A few months ago, I had a major case of Food Bewilderment.
My family was visiting from Canada at the time, which prompted one of dad’s business contacts to invite us out for dinner. We took a long cab ride to the middle of nowhere. (Later on, I found out that “the middle of nowhere” was actually somewhere near the Summer Palace.)
As we drove into a wooded area, a members-only country club sprawled into view. We were ushered into a lavish private room with red and gold silk drapes and a view of a private lake.
Over the next few hours, the host treated us to a parade of pricey and eye-popping dishes. A pot of small, fragrant fish in particular drew “oohs” and “aahs.” When I asked my dad what all the fuss was about, he whispered: “They’re airlifted fresh to the restaurant every day from Sichuan or Tibet. One jin costs over 1,500 kuai.”
At the end, our inebriated host brandished his platinum credit card with a flourish and signed for the RMB 5,000+ bill without blinking. “It’s nothing,” he insisted. I glanced at the table; several plates of food were left unfinished, no doubt to be thrown out as soon as we left.
It seems like every foreigner has at least one similar story. If you’ve ever been confused by all the dinnertime grandstanding, Seeing Red in China just put up a great post on the social obligations of eating out.
The article treats hosting meals as a way of building up guanxi (Chinese for “relationship” or “connection”). Here’s how the author illustrates guanxi in a separate post:
So it’s important to remember that a “no” is not always a “no” for everyone, if it doesn’t work for you bring a better connected co-worker. I had a friend trying to send a package home, and they were told by the man at the post office that the CD was a “cultural relic” and would not allow it to be sent. Finally they brought a woman from the school who claimed that sending the CD abroad was something that the school leaders need her to do, and off it went, no more questions.
Hosting meals is one of the best ways to build up this kind of social currency. The idea is to order, as a friend would put it, “too much food for humans.” Quality doesn’t seem to matter as much as price or sheer quantity, and it’s understood that guests should loudly praise the food on offer.
I wonder how the equation changes when kids are involved. Should they be encouraged to adapt to the host’s expectations? Or should they be excused from unfamiliar social conventions? Let us know your take.
Via Seeing Red in China