Saturday, July 9, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows - The Guest Experience

Chinese/Taiwanese hospitality is really something to get used to. I think this is one obstacle that kept me from making many friends when I was on the mainland because it's difficult to feel on an equal basis with people act in a way that almost elevates you to a level above them in your interactions. Last night, for example, a friend of mine invited me to his friend's home for dinner, which I accepted but I already knew what to anticipate. For those of you who never dined at a Chinese home, here is what you can expect:

First, when you arrive people with very limited English will often use all the phrases they know how to say, so be prepared to hear some things that have little to do with the situation at hand. Then as they lay out the dishes somebody may tell you to go ahead and start eating before everyone else is seated; I still never do this because I grew up not being allowed to eat until everybody was present and still feel rude doing otherwise. One of the substantial differences between Chinese and Western eating habits is that instead of putting a little bit of everything on an individual plate for each person everyone just gets a bowl of rice and all the dishes are on the middle of the table for everyone to pick at (this partially explains how SARS was able to spread so quickly in 2003; if there is a sick person in your dinner party you may want to "suddenly remember" a reason you need to leave immediately). I got used to this after living on the mainland but if you're the kind of person who is very concerned with hygeine this may be difficult.

It's not over yet; people here aren't satisfied simply when a guest has a bit of each dish and exclaims they're all delicious. You have to devour everything pretty indiscriminately if you want to avoid hearing commands like, "don't be so polite," and, "eat, eat!" If such mandates don't prompt you to eat more quickly, people may start taking food from the middle of the table with their own chopsticks and putting it in your rice bowl. If you slow down because you're getting too full people will ask you, "What's wrong?" If you respond by saying "I'm okay, I'm just full," this somehow tends to be unconvincing and your host will continue to ask the same question. This is all pretty overwhelming if you are used to eating by yourself, eating slowly or having smaller meals. The first time I ate in a Chinese home six years ago I found this very frustrating and refused to go back the second time I was invited, not realizing this was somewhat typical Chinese behavior.

One thing I came to realize over time is that in East Asia words mean little compared to actions. It doesn't matter what you say, if your chopsticks are at the side of your rice bowl the host will interpret this as a request for more food. If a guest appears to want more food and the host cannot offer it he or she will lose face, so if you're no longer hungry do not under any circumstances leave your chopsticks aside your rice bowl. What you need to do is lay them over the top of the rice bowl, almost as if to block it off from receiving any more food. If you do this, the host will understand that you are satisfied and he or she can stop serving you, face intact.

Some positive things about this kind of experience: the food is almost always amazingly good because most moms in Asia cook substantially better than I can. Also, you get a deeper insight into the culture you're studying and can build lasting friendships this way. Finally, it's important to keep in mind that the somewhat smothering hospitality is all because people are excited to have a guest and you're more than likely the first foreign guest they've ever received. So my advice is when dining in an East Asian home expect to be a bit overwhelmed but try not to get frustrated or uncomfortable; it's all part of the cultural exchange.

Shawn Lynott
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
Taipei Language Institute, Taiwan

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