In China, Relearning Eating Etiquette


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When the platter of salmon sashimi hit our lunch table in Shantou, on the coast of southeastern China, I was a little surprised. We were, after all, in a restaurant that served traditional Teochew food, the cuisine of the dominant ethnic Chinese group in the region.

But then I felt relieved. Now here was a food I'd eaten many times over back in New York—my home base—and all over Asia. Here was something I could not screw up.

I picked up my chopsticks, snagged a slice, dipped it in soy sauce, and lifted it to my mouth. That's when I noticed everyone around me averting their eyes as they picked up pieces of salmon; piled on slivers of fresh garlic, ginger, and chili; and carefully dunked the mounds into a bowl of soy bean dip.

I started toward a chair in a corner, a seat I usually prefer, when my father pulled me aside.

I just could not win. In fact, by that point, I'd spent several meals in a row not winning. At meal after meal, I found myself repeatedly being gauche or just plain zigging while others zagged.

Until I visited Shantou, I'd always thought of myself as fairly knowledgeable about things Chinese. In fact, I was so fascinated with my culture—my Teochew ethnic group—that my father and I had trekked to this part of southern China to visit the village where my great-grandfather was born.

After living in the U.S. for 16 years, I saw this as a journey to learn about my ancestors and, in the process, myself. That, of course, turned out to be exactly what happened.

My problems began almost right away. At the lunches and dinners where we met people from Kim Sar, the village of my ancestors, I would greet everyone as I do in America—with a super-firm handshake followed by me introducing myself and asking what they did in the village. That first day, I even patted myself on the back for remembering to offer my business cards with two hands, not just one.

The next day, however, Michael, our unofficial guide, took me aside. "Today, ah," he said, "you must call everyone 'Ah-Chek' or 'Lau-Chek,' okay?"

"Uncle" and "senior uncle," of course. I was chagrined that I'd forgotten such basic niceties. It turned out I also needed to tame the outgoing journalist in me, fade into the background a little, and let my father be the first to shake everyone's hand.

At lunch that day, we piled into a restaurant's private room, exhausted after a long morning walking around the dusty village. The village head gestured to us to seat ourselves. I started toward a chair in a corner, a seat I usually prefer, when my father pulled me aside.

"You know," he whispered, "in China, the most senior person at the meal sits facing the door."

Now, in all the meals we'd had thus far in China—two of which the village head himself had attended—that prime seat had been the one I'd taken. In fact, it was the one I had been making a beeline for before my father saved me.

Shamed once again, I vowed instantly to be more sensitive, more subservient, as an obedient Chinese daughter should be—for the remainder of the trip, anyway.

That day at lunch, a bottle of whiskey was opened and shared. Even the two women at the table were offered small amounts. There was much laughter, story-telling, and many, many toasts.

I thought things were going well—I raised my glass several times, merrily clinking it with my Ah-Cheks and Lau-Cheks. Once again, however, my father whispered to me. "When you toast someone older than you, your glass needs to be lower than his as a sign of respect." Of course, in the many toasts I'd shared, this had not been the case.

I dejectedly began to wonder what they must think of this unruly, Americanized female. I also questioned whether I had any real connection with this place that had been my ancestors' home.

Just then, however, the conversation steered toward Barack Obama. As the chatter took a slightly negative turn, someone stopped, gesturing toward me and shushing the others because they might be offending the New York girl.

Immediately, however, one of the Ah-Cheks piped up. "I know she's American but she still has black hair!" he said in Teochew. "She is still Chinese."

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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