The day's meetings were pretty productive. After a quick rest and shower at the hotel it was time for dinner. This dinner wasn't that different from previous dinners that I've had here, but it ocurred to me that at every turn there were examples of the unique culture and etiquette that are part of a Chinese (business) meal. It just seemed to bring together a variety of typical experiences which sparked some thoughts.
Some ground rules/observations/tips...
- Don't be shy about what foods you like. You will thank yourself later. I casually told my hosts that the enormous spiny lobster in the center of the table was especially delicious. I have never seen a lobster so big, nothing like what you get in the U.S. They responded by boasting that it was imported from Australia and cost 1000RMB (about $150). The guy next to me then proceeded to place about half of the thing onto my plate. At a table of 12. I felt guilty, but only for a very fleeting moment.
- When toasting someone, it is customary for the glass of the older person, the more respected person, the guest of honor, etc., to be above the glass of the other person. It is a way to show respect, by lowering your glass to someone elses so the rim of your glass clinks their glass halfway down. In practice though, this often leads to hilarious situations where you both try to show respect, glasses racing downwards to the table surface, so that finally they're both on the same level. It takes some practice to get used to deftly positioning your glass below the other person's. One guy actually lifted my arm so my glass was above his.
- Don't say that you don't like a particular food. It just leads to awkwardness, endless questions, and the attention of the whole table turning to the foreigner (as if you don't already stick out enough being white). Just say everything is good. If someone puts food on your plate, even if you don't want to eat it, thank them. Just bury it in your rice bowl when they aren't looking or subtly catch the server's eye and motion for a new plate. New plates are provided frequently throughout the meal anyway because the fact that all of the dishes are served with the inedible parts (chicken/beef/pork bones, fish heads, fish skin/scales, shrimp heads and shells, etc.) intact means that quite a bit of detritus accumulates as the meal progresses. These plate changes are great opportunities to get rid of the food you can't bring yourself to eat.
- You will invariably be asked to pose for a group photo. Why not? Makes you feel tall at least.
- When the guy next to you shows off his diamond-studded gold Rolex watch, repeatedly telling you that it cost 300,000RMB (about $44,000), act very impressed. Status symbols are extremely important in China. How else to differentiate oneself among a nation of 1.3 billion? He is not telling you about the watch anecdotally. He is telling you because he wants you to be impressed by his wealth.
- That leads into the general topic of money in China. Be prepared for questions about money. It is completely normal to ask people how much their things cost. Almost every time I meet a new Chinese person here, I am asked how much my rent is (they laugh and tell me I'm getting ripped off because I'm a foreigner), how much my cellphone was (they audibly scoff when I tell them it was only 300 kuai, the cheapest one in the store), what my salary is (I don't tell them this), etc. Part of this is just curiosity because I'm an American and they assume all Americans are filthy rich. Furthermore, the American notion that it's impolite to talk about money is completely nonexistent here. There is no such thing as "old money" in China. All the money is new money because it's all been made in the last 20 years or so with the advent of rampant Capitalism that really took off in the 1990s. The accumulation of luxury goods and the comparison of who has what is the new national pastime among China's wealthy.
- Always accept a ride from dinner to KTV in the factory boss's brand new BMW 7 series. You know life is good when there's a built-in refrigerator in the back seat...
- There is a 100% tax imposed on luxury cars here, so above a certain threshhold, cars start to get really expensive. I was told that a 7 Series or S Class here costs the equivalent of $300,000. Totally insane.
- Enjoy the fresh fruit and unlimited alcohol at KTV.
- Don't be too freaked out when one of the Chinese guys starts making bird wing shadows on the projector screen. Apparently this is SOP.....?
- Never refuse a toast. It's just not worth all the explaining and subsequent disappointment. If you don't want to drink, then just toast the guy and raise your glass and pretend to drink. Or say "yi ban" to indicate that you'll drink only half of your glass instead of the standard "gan bei" (empty your glass). Pretty soon people will be drunk enough to not remember, or at least not be slighted by your moderation.
- If at 10:00, you realize that you've been drinking for a good 4 hours and you have to get up at 7 the next morning, don't be shy about saying your goodbyes and hopping in a cab back to your hotel. Never mind the fact that everyone else will stay at KTV until 2AM. By this point all the Chinese guys are very drunk. Think dancing on tables, breaking glasses, screaming karaoke, grabbing the waitresses kind of drunk. They'll be temporarily angry with you and try to convince you to stay, but it'll be fine in the morning. Get in that cab. You will not regret it.
- And finally, always use a good western-style toilet while you have the opportunity, like at your hotel. And carry your own toilet paper. Your next option might not be so hot.