered as a guest, which means you might be appointed the seat of honor, but if there’s elderlies in the scene then go ahead and pick the right or left of the seat of honor as a safe bet.
Even though there’s thousands of year of influence when it comes to dining, habits have sometimes changed while the respect to the subject is still kept in mind. Now Taiwanese are pretty relaxed about this seating arrangement such as grandparents surrounding their grandchildren to watch he/she eating, then convenience reigns over everything.
- Elders First (again…)
In a perfect and traditional scenario, the younger generation should take initiative to help out in the kitchen before the meals and help situate the dining table with chopsticks and bowls. Until everyone is seated, the elders have to choose their food and take the first bite before the younger ones move their chopsticks. But let’s admit we don’t always live in a perfect and traditional world, so if you’re just dining with your friends or close families then those rules are out of the window. It’s a common habit now for elders to encourage the younger ones eat first and disregard the rules.
- Don’t Talk with Your Mouth Full
Not too out of the realm and is understandable, this might be one of the most common practice across the western and eastern world. Children are hushed if they were to talk while eating. It’s not meant to have a dead quiet meal, but when you have food in your mouth, just shut it and chew instead of sharing with everyone the scenery of food being chewed in your mouth.
- Public Chopsticks and Spoons, Move your Bowl Closer
Aside from the one set of chopsticks assigned to each seat, each dish on the table will have a pair of public chopsticks strictly to move from the dish to a person’s bowl and not beyond for sanitary reasons. The tricky part of this is that mistaking the public chopsticks as your own pair becomes a trouble that happens regularly. In response to this, many restaurants will prepare a few extra pair on the side of the table in case accidents do happen. Note: this is more seen in traditional Chinese restaurants, if you have the table’s consent on this issue, then it’s a step to be dismissed in this era.
The title Move your Bowl Closer is a habit vastly different from the formal western dining. It’s a rude gesture if you try to lift the entire bowl of chowder soup and finish it clean; however, it’s the exact opposite when it comes to Chinese dining. Moving the bowl closer to your mouth as you eat is a friendly gesture so everyone doesn’t have to watch you trying to eat on the table while keeping your clothes and hair out of the other food on the table. Also, don’t pick and choose what you want to eat on the table with the public chopsticks because it’s simply rude. The alternative would be to just take everything back and leave what you really don’t want to eat in your own plate or bowl.
- After Meal Gestures
When you’re done eating, go ahead and put down your chopsticks horizontally on the bowl or plate, parallel to your shoulder. But watch out, in a formal situation, you have to wait until the elder do so before you follow. A meal is not completed over yet until the elder leaves the seat, unless there’s emergency that you have to get up early, then go ahead to ask for permissions from the elders for your early exit. Once the leave is approved, slowly stand up then make your move, tell the whole table “Enjoy Your Meal” before leaving the scene. The other note to add is to not burp or floss in front of the public, because the insult is most likely going to be towards your parents and their educating method.
- About Those Chopsticks…
We’ve all heard of the complicated western dining rules, eat from outside to inside for cutleries, scoop your spoon away from you. But when it comes to Chinese culture and there are jus two sticks for eating, you’d thought that the rules are done. Well…. NEVER, and I mean Never stick your chopsticks straight into the rice bowl. It’s commonly seen for those who haven’t learned the custom and doesn’t really find a suitable place to put down their chopsticks. Why? It looks like you’re putting incense into the burner, aka you’re worshipping someone across the table who’s alive as if they’re dead.
Not very nice huh, well here are some other versions of what this actions could have negative meanings. In the past, the jailer would put the chopsticks into the rice bowls before giving the last meal to the prisoners being executed. The picture of chopsticks sticking right into the rice bowl also has meaning in worshipping your ancestors and the wild spirits if the bowl holds raw rice. Just as the last note for chopsticks, don’t band you bowl with chopsticks because that’s the gesture* for baggers to ask for money.
*: In today’s internet world, “banging bowls” have become a figurative meaning similar to LMAF's usage for audiences waiting for the new episode or updates.
It sounds like a lot of rules and things to watch out for, but really for those tourists hitting the night markets here’s what you need to know: Just remember to bring some tissues to wipe your drool when you face the rows after rows of food~!
Translated by Nasha