As I sat and waited for my bowl of wonton noodles, I started to observe the locals and how they ate. I realized that they were all eating as if they hadn’t eaten in days: ravenously chewing, impatiently slurping soup, and stuffing themselves with more food while the previous bite still gorged the gutter of their mouths like a chipmunk. Even though Hong Kong was colonized by the British for 150 years and some of the English traditions rubbed off, like afternoon tea and scones, the pure enjoyment and passion the Chinese have for food and eating cannot be deterred. Being Chinese, loving food, and living to eat is all one and the same. Days are lived and tasks are scheduled around meals. It’s customary to receive an answer to a question concerning time with “after breakfast or after lunch”. Conversations are started with, “Have you eaten?” instead of “How are you?”. I’m sure any civilized culture might find the Chinese way of eating a bit surprising and in some cases, shocking: elbows on the table, rice bowl held up to your lips as you shovel rice in, bones of chicken, fish, duck, quail, pigeon, pig, shellfish, or of any similar variety, sucked on and spit out onto the table, creating a tower of bones and shells neatly stacked atop one another. All done with focused passion. Eating is a serious matter.
However, despite what may appear crude and uncivilized is in fact an unspoken and understood social norm. And within what may seem like an unrefined and casual way of indulging in your food, believe it or not, there is a code of etiquette while eating with the Chinese: if you’re eating with friends or company outside of your immediate family, it’s considered rude to pick up food with your own set of chopsticks. It’s a family style set-up, so you either need to use the spoon that came with the dish, or if one didn’t come with it, you use another set of chopsticks that’s designated as the “community chopsticks”. This is done for sanitary reasons…don’t mind the bones that were just spit out on the table. You never pour tea just for yourself. You always pour tea at least for the people sitting next to you or within reach, and if you are really polite, you’ll reach across the table and pour tea for those sitting three arm lengths away. At the end of the meal when the check arrives, if you really want to go all the way with your politeness, you must fight for the check with the host. The more physical and the more emotional, the better. You’ll need to grab the bill in one hand while holding your friend back with the other whilst having a shouting match over who gets to pay. At this point, voices are escalating, arms are passionately flailing for the check, both parties look determined to win, and this match can go either way. After fighting over the bill and creating an all too common scene, you ultimately give in because you want to help your friend save face.
These customs may sound strange but now I know I’m not just a messy and fast eater and talk loudly: I’m just hungry and I’m Chinese.
Cheers to a Healthy. Happy. Sexy. You.