Wealthy Chinese Table Etiquette

I know I have become too American, as I allowed my dinner guests to order for themselves.

Back in Beijing, I lead a different life. Unlike the steady pace of office/school pickup/homework/dinner/bed routine, Beijing trips often are filled with a frenzy of meetings, lunch and dinner appointments.  This seems to be fitting with the pace of America and China, serves me just fine.

One day, I had lunch with a Chinese government-official-turned-businessman, and then dinner with a couple who loved traveling around the world.

Usually, when setting up the appointment, it’s somewhat indicated who 请 whom.  That means who is inviting whom. The Inviting party picks the restaurant and is usually expected to pick up the bill afterwards. It’s considered extremely embarrassing for Chinese to work on splitting the bill after a meal.

My lunch date made it very clear that he’s 请ing me.  So, he picked me up from my office, with a black Audi A6. I had no idea where we were going. He drove a short distance to Shunfeng, a hugely expensive Chinese seafood restaurant frequented by government officials and traditional businessmen.

The small parking lot in front was already packed with black Audis or Bentz. A young man was attentive directing us to the back parking lot, and escorted us into the restaurant. All the waitresses wear light makeup, bright yellow or red Chinese dresses, hairs put up high in a bun, with 3 chopsticks sticking out of their hair buns. They reminded me of peacocks.

My friend ordered for both of us, as I wasn’t even presented a menu.

“Could you please do not order any Abalone for me? I honestly don’t like it.” Knowing my friend, I had to speak up.

“What about sea urchins?” my friend asked.

“No, I don’t like sea urchins either. I am actually really happy with some good vegetable.” I insisted. Truthfully, I grew up in the mountains of Yunnan and never had much of a taste for exotic seafood.

“I ordered plenty of vegetable, but you should have some Abalone. It’s good, particularly baby ones cooked in a porridge.” My friend insisted, and pushed ahead with two orders.

The dishes came. Excellent plain boilded shrimp, and outstanding vegetable and fish. The only dish I didn’t like – Abalone Porridge. The worst of all, I drank the porridge and left the baby abalones in the bowl.  Thinking back, I probably insulted my host to an unbelievable degree. The abalones I left in my bowl probably cost a migrant worker’s monthly salary! And I just left them for the sewer.

I never saw the bill, and vaguely remember we talked about high-tech investments.

Learning from my plight at lunch, when my guest took charge of the dinner menu, and said, he knew what his wife liked, I let it be.

This time, it was more or less understood that I would pay.  I chose the Chinese restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel because I was staying there.  I met them at the hotel lobby.

He picked a few dishes, a plate of tea-smoked chicken, a serving of pig ear salad (yes, real pig ears, marinated, and slow cooked, and sliced so they didn’t look like ears anymore), a green vege dish, and something else I don’t remember.  The only thing I remember was that the chicken wasn’t very good.  But, we were too busy talking; I didn’t pay any attention to the food.

They just returned from their skiing trip to northern Japan. So, I wanted to know all the details of how they survived the earthquake. They said they didn’t feel a thing, and the flights were normal as well. Conversation went on to how to find the hidden lodge in Chile, or scheming a time to go skiing in Vale.

Whenever we talk about travel, I can’t stop talking. Never did it occur to me that maybe I should have ordered more dishes or ordered some fancy dishes.

Late at night, I picked up the tab, RMB 585 (USD 90).  (That in Beijing is considered a fairly small amount for treating guests.) This couple bundled up and walked home.

Only later did I realize what my dinner guests had done. They knew that I wouldn’t let them pay, so they took charge of the ordering and kept the dishes to a few simple dishes. If I were a true Chinese hostess, I should not have allowed that to happen. I should have taken charge and ordered exotic and expensive items to show my respect for them.

I didn’t. The dinner guests knew me well enough to know how much I respect them.   I know they eat simple meals everyday. I also know they read with a ferocious appetite, and know every piece of classical music intimately well. They often walk, leaving their expensive Volvo SUV at home.

They are one of the very few wealthy Chinese who would do so.