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Dining Etiquette and Customs

Dining etiquette in China can be quite intricate and daunting at first. You'll probably make a few faux pas, but with a little basic understanding and realization that most practices are intended to make the guests feel comfortable and honoured, you'll soon be able to enjoy China's cuisine without worrying too much.

One of the first things you will do at the table is drink tea. Be sure to pour tea for those around you first and your own teacup last; it's considered rude to fill yours first or even worse, only fill your own. Even if the teacups of those around you are full, you should pour a little in anyway as this is considered to be courteous. What is often found in a Chinese home is the host making sure the guests always have a full plate and cup.

When using chopsticks, never point them directly at people and never stick them standing upright in your rice bowl; this is a reminder of the incense burned at funerals. To serve yourself or others use a clean spoon solely for taking food from communal plates, although it is perfectly acceptable to either take food directly with your own chopsticks at informal settings. If you serve someone with your own chopsticks, use the blunt ends that don't go into your mouth.

If you're invited to be a guest at a meal, your host will want to ensure that there's more than enough food for everyone. If your host miscalculates (usually not often), don't be surprised if they order more food to "save face" to prove their generosity and graciousness. Also, don't be surprised to find your host serving you choice morsels of food whether you ask for it or not as this is another sign of generosity; be sure to accept them gracefully.

If you are a particularly important guest, fish will likely be served and the host may serve you the fish's head (which is considered a very choice part of the fish). If you aren't particularly fond of fish heads, just graciously accept, be brave and tuck in. It may embarrass (make him lose face) or even insult your host to return or refuse the fish's head. A better tactic perhaps may be to serve your host the fish's head first as a gesture of thanks for being so generous. Be gracious if at anytime you feel the need to decline a serving.

When most Westerners make arrangements to eat, it's assumed that each person will pay their own share, unless it's been specifically stated that one person is treating. As is customary in China, unless amongst friends or in an informal setting, the inviter pays for the meal. It's polite to make an effort to pay, but expect strong resistance. It's a common sight in many Chinese restaurants to see two people loudly arguing after a meal; they're fighting for the right to pay. When in doubt, do as your host does or simply ask; just remember that your host ultimately wants you to have a good time and feel welcome.