Welcoming Chinese guests – Index
Chinese tourism is in exponential growth worldwide, with an increasing standard of living allowing more and more people the chance to travel.
Sadly, quite often there are linguistic misunderstandings because our almond-eyed friends don’t always know foreign languages, and those who host them often don’t speak the tiniest bit of Chinese, as well as cultural problems due to the different customs and ways of doing things (even those of us in China are considered “strange” for more than one reason).
In this brief guide I want to share a few experiences from over the years with Chinese friends and tourists who came to Italy and also those I directly knew in China.
I’m sure they’ll be useful for welcoming Chinese guests the best way possible, whether on vacation or for work, when they come to your country, as well as for better understanding their culture when traveling in the Middle Kingdom.
The Chinese at the table: rules for the perfect guest
Food in China represents, perhaps more than ours, a social occasion to strengthen friendships and make new ones, carry out business arrangements, talk of business or just enjoy a beautiful evening in good company.
Offering something to eat is one of the best ways to make friends: let’s look at some tricks for making our Chinese friends’ stay more enjoyable in this aspect.
In China, the culture of food is very refined, with various customs and even more types of dishes.
As in the West, there are generally three main dishes: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chinese customs are at times very different than ours, so we’ll first see what they are and then how to satisfy the needs of our guests.
Breakfast (早饭 zǎofàn or 早餐 zǎocān) is usually eaten between 6:30 and 8:30. It can include:
- soy milk (豆浆 dòujiāng)
- youtiao (油条 yóutiáo), a special type of threadlike pasta that expands once fried;
- porridge (粥 zhōu)
- baozi (包子 bāozi), the typical steamed sandwiches that may be filled with meat or vegetables or soup (汤包 tāngbāo), or even empty (馒头 mántou or 面包 miànbāo)
- ravioli (饺子 jiǎozǐ) or wonton (馄饨 húntun), filled with various ingredients and always steamed
- noodles of rice (米线 mǐxiàn) or flour (面条 miàntiáo)
- pancakes salted (煎饼 jiānbĭng), usually with chives and various condiments
In the Cantonese variety, called 早茶 (zǎochá), meaning “morning tea” there’s obviously tea (茶 chá), accompanied by dim sum (点心 diǎnxīn), snacks of different types.
You’ll have noted that in the majority of cases, these are savory dishes; something else that will certainly jump out at you is that these are typical Chinese dishes, which won’t be too easy to successfully prepare (sometimes it’s even hard just to procure the ingredients!).
The best advice is to prepare your guests a “continental breakfast”, which for the most part includes savory dishes (eggs, bacon, some type of vegetable, bread, etc.), while always making tea available, which is almost always preferred over coffee.
When it comes to sweets, cookies, spreads, fruit juices and the like, the best idea is to ask your guests what they prefer: in my personal experience I noted that the Chinese aren’t big fans of sweets, so a breakfast entirely based on milk and cookies (like mine) may not be well received.
For the majority of the Chinese, breakfast is the “first meal” of the day, in the sense that it isn’t very different than the other two. Other than a few dishes that are eaten almost exclusively in the morning, it could really include all sorts of dishes.
It isn’t rare to see the Chinese eating dishes that are identical with those served at lunch: they could even ask you for leftovers of pizza and pasta from the night before to reheat!
Lunch (午饭 wǔfàn or 午餐 wǔcān), in China is eaten between 12 and 2 in the afternoon. Often lunch, especially for workers, is rather frugal and rushed: that way they can take advantage of the lunch break for a little rest.
This is a type of fast food served in little street restaurants or brought from home in a lunch box (饭盒 fànhé), heated up in a microwave. In general, lunch is not the main meal of the day.
If you travel in China, it’s a smart idea to take advantage of this time to visit tourist sites, which are almost deserted during these hours.
When it comes to lunch for our Chinese guests, in most cases they’ll be happy to try just about anything you offer them; however keep in mind that they might not like specific tastes, so again the best idea is to offer them alternatives and decide on the menu together.
Often, when traveling or taking a walk, we bring with us a simple sandwich with prosciutto or cheese; here too pay attention, if you prepare something like that, and always ask your guests if they like what you’re preparing for them – even having them taste it first. Remember that fruit is always much appreciated, particularly apples and pears.
Dinner (晚饭 wǎnfàn or 晚餐 wǎncān) is without a doubt the main meal of the day for the Chinese. Eaten between 6 and 8, the whole family gathers at the table and it includes more dishes, in abundance, according to the Chinese custom of having more options of meat, vegetables, rice and things like that.
Everyone shares the food, taking it from dishes and trays and eating them on your own smaller dish, accompanied by rice.
When eating out in China, the time restaurants are most crowded is around 7 in the evening; the majority of Chinese restaurants close at 10. Pub and street food (such as the famous spicy barbecue 烧烤 shāokǎo) can be found just about everywhere at any time of night.
When eating with the Chinese, there are a few habits to keep in mind. First of all, they’re used to sharing food, ordering multiple dishes, while we’re used to everyone ordering for themselves (even sharing a few appetizers or second dishes).
You’ll note that in Chinese restaurants the tables have a rotating section (called 餐桌转盘 cānzhuō zhuànpán, 圆转盘 yuán zhuànpán or, in English, a lazy Susan), which serves to make the “passing’ of trays from one side of the table to another more convenient.
So in a restaurant, a group of Chinese will order lots of different dishes with the intention of sharing them, and won’t care about the order in which the dishes arrive.
In fact, in China they normally first serve the cold dishes (凉菜 liángcài), which are practically already ready, followed by the main dishes (meat or vegetable-based), soups, and lastly rice, noodles or other “staple foods” (主食 zhǔshí). In any case the food will come as soon as it is ready.
Working in an Italian restaurant where they go to great lengths that everyone has their dish at the same time, I found this “way of doing things” rather difficult to handle: I remember a group of Chinese that ordered all sorts of dishes, with different types of pasta that require different styles of cooking, making the chef’s job much more complicated; if, however, we had known that they would have shared it as soon as it arrived, it would have been far less trouble.
If you’re serving Chinese in a restaurant, you can ask them if they prefer that each of them have their own dish or if they want to share the dishes as soon as they’re ready: this will simplify the work in the kitchen and make the customers happy since they’ll be able to eat without having to wait for everything to be ready.
Desserts, not being part of Chinese tradition, are served a bit randomly; it could happen that the guests will order them along with the first dishes and eat them at the same time, without finding anything strange about it.
Fast food, instead, is now also common in China, so it’s an idea if you want to be sure they’ll like it, especially with people who haven’t shown that they’ve liked the food typical of the place. Keep in mind that kids love it: often Chinese kids are brought to eat fast food as a reward for getting good grades in school!
When it comes to food, usually those who travel are more open to new cultures as well as new flavors, and very much appreciate “original” homemade local cooking. For the rest, in China there’s a saying the well explains how they think:
(Nán chī mǐ, běi chī miàn, hǎochī dào jiā cáishì zhēn!)
In the South they eat rice, in the North they eat grain, but only at home is the food truly good!
I’m not saying that you have to invite the head of a Chinese company’s delegation to eat at home, but if you’re dealing with a friend… you can be sure that after having eaten at your house, your friendship will be even deeper, regardless of how the dinner turns out!
Silverware and condiments
There’s no need to remind you that in China, as in the majority of Asian countries, food is usually eaten with chopsticks (筷子 kuàizi).
They have a long history of over three millenniums and are made of various materials, but the most common are made of wood, bamboo or plastic. They’re really easy to buy over the internet, both the disposable types and wooden ones, or for home or luxury restaurants, ones made of silver or other metals.
The Chinese also use spoons (勺子 sháozi), with a slightly different shape than Western spoons; they don’t use forks (叉子 chāzi), in whose place chopsticks are used, nor knives (刀子 dāozi), because in Chinese restaurants the food is already prepared to be eaten with chopsticks (an exception is entire chickens, heads included: at the many banquets I’ve participated in, no one has ever known how to show me how to “dismember” them with chopsticks…).
The only advice I can give you is to worry about chopsticks only if necessary: many Chinese will adapt to our silverware, but others will absolutely need them, so it’s best to be prepared. Many will have their own travel kit that also includes chopsticks, so as to be sure to always have them available.
Another notable difference has to do with condiments: while on the tables in our restaurants you’ll normally find salt (盐 yán), pepper (胡椒 hújiāo) and olive oil (橄榄油 gǎnlǎnyóu), in China they normally have soy sauce (酱油 jiàngyóu), vinegar (醋 cù) and hot pepper (辣椒 làjiāo) as a powder or in oil.
You’ll make your guests happy with olive oil flavored with the hot peppers, and in general, spicy and full pepper oils or in powders of varying types.
Lastly, in China napkins (纸巾 zhǐjīn) are rarely offered in restaurants, not even the most expensive ones; for once a problem that we don’t have!
Behavior at the table
The Chinese give great importance to the arrangements of places at the table; the place in front of the entrance is usually reserved for the householder, with the most important guest at his left and the second at his right; in general, places to the left (or East) are considered better than the right (or West).
You can keep this rule in mind… or simply let them decide where to sit so as not to offend anyone!
Another Chinese habit to “keep at bay” is smoking in restaurants: while in China it’s common to do so even in closed places, in many countries it is permitted only in outside halls or tables, and even then so long as there aren’t any kids or pregnant women present.
You’ll have to let your Chinese guests know about this, especially with older ones who are less used to traveling, whether you’ll be accompanying them to the restaurant or you’re the one to have them as customers.
In Chinese restaurants and hotels, there is no tipping (消费 xiāofèi); nevertheless, the Chinese consider it very important to not “lose face”, and if they know that a tip is expected, they’ll do so with pleasure.
This too is information that you can give your friends and guests, suggesting that it’s good manners to leave a tip with a waiter, driver or attendant that was particularly nice.
In China, when one has guests there’s the custom of offering them a bag of food – much more than they can eat, as a sign of generosity; the Chinese householder will continue to prepare or order food if the guest eats it all, up until they stop eating; in many countries (like mine), it’s considered good manners to eat all the food that is offered you.
This can create embarrassing situations: on one hand, the Chinese will try to keep offering more, while on the other the Westerner will try to eat it all, often finding relief from some strange tasting dish, which isn’t too hard to leave on the plate…
So keep this habit in mind if, for example, a Chinese guest invites you to dinner; among friends though you order however much food is needed for the number of guests.
For shared meals, in more formal occasions, usually everyone chooses at least one of the shared dishes (the number of dishes will be equal to the number of guests +1), to which they serve rice for all. For business dinners or more formal occasions, the offerings will be infinite and… unfinishable.
The Chinese guest could put food in your dish using their own chopsticks and then invite you to eat. It is considered a sign of good manners and respect, and normally the proper response is to eat and give a compliment, “giving face” (给面子 gěi miànzi) to the householder.
If you find it too nasty, you’ll probably be forgiven since you’re a “foreigner”; keep in mind that the same attitude of tolerance is a good way to show yourself as good guests.
Some Chinese, for example, may find the taste of cheese disgusting, which they don’t usually eat, while for us they’re delicious: I also think that its a good idea to let them try different foods so that they can choose what the find most pleasing.
Going to dinner with a Chinese friend, I found it useful to order two plates that I really liked, let him try both, and then eat whichever one he liked best, while I ate the other one. To be safe, nobody has refused a nice grilled fish or unbeatable pizza!
During the fast daily meals, the Chinese normally drink little and if they do, it will be tea or hot water. Just as a Westerner would be disappointed being brought hot water to drink, so the Chinese react when offered cold water, which they drink very rarely.
In any restaurant tea is always available, whether its a dive with just a few tables or luxury family restaurants; by the quality of the tea you can tell the level of the restaurant.
Glass or transparent teapots indicate a greater level of cleanliness and luxury compared to aluminum ones, which are common in homes or little street restaurants.
At formal occasions, there’s no lack of alcohol, mainly represented by beer (much like the famous Qingdao青岛 Qīngdǎo) and baijiu (白酒 báijiǔ), a liquor made from various types of cereal with rather high alcohol content.
There are numerous toasts to the call of “干杯 (gānbēi)” (“dry cup”, that is, empty: an invitation to empty the cup in one gulp!), for those who abstain or won’t get drunk, you can also choose tea or any other type of drink.
In order to show respect, it’s good manners to keep your glass lower than the one of the person making the toast, especially if it’s the homeowner or office manager.
The Chinese guest will be very pleased to have the use of a kettle for hot water; many bring with them bags of their favorite tea, which they’ll be very happy to let you taste.
At the table, if possible, see that there’s hot water; it seems strange, but in many bars and restaurants such a simple request often creates lots of headaches for the staff, who not only won’t understand the reason but isn’t equipped to provide it (I remember preparing hot water with the coffee machine kettle… definitely not the most convenient or fastest method).
There are standards that the Chinese respect at the table, a sort of Oriental “etiquette”. The most well known “rule” is that of not “planting” chopsticks in the rice standing straight up, making them look like the incense chopsticks seen in tombs, but rather place them next to the bowl.
If on the other hand, it is your guests that are indulging in bad behavior, there’s no problem letting them know that it it’s best to avoid it: the majority of them really don’t want to leave a bad impression (爱面子 ài miànzi, literally “love of face”, or regard for reputation), and therefore will do everything they can to respect the householder and their customs.
A moment of embarrassment speaking about, for example, annoying noises or smells, can save you from future mishaps and leave a good impression with your guests as well!
Hosting Chinese guests: little tips
This last piece of advice is particularly important for those who have a hotel, a bed and breakfast or are just preparing to have Chinese guests at your home.
Usually the Chinese that are accustomed to travel not only have a good enough command of English, but also an open mind, and it’s therefore rather easy to explain eventual requests or misunderstandings; there may be other guests that have greater difficulty with the language, or are unused to different cultures that will more difficult to accommodate.
Normally, a Chinese guest’s requests won’t be very different than any other guest. The only request that you will be 100% sure to receive is for a kettle for hot water (热水壶 rèshuǐ hú or 电热壶 diànrè hú).
It’s therefore a great idea to have one ready for them in their room. For the others, again, communicating clearly and without embarrassment (it’s difficult to speak of, for example, problems related to the use of the toilet) is the best way to live together peacefully and learn the others’ customs.
In hotels and structures where the registration of clients is required, it’s useful to know that on the Chinese person’s passport their name is written both in characters and letters, so you can just simply transcribe them, always remembering that the first word (rarely the first two) is the last name, followed by a comma and the first name.
For anything you don’t understand, you can try to use an app to translate what you want to communicate.
Keep in mind that the majority of apps are more accurate in the English-Chinese version or Chinese-English version than in the to/from of other languages, so if you speak more than one language remember that using the app in English increases your chances of success.
Being a guide for the Chinese
Many Chinese travel to discover the beauty and history of the countries they visit and are extremely curious to learn the history and traditions. For sure they’ll take a billion photos, many of which will be selfies (自拍 zìpāi) taken in shifts, and this, at least in my experience, has been an indisputable fact.
Another of the Chinese’s habits is to travel in large groups that are rather noisy and difficult to handle, who usually don’t pay much attention to what the guide tells them.
Usually the Chinese groups have their own Chinese guide; they’re escorted, most often for legal reasons (a group can’t move without a guide), by a local guide that explains things to the Chinese guide, who will then translate to the rest of the group what they need to know (often summarizing or eliminating parts at their own pleasure).
In most cases, they’re quite happy only visiting the most famous places, so that they can bring home the coveted photographs. In these cases, one of the qualities that they most appreciate is how to take the best quality pictures and also give suggestions on how to frame them and what views to take.
When they take long excursions that include lunch and dinner, it’s good to keep in mind what was said at the beginning of this article so as to best handle the number of guests, communicating to the restaurant staff the needs of your group and giving them directions as to how to best serve the guests.
For small groups and friends, the situation changes.
Obviously, the “famous places” will also be the most popular, and what was said about the photographs remains valid; nevertheless, from personal experience, I discovered that, at least of the Chinese I’ve known, that they’re very curious about everyday life, common objects, historic and ancient roads, and little-traveled landscapes where they can appreciate the silence and quiet.
Again, the best method is to diversify the choice of places, and then seek to understand what activities they prefer. There will be Chinese who love to walk and will like hiking and trekking, while others prefer to travel comfortably by car or bus; some will be fascinated by historical stories, while others will be bored.
The best way to be a good guest (both as the “host” and “hosted”) is to know the person or persons that you’ll be dealing with.
The Chinese have different customs, characters and tastes, and come from different places – as do the rest of us.
You’ll, therefore, find people who can’t wait to try new things, but also “traditionalists” who demand to eat as if they were at home and have all the services they’re used to; some will be understanding if you explain eventual problems, while others will react more impatiently.
You’ll find vegetarians or people who for some reason don’t eat specific foods. In short, the better you know the people you’re dealing with, the more pleasing your attention will be.
I hope this article has been useful! If you have other suggestions or experiences to tell, you can do so in the comments below!