It’s your first dinner at a Chinese family’s home, be prepared for the following:
Gift for your host: Bring fruit. Preferably, apples or oranges. 5-12 of them. Never bring four of anything. Chinese associate four with death. It is most common to bring fruit not just for dinner but to go visit someone as well.
Climate control: much like all of China…any comfortable ‘western’ temperature is severely lacking.
It’s Warm outside: be prepared to enter a sweat lodge. Food will be piping hot. As you sit you will become the soup you slurp. Slurping to show your host, soup is delicious– while the deluge tiptoes down your skin.
It’s Cold outside: I hope you’re wearing down jacket, scarf, hat, and gloves. For the entirety of the evening these articles won’t be removed.
Facilities: There will be a bathroom. You just won’t know how functional it truly is until use. Most families have western toilets & most families have squatters. At this point neither makes any difference because families don’t typically keep toilet seats the cleanest.
Be prepared for the following:
-You do your business, cannot flush the commode. To avoid this, always be sure there’s a bucket inside which 99% of the time there is. Make sure the valve is turned on, many people turn it off.
-While bracing yourself you grab hold-the top of the pedestal sink, the whole sink caves in taking the soaps and any other items left on top, with it! Forget bracing yourself, finish fixing everything to the best you can and pretend none of that happened. Never brace yourself again.
-BYOT [Bring Your Own Toilet Paper]–Be sure you have a spare round of tissues in your pocket. Some families have toilet paper some don’t.
Supper: You are a guest and will be asked not to touch or do anything to help. Even if you insist they will tell you to STAND DOWN. Families mean business when it comes to cooking. Almost every single person I have ever met who has hosted me for dinner has cooked an outstanding meal. Everyone knows how to cook in this country and if you were to help you would probably cause trouble and futz the whole meal. Sit down and enjoy the sweat or shivers.
Seating: Sit where you’re told. Don’t argue, don’t question. In most cases the table won’t be too big. You will all gather around 3-6 dishes of food–pecking at it.
Speaking: I know you’ve studied Chinese for some time and are beyond excited to converse with your hosts, not just the one person who knows English. However you won’t understand a darn thing because they’re not speaking the Standard Mandarin you’ve just spent 3 years studying. They are speaking their hometown dialect. Sounds like a tweaked Mandarin with some extra grunting. Sit back, imagine the gossip fluttering between tongues.
Drinking: You will be expected to drink alcohol, wine or beer. Unless you tell them before hand and then again when they serve you. In some cases be prepared to get drunk because they constantly toast your presence. Be sure to down everything in your cup. Gambei!
Food: The dishes will be phenomenal. You will be amazed at what comes out of the 4 foot by 6 foot kitchen. Your rice bowl will never be empty. Everybody picks at different serving plates with their chopsticks. Seldom are there serving sticks. Your hosts will sometimes serve you with their chopsticks. If you’re a mysophobe: time to let go. Never put chopsticks straight into the bowl, it means your father has died–or something along those lines. place them on top, side-by-side, to the left or right side.
After Dinner: You may not help–STILL! Most of the time there will be tea to drink & maybe some fruit to have. Your tea cup will never be empty for an hour or more of drinking tea. If a bit of caffeine from the tea keeps you awake at night it’s advisable not making this a habit. Watch the ‘ceremony.’ First the tea cups are washed/sterilized from boiled water and then filled with tea that has first been washed with the boiled water as well. Your tea cup will be as big as a stack of 4 quarters. Sniff the little cup and remark to your host how gorgeous it smells. Sip slow or fast, more tea is coming. The faster you drink, the more you will be using the desirable or undesirable facilities.
And then it’s over, everyone abruptly gets up and says ‘ok return home.’ Most people don’t say, thank you, because it’s assumed.
Hosts will offer a giggle when you say, ‘thank you.’