Saturday, August 2, 2014

Part B. Teaching in China - Banquets, banquets and more banquets!

Putting on weight wasn’t on my Chinese agenda, but the constant banquets combined with my desire to sample new dishes and genuine enjoyment of (some of) the wide variety of foods made it a lost challenge!

If you've never attended a formal Chinese banquet it's confusing, and the order of the dishes seems completely back to front with sweet dishes appearing alongside savoury ones. But as we had been politely reminded by the Director of the Jiangsu Board of Education (?) "When in Rome .... !"

I'd had some experience sharing meals with Chinese people over the years, but we've been long term friends, and I foolishly hadn't thought to do much research on the different expectations at a formal meal before leaving home. 
The same as a formal western meal can be over the top with a bewildering array of cutlery, glasses and unstated do's and don'ts, there are equally as important rules of etiquette to be observed at a Chinese banquet. Careful observation of the more influential people is vital when you haven't done your homework! 

I was aware of general muttering before we were seated and finally realised our relative ages and statuses was being discussed. Beards clearly have high status!
Decorative cake sprinkles and sugar
on top of the corn dish.
Different, but good!

To say a banquet is awkward when there's only one translator, few of the Chinese are comfortable speaking English, and none of the four teachers had any Chinese language skills and had only just met each other is a complete understatement! 

The teachers from the US were swimming in a fog of jet-lag, and didn't want any alcohol at all. We'd been squashed into a car together for 5 hours and were travel weary. None of us was remotely hungry, and we all wanted to get settled into the hotel and sort out the teaching materials for the following day. Not a great way to make a first impression! However we did our best to represent the USA and Australia in a positive way, and nibbled at the vast array of dishes, drank water and tea, (although some of us decided a decent dose of alcohol was in order!) and smiled and nodded as seemed appropriate. 

Our colleagues from the US tried to, and succeeded in refusing alcohol. Oh deary me. There's some etiquette to be learned there! Toasting is a fine art and if it's possible to get a Z, I got it. For the bookend banquet on the final night, I'd wised up and sorted out a lovely "minder" to sit next to me and she happily gave some quick lessons via our translator as needed! Up here for thinking 99!

I've included some links at the end to what appear to be accurate primers for the newbie. Do be wary of the info about reversing your chopsticks though, as the Chinese we mentioned that to had never heard of it and thought it was extremely odd. 

I know I’m a wuss, but I’ll pass on the chicken feet, cock's comb, jellyfish and pigs tendons and ears. No matter how nutritious they may be and how wise and respectful it is to use the whole animal there are some bits that I don’t find remotely desirable. As for the fish head, hmm, I don't need to think about that either. Nope. Said in the politest, most smiling way possible, while patting my genuinely bulging stomach ... much too full. No really, I couldn't possibly!! 

Seriously though, how does one express to the hosts that two banquets in one day is one too many? The massive amount of food consumed at Saturday lunchtime in Nanjing, meant that to face another, over-the-top banquet the same evening, was more a chore than a pleasure, especially for those still in the throes of massive jet-lag, who simply needed the chance to sleep without painful digestive overload.

At the evening banquet, one of the foreign teachers took photos of each dish as it appeared and got to 29 before the end! That’s a massive amount of food, and there wasn’t the remotest chance that it could all be eaten – especially by people who had barely digested the lunch banquet!  

I understand that excess at banquets and when entertaining is part of the Chinese culture, but wanton waste isn't in harmony with the expressed awareness about the stress on global resources, and the need for all of us to use these wisely.

Thankfully, the new Communist party leader Xi Jinping is aware of the issue, and is promoting an “empty plate” policy. I suspect this is going to be a bit of an uphill battle, but hopefully the incredible wastage can be addressed.
On a tour of China's Hebei province in December, Mr Xi ate a simple meal featuring four dishes and one bowl of soup; a paltry number of courses by Chinese government standards. China's blogosphere took note; Operation Empty Plate's followers began to climb.
My advice for managing graciously at a banquet when you don't know your way around: Find an ally and manipulate it so you sit together. It doesn't matter if you don't speak the same language, body language can be remarkable efficient!

A fruit platter often identifies the end of the meal 

Other posts about Teaching in China are our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication Misunderstandings. to be followed by - Observing the open eyes!

Chinese banquet etiquette:



Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - I can understand all of your feelings and thoughts after travelling long distances and in cramped situations .. and can 'feel' your discomforts - various.

A good explanation and interesting to see the Party Leader - leading the way ...

Enjoy your time though .. cheers Hilary

Sue Travers said...

Thanks Hilary. There were so many new experiences and I'm trying to capture them before they get swamped with the next event!