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Home > East Asia > 

Dining etiquette and taboos
Leon Z. Lee
6/6/2003



So… you are about to partake in a dining experience with business associates from East Asia. Yet, you are somewhat lost on the precise cultural nuance to observe. You generally know that Asian cultures are uniquely different from anything in the West… but exactly what etiquette do they follow?

Looking at the menu, it is filled with words totally beyond the English language. Whether the cuisine is Chinese Ma Pu Tofu (spicy bean curd), Korean Dol Sot Bibim Bap (hot skillet-fried rice), Japanese Tonkatsu (pork cutlet on rice), or Vietnamese Com Bi Suon Nuong (grilled pork chops on rice), the challenge of pronouncing these dishes pales in comparison to the subtle unwritten cultural etiquette demonstrated by each ethnic group.

Fear not! Here is a quick list of "Do's and Don'ts" when entertaining East Asian colleagues from Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, and Vietnam. The list contains short descriptions of the activity, along with the ethnic region observing such etiquette.

• Chopstick Usage: East Asia
Traditional dinner is served "family style" on public plates for all parties to share. Do not rest your chopstick on any public plate, for it is considered bad manners. Rest chopsticks on top of your own bowl or plate. When the meal is completed, place your chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate towards the right side, parallel to the table.

• Chopstick Flip: China, Taiwan, Singapore
Some Asians demonstrate high formality when taking food parcels from the public plate. They will use the chopsticks' "thin ends" to place food into their mouths. However, they will invert the chopsticks and use its "thick ends" to pick up food parcels from the public plate. The "thin ends" have touched one's mouth, while the "thick ends" have not. Therefore, this mannerism is well lauded.

• Food Offering: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore
During the commencement of dinner, the host may take food parcels from the public plate and place it onto the guest's plate. This is taken as a gesture of hospitality and friendship.

• Food Offering: Japan
It is considered a "bad omen" or "ill fortune" for anyone to pick up food parcels from the public plate and place it onto anyone else's plate. This "pick-up" action will inadvertently remind the Japanese guests of cremation ceremonies during their funeral rites.

• Chopstick Insertion: Japan
Do not insert your chopsticks into the rice bowl and leave it there for any reason, for it is considered a very "bad omen." Symbolism of vertically inserting the chopstick into a rice bowl, reminds the Japanese of burial mounds and grave markers. If you must rest the chopsticks, place on top of your bowl or plate, parallel to the table. However, it has been observed that devout Japanese Buddhist families, in the privacy of their homes, have used this gesture to "say grace and remembrance" to deceased family members before beginning a meal.

• Tea Pouring Appreciation: China, Taiwan
When a waiter or dining associate refills your teacup, you can give the usual verbal "Thank You" or use the customary "2-Finger 3-Tap" appreciation. As your teacup is being refilled, take 2 fingers on your left hand and lightly tap 3 times on the table close to the teacup. This is to signify your appreciation for the refill without breaking the current mode of conversation with other dining associates.

Note: Using this gesture for a Vietnamese audience may be misinterpreted as an insult, for it projects the impression of "Master vs. Servant " relationship.

• Tea Refill Request: China, Taiwan
When one's teapot is empty and requires a refill, there is no need to shout across the room or aggressively gesture for the waiter’s attention, for it is considered bad manners. Simply flip open the teapot cover if it is hinged. If it is a porcelain teapot, leave the top cover ajar. This non-verbally conveys the request to the waiter that you would like a refill.

• Side Dishes: Korea
When ordering traditional Korean cuisine, it is customary for the restaurant host to provide complimentary Panch'an, which are a series of small side dishes (e.g., sweet roots, kimchee, salted sea weed, sliced potatoes). Because the side dishes are complimentary, you should not ask for refills. It is considered poor etiquette for the customer to insist on refills.

• Soup Partake: Japan
Japanese soups are usually served in small bowls without ladles. To partake upon the soup, use both hands to pick up the soup bowl, and bring to your lips to drink.

All in all, East Asian societies judge one’s sincerity more importantly than one's actual accomplishments. Therefore, a sincere attempt at observing the proper etiquette will bring approving comments from your East Asian associates. Since your sincerity is reflective of your personal character, it will also reflect positively upon the corporation as well. If you are not sure of which etiquette to observe, simply ask your host for insights. Life is a journey of constant learning and upgrading, and there are bound to be more things we don’t know than those we do.

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