Let’s Eat! 7 Tips for Dining in China

by Courtney Gould Miller
June 09, 2014

Attending a Chinese dinner is both exciting and daunting. You may be looking forward to the food, but what etiquette should you use? Just like there are customs in the West (how to properly hold a fork and knife, and how to pass the salt and pepper with class), the same is true in China.  To help, here are my 7 quick tips for dining in China.

1. Reserve a private room.  Private rooms in Chinese restaurants signify importance and suggest to your dining companions that you value your meeting. It also allows for the toasting and conversations to be private, which Chinese will expect when talking about business. If you are going to a Peking duck (aka Beijing kaoya), reserve as many ducks as you’ll need as well. Otherwise, you’ll be out of luck trying to order one at the meal.

2. Try not to order cold water. One of the first things Westerners do at a Chinese meal is ask for cold bottled water. This identifies you as a clear outsider to Chinese culture. Chinese drink tea, or otherwise warm water. Cold water is thought to be jarring to the system. It’s not a major point, but something to consider if you are wanting to fit in.

3. Pour drinks for others. This is the most common faux pas for Westerners at a Chinese meal. You should be mindful to pour tea or alcohol for those you are seated next to, and allow them to pour for you as well. Never pour your own drink first. If you are thirsty, pour drinks for others and then pour last for yourself. Of course, the waiters may also serve you and your companions.

{A private dining room in Macau}

4. Plan your toasts. As I’ve discussed before, toasting in China is serious business. Read up on my tips and be sure to plan ahead with a few words for anyone important at the meal. Oh, and get ready to drink some baijiu.

5. Use chopsticks properly. This can take some practice, but a Westerner’s ability to use chopsticks is one way for Chinese dining companions to judge how well you know China–if you’re good, it can indicate you’ve lived in China for a while or travel there often. Also, never ever stick  your chopsticks in rice standing up. It’s a bad omen, and that’s serious business in China.

6. No splitting. Don’t try to split the bill with your dining companions. Either pick up the tab, or say thank you to the diner that does. Splitting bills in China is not common. Even as a student, we would take turns picking up meals for the group. But be sure to keep track–it is rude not to return the favor for a future meal. Always offer to pick up the next dinner when your bill is being paid.

7. No tipping. You don’t need to tip in the Mainland for a good meal. In fact, I’ve had situations where I’ve left extra money and it’s been brought back to me by the restaurant or taxi driver. There can be a different expectation at Western-style hotels, but generally you should not tip for meals or taxi rides.

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