I have been very lucky so far in my stay here. I have been invited out to eat on many occasions with co-workers and friends here at Jinan University where I live. Going out to eat at a nice restaurant is a very important experience in Chinese culture and basic understanding of the procedures will allow you to fit in and impress your friends. There are many aspects to a meal so this will be a long post!
Some of the restaurants I have been to have private rooms for the groups but most just have large tables in one lively and noisy common room. Once again the respect for your leader comes into play when ordering. The most important person at the table will order many dishes for the whole group, usually without much input from others.
In China you do not wait for all the dishes to be done before you bring them out; when one dish is ready it is immediately brought to the table. In Guangzhou the first dish is usually a chicken broth that you pour into a bowl (In other parts of China this is the last dish). Then one-by-one all of the other food that your host ordered comes to the table.
I have the mentality that I will eat absolutely anything put in front of me and so far I have been very pleased with the outcome. I have had more traditional dishes like chicken, duck, rice, and egg dishes but I have also had some more exotic things. The first time I saw a whole fish (and by whole I mean scales, head, fins and all!) I was a little intimidated but I was surprised that I really liked it! You just take your chopsticks and grab pieces off the belly and put them on your plate. I have also had pigs legs (mostly skin), chicken feet, and countless other things that I have not idea what they were. Many people ask me “How do you call this dish in English?” and my most common reply is “I don’t know I have never seen it before!”
Another important aspect of the meal is the tea. You will be given a tea cup (awkwardly small- about 2-3 ounces by my guesses). Naturally you will need to fill up your cup many times throughout the meal. You always pour tea for others at your table, standing up and walking around if necessary. You will top off others cups even if it looks full and never pour tea for yourself first! When someone else pours tea for you to say “thank you” you tap your fingers on the table next to your cup. Tap one finger if you are single and two if you have a girlfriend or wife.
In special occasions you will also drink alcohol. You don’t drink it on your own but rather toast something or someone. These cups are also extremely small so you don’t have to worry about having too much, even if your meal last two hours.
The hosts always order way too much food so you will never clean your plate. I hate wasting food so it is hard for me to walk away at the end of a meal! When your mother told you to finish your plate because there are hungry children in China she may have been right about some areas but the well to do in China have food to spare!
When you are finally done with your meal a few hours later the host get the bill. Paying is only done by the host, so if someone invites you out for dinner you are guaranteed a free meal! It is not expected that the guests will try to offer money to be polite. After the bill is paid you commonly get a plate of fruit for desert. Treating others to meals is done with the expectation that you will return the favor later, but I have found that it isn’t so easy. I have tried to invite my friends out for a meal but they told me since I am a guest in China I will never be able to pay! They always tell me “next time” which never happens! There is also no tipping in China.