Always familiarise yourself with the local specialties.
The first time I sat down for a real Chinese banquet, on assignment to frigid Manchuria back in 1988, I found myself confronted first with a heaped serving dish of deep-fried, whole baby sparrows.
How did I grab one of these with a chopstick or dissect bone from flesh without making a fool of myself? Next came one large boiled tortoise, the first and last I would ever attempt to devour. Still hungry, I was relieved when the main course turned out to be a recognisably delectable, if massive, whole fish.
I was just about to dig in when my government hosts boasted that it had been farmed in the run-off water from the nearest nuclear power plant.
Having lived in Asia for 16 years, I know that relocating to the Orient from Europe, the US or Australia can often leave one thoroughly disoriented — especially when it comes to navigating the dining experience. Each country’s offerings and etiquette are challenging and varied. Even before the meal starts, the distant bow expected by Japanese hosts may cause offense to Chinese seeking the modern-day respect of a brisk, if not too firm, handshake.
Consuming dishes with confidence in Asia begins not just with peanuts or jellyfish appetizers, but also with the realisation that no two cuisines on the continent — or means to devour them— are quite alike. Here, getting one’s fill is not as important as getting a feel for varying culinary customs.
In part, that’s due to the traditional significance food plays in these societies, where certain edibles have long connoted family, pride of place and especially status. “For starters, always familiarise yourself with the local specialities,” said Paul Harrison, a longtime sales executive for General Electric medical equipment. “In Wuxi, China, I knew the local peaches were renowned, so I requested to try them or know when they were in season. That impressed everyone.”
Dining at a restaurant
Getting that prized first invitation to share a meal with a local boss is just the first hurdle. The real challenges are yet to come, and it helps to understand the implication of particular locations. If your host has any significance within a company, he may invite you to dine in a private room. The guest of honor will be placed at the seat farthest from the door, always considered the most prestigious location. This is especially true in China and Japan. Also, be prepared to sing in a bit of after-dinner karaoke, especially in China and South Korea.
When it comes to the basic eating implements, much leeway is given to Western ways, with knives and forks provided except in the most remote spots. Still, locals will be delighted and impressed if you have mastered chopsticks or are even willing to dive in with your hands (in India, and rural parts of the Philippines), so long as they’re washed.
By whatever means, take small portions and don’t try to shove any helpings onto your dining neighbour’s plate, especially if using chopsticks. Don’t be put off if everyone pokes their germ-laden sticks into a common soup pot. The Chinese and Japanese are especially adept at touching only the parts they are aiming to place in their mouths. Slurping and smacking noises are considered appreciative. “Just don’t finish every morsel down to the last dumpling,” warns Mark Michelson, chairman of the Asia CEO Forum. “Leave some over so your hosts won’t feel compelled to order more.”
In China, it’s also prudent to leave room for the sweet soups or starchy staples such as rice or noodles, that, to most foreigners’ surprise, are only served as the finishing touches at traditional banquets.
Avoid demanding special dishes or accompaniments. When in doubt, defer to a local. “While Chinese want to pick fish fresh from the tank,” cautioned Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the USC US-China Institute at the University of Southern California. “Thais, being serious Buddhists, would never want to suffer the bad karma of singling out any living being for death.” If hosts in Indonesia or Malaysia are Muslim, don’t go demanding side dishes of barbecued pork.
Of course, stories are legion about Westerners being presented with all sorts of unfamiliar items, from dog to monkey brains. Have no fear. Most Asians are well aware of Western food phobias and don’t go out of their way to make you uncomfortable. However, fish will have the head and meat will usually be attached to chewy bones and tendons that can be spit out. You will win points by enthusiastically sampling anything on offer. When served up crispy ants with pine nuts, “just tell yourself that it’s not going to kill you,” Harrison said.
Be prepared to bob up and down. The polite expectation is that you rise from your seat with each frequent toast, always clinking the glass lower than that of the boss. If there’s a “Ganbei” or “Kanpai” (“drink all” in Chinese and Japanese) command at the end, then it’s bottoms up. Many foreigners find it difficult to keep in step with spirits offered straight or continually replenished shots. “Rice liquor [poured out] under the table is a China survival skill,” Chinoy said. The taste may be luscious and the quality high, but the alcohol levels are instantly mind-numbing — not exactly the way you want to start a business discussion.
Replenishing glasses of tea can be just as fraught with etiquette risks. Wait for proper steeping and pour into everyone’s cup before your own. And when the favour is returned, the Chinese will be wowed by a thankful tapping of an index finger on the table, a gesture that refers to the legend of an Emperor in disguise.
Invited over for dinner
Outside of particularly hospitable lands such as the Philippines and Malaysia, don’t expect to be invited to local colleagues’ homes.
“If they do open their doors, treat it as the special occasion that it is,” Michelson said. Now is the chance to know the culture more deeply, though this doesn’t mean you’ll get a house tour — living quarters are off-limits.
Upon arrival, never ring the front door bell without a properly wrapped gift —something more formal, if not more costly, than the Western jug of Chianti. Souvenirs brought from back home, a small vase or scarf are appreciated. Flowers are appropriate, but note that white chrysanthemums in Japan are reserved primarily for funerals. Bringing wine, as is done so customarily in the West, may be viewed in Asia as doubting the host’s financial heft. As well, the Western habit of bringing a dish along can be viewed as an insult of the host’s spouse or cooks.
Take your shoes off before you enter and make sure your socks don’t have holes in the toes, a sign of poverty everywhere. Suppress all egalitarian urges to treat house staff with interest equal to their employers. “You don’t flirt with the maids or take a survey on their working conditions,” Harrison admonished. And leave promptly at the end of the meal, unless more liquor is offered. No one likes guests who overstay, so learn how to read indirect Asian hints. If people ask if you are tired, this invariably means that they already are.
Should one get down to business before getting up from the meal, “make sure you’re talking with the right person in the organisation,” Harrison warned. “In Asia, power can be highly concentrated and decision making quick, with no executive boards to consult.” It’s wrong to presume full command of English even high up in the chain of command. “Many a deal has been doomed by mistranslation, or presuming too much knowledge of English when it comes to the person on the other side,” Michelson said.
Harrison concurs. “Be concise and don’t suggest too many alternatives,” he said. When it comes to selecting food or negotiating, he offers this rule: “He who blinks first loses.”
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