When you go to a restaurant in China, you’ll find the dining behavior much different than at a Western restaurant. While some of these traditions may seem a little strange at first, it’s important to know what to do when you’re invited to dinner in China!
At a traditional Chinese restaurant, the host will order many dishes for the table to share family-style. People generally follow the rule of ordering one dish per person, so the host would order 5 dishes for 5 people to share, and so on. The host or guest of honor sits in the seat opposite of the door, but if you’re just with friends you can be more casual and this doesn’t matter.
Oftentimes if it is a special meal, the Chinese host will order more dishes than the general one dish per person rule. They will also offer you more food multiple times during the meal and place food in your bowl for you as a way of showing hospitality and friendliness. You definitely won’t go hungry!
When you first go to a Chinese restaurant you may feel like the waiter or waitress is being rude and ignoring your table after you sit down – but this is normal! Waitstaff won’t check on you often. Instead, customers will yell very loudly when they need assistance, and you’ll often hear “fuwuyuan” (waitress) or “laoban” (boss) being shouted across the restaurant! In Western culture, this is quite rude, but in China it is standard behavior.
At a Chinese restaurant your tableware will be in front of you wrapped in plastic – here comes the fun part. Use your chopsticks to break open the plastic, and then use the hot water or tea at the table to rinse your cup, bowl, and plate inside, as well as your chopsticks. Even though the tableware is packaged and clean, Chinese people believe this makes your tableware more sanitary and it is an important custom to follow.
The beverage of choice served at restaurants is always hot water or tea. Chinese people don’t often drink cold water, so you’ll have to specially ask for it if you want it. In China, it is also a general rule that a tea cup should never be empty, so your host will often refill your teacup. If you want to thank them, tap the table with two fingers.
Meal times are an important part of Chinese culture and play a big role not just in family life, but also in business discussions. It is common to see people eating together and chatting about business at the table – and drinking baijiu (a special Chinese rice wine).
When you go to a restaurant, your Chinese host will probably want to toast you and drink in your honor! Before they drink they will tap their glass to yours. In Chinese culture, it is respectful to hold your glass lower to show you are honoring someone. You’ll often see friends joking and lowering their glasses all the way down to the floor trying to be the lowest!
The dishes probably won’t arrive all at the same time. Instead, it is normal for them to be brought to the table whenever they are finished being prepared. Normally Chinese people will wait until three dishes arrive at the table to start eating, or they will wait for whenever the host begins.
It is polite to offer to fill others bowls with rice, especially if they are your elder.
Chinese dishes often include bones, far more than most Westerners are used to. When you are trying to remove it, use chopsticks or your hand to take the bone out and put it on the side of your plate or the table instead of spitting it out.
There are several rules to follow when eating with chopsticks: don’t stick them straight up in your rice, because this symbolizes death in Chinese culture. You also should not point your chopsticks at others, and do not stab your food with them.
Normally it is tradition for the host to pay for the bill instead of everyone splitting it. With close friends in China they will “fight” over who will pay the check, as it is seen as an honor to pay. It is also not customary to tip at a restaurant in China!
Eating out at a restaurant in China can be quite a different experience than eating at a Western one, but it’s a great way to learn more about Chinese manners and customs. When in doubt, ask a Chinese friend and they’ll be more than happy to take you to a Chinese restaurant and teach you!