Chinese Banquets: A How To

Well, since there’s not really been much going on in the Jing this past week worth writing about, I’m going to give you an education on Chinese banquets. They’re actually quite a lot more complex than you might imagine; the whole who-sits-where and who-does-what are things that you need to know if you don’t want to offend or come across as ignorant. I do realise that there isn’t an extremely high likelihood of you all being invited to huge Chinese banquets, so you can just chalk this post up to being like one of those days you get lost in Wikipedia and learn about the difference between varying types of bees or the benefits of Reiki healing

Banquets tend not to take place in the main dining area of a restaurant. In most nice restaurants (especially in small town China) there will be an upstairs that has at least five private rooms. These are the places where banquets tend to go down.

The most important thing surrounding banquet etiquette is the seating plan. Tables are usually round, and have a lazy susan (love this name, so irrelevant!) so that each person can sample every dish that is ordered. The host of the banquet sits at the central seat facing the door, whilst the honoured guest, or most important guest, will sit to his/her immediate right. The second most important guest will sit to the left of the host. Without status to define the importance of each guest, the seating plan is arranged by age, with the young ‘uns taking the spot with their back directly to the door. The young ‘uns also tend to pour tea for everybody in absence of a waiter/waitress. As business is often done over dinner, banquets are commonplace.

The food at banquets will be pre-ordered by the host, and usually expensive dishes are ordered as a show of taste and wealth. Although there are no particular dishes that must be ordered you will generally find that each banquet contains at least one type of soup and one fish. Rice, noodles or any other carb will not be provided unless you asked for it, as they are seen as cheap fillers – you may even offend the host by asking for carbs, as it shows that the food ordered was not to your satisfaction, so be careful on this one.

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Next up, drinking. My favourite! Chinese drinking culture differs hugely from western drinking culture. Nowhere is this more obvious than at a banquet. As a rule people don’t sip at alcohol (that’s what tea is for); everybody at the table will be poured a shot and a toast will be given, upon which the shot will be downed (wash, rinse, repeat at least 10 times). I actually find it kind of sad. When I was out in Xinjiang the headmaster of our school had a wooden leg because he’d continued to drink after being diagnosed with diabetes. Another teacher’s husband died from a mild heart attack that any healthy adult would have survived, but, owing to the punishment his body had been put through by years of hard drinking multiple times per week, he didn’t. Anyway, slight sidetrack there. One more tip about drinking in China – whenever you cheers somebody with a senior status, be that age-wise or position-wise, you should make sure the rim of your glass is lower than theirs. This is an acknowledgement of their seniority.

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Yours truly (right), cheers-ing with the dreaded Bai Jiu way back in ’07

Lastly, hosts deliberately over order. There is always meant to be food left on the table at the end of a banquet. This is to show that the host is generous, and provided a banquet that was more than enough for everybody.

Slightly different post this week. Hope you learned something!

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Bali: Just Go There

The first thing that I noticed about Bali was the sky. During the daytime huge clouds drifted across the sky like floating candy floss. It was so beautiful that I sat by the pool, beer in hand, and watched the sky most of the days we were there.

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When the sky wasn’t busy being beautiful it was busy pouring its guts out. We had one amazing day, on which Siren and I both managed to get sunburned, and then it absolutely chucked it down for four straight days. About the rain… I think I’ll just quote Forrest Gump “We been through every kind of rain there is. “Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night…”

Somehow in the midst of all this rain I caught a cold. Yup, I had sun burn and a cold at the same time. As you can imagine I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but then in some pre-ordained amalgamation of cheesy festive cheer the rain ceased, and when I awoke on Christmas day there was a beautiful clear sky. So, being sticklers for tradition, we did all the normal Christmas things: fed monkeys, smoked Shisha and went swimming.

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The blue skies kept up for the remainder of the holiday, allowing us to climb Mt. Batur (an active volcano) in time for the sunrise, which was absolutely breathtaking.

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It seems somehow fitting that the last night we spent in Bali had the most beautiful sunset of the whole holiday; lazy hues of red and purple covered the sky as the sun melted into the horizon.

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In short: Bali is fantastic. Go there!

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Off to Bali, see yerrr!

Bali

So, my girlfriend and I are heading over to Bali tomorrow for 9 blissful days. I’ve never spent Christmas in a hot place so this is going to be kind of peculiar for me. Still though, I’m not complaining; a week and a half of sun, sand and relaxing? It’d be rude not to.

Even though my pasty flesh seems incapable of deviating from its two modes of ghostly white or lobster red (you can take the Englishman out of England…), I’m still going to be out there loving the sunshine.

Another thing I’m really excited about is having a week of clean air. You know you live in Beijing when one of the first things you look forward to is clean air. Hopefully this short respite will lower my chances of becoming a Beijing black-lung candidate.

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One can but dream…

Anyway, wishing you all an early Merry Christmas. See you next year!

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Down and Out In Beijing

Walking to the subway station one morning this summer I was greeted by the usual contrast of rich, poor, new and old: the broken neon sign of a run-down brothel, a gleaming real estate agents, an old man selling fruit from the back of a trike. Further on a grand concrete building came into sight, the entrance dominated by large red stars, the clear sign of a government building. In front of the stars stood the national flag; majestic when the wind blows, but on this still, muggy August morning it drooped like a deflated balloon.

Outside the building there sat a group of around twenty migrant workers, skin burned dark brown from spending the whole summer working outside.This was the second day in a row that I’d seen them sat there, so I was curious as to what was going on. They looked worried, and from the scene I gathered that they hadn’t been paid for some work they had done, and had come to this place to peacefully protest.

They sat on ragged blankets, leaning against the fencing outside the building, out of luck, out of money and out of hope. Their prematurely wrinkled faces told stories of harsh labour and harsher conditions, poor wages and constant sacrifice to provide some semblance of security for their children.

I heard their lungs rattle as they breathed, broken only to hock up piles of blackened mucus or light up cigarettes. They looked at me and other people as we walked past on our way to work. I wonder what went through their mind as we went by: Envy? Resignation? Despair? All three?

On that particular morning the police had arrived. Not to help the migrant workers get their pay, but to shoo them away. Although the workers had only come to peacefully ask for help getting money that was rightfully theirs, there were too many of them in one place. They were causing a scene, and scenes are not tolerated.

The bitter irony that the very government who once upon a time dreamed of equality now fenced out its most vulnerable citizens was, sadly, not lost on me.

Where will they go?

What will they eat?

Nobody cares, as long as it’s not here.

migrant workers

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A Truly Horrendous Massage

In May I went travelling to a national park called Zhangjiejie with my mum and her friend, Anne. We spent the whole day wandering around with enormous backpacks on, marvelling at the scenery and just generally enjoying ourselves. By the end of the day we were all walked out, so when we saw a place to go and get a foot massage we thought it’d be the perfect end to a great day.

I should have known something was up when they told me the price was 20 yuan (£2) for 40 minutes, but alas…

We plonked ourselves down in the seats and were each assigned a person (Masseur is pushing it a bit!) to massage our feet.

From the get go my massagey person (MP) dug her thumb into the arch of my foot hard enough for me to yelp. Looking across at my mum and Anne I could see they were receiving equally uncomfortable massages, so I told them all to go easy on us. It got slightly better, but we were all still clenching our teeth throughout the entire ‘sole’ section.

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A far cry from the massages we got

Before long my MP had made it to the calves section of the massage.

“Would you like to try some of this traditional oil?” she asked, “it’s great for alleviating muscle tension. It will cost an extra 20 yuan, but I’ll do one leg for free to show you how good it is.”

“Alright, I’ll give it a try.” I said. She slapped some of the herbal oil on my leg and started massaging it. As soon as she put on the oil, she deliberately started massaging much softer than she had been doing before, and for the first time since the massage began I stopped clenching my teeth. I still wasn’t a big  enough fan of it to go for the other leg though, so when she asked if I want to pay the extra I told her that I’d be fine without.

As soon as I said that, she moved onto the other leg. She started squeezing it as hard as she could and punching it like it called her firstborn son a bastard.

“What are you doing?!” I asked, alarmed.

“What? I’m massaging this leg exactly the same as I massaged the other one. It’s just that I’m not using the oil.” She said.

“Well, can you go a bit easier please?” I asked, seeing straight through the bullshit.

“This is already very soft, you need the oil.” She urged.

This whole debate went on for another few minutes until eventually I was so worked up that I just said to her “Look, if you bring up this sodding oil one more time we’re going to get up and leave!” Finally she gave it a rest, and after another incredibly un-relaxing 10 minutes the three of us left with our legs and feet in more pain than when we went in. You know a massage is bloody awful when you feel ripped off and you only paid £2…

This isn’t the first time somebody has tried this kind of thing on me either! One time a few years back somebody approached me and asked if they could clean my shoes. After convincing me it was free, I was game.

Quelle surprise, one pristine white trainer later “pay me a further 45 yuan and I’ll do the other one for you.”

You chose the wrong man, my friend. I’ll walk to the end of the earth with one clean shoe and one dirty shoe for no reason other than to spite you.

So, the words barely out of his mouth I upped and left, leaving the bewildered fiend to find somebody else who would give in to his bootie blackmail.

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How to Cure a Cold

This past week I’ve been sick with a cold. It’s the season, I suppose. Everybody has been sniffling and coughing away for weeks now; it was only a matter of time before the fiendish virus latched its filthy paws on me. Since I’ve caught it everybody has been giving me suggestions on how to get better. It happens anywhere I suppose, but Chinese medicine is so far apart from the western perspective that I’m accustomed to that the suggestions are wildly different. In the UK if I were to catch a cold, most peoples reaction would be “rest up, drink plenty of water” and that would be that. I mean, after all, it’s only a cold, right?

But when I told one friend here about my cold she said that I should go to the hospital for an intravenous drip (it’s so common here that they have rooms here solely for the purpose of taking drips).

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A second friend told me that I have to avoid duck, pork, lamb, dog (no worries there), crab, clam, vinegar and tomatoes until I was better. My head is so befuddled by this cold that I’d have to keep a list just to remember all the things I couldn’t eat, and I’d probably end up forgetting anyhow…

The third friend told me I should go and do 拔罐 (cupping), a process that I’ve not quite mustered up the courage to do as it looks like actual torture! Cupping is the process of using heat to create vacuum suction, usually on your back. It is done in the belief that all of the negative energy causing sickness will be sucked out of your body.

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Those fellas stick around for about 4 or 5 days. Maybe you can understand why I’m not so keen to do it…

After numerous other people giving me their ten cents on how to get better I’ve decided it’s time to stop talking about my cold. I know people mean well, but unsolicited advice really bugs me, especially if I have to feign gratitude afterwards. Plus this cold is turning me into a bit of a grouch (if you couldn’t tell)…

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Autumn

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I was happily surprised that we’ve had an Autumn this year in Beijing. Normally it goes from blistering heat to teeth-chattering cold in about 3 weeks flat, all but skipping my favourite season completely. You spend the whole sweaty summer wishing it was cold and the whole winter waiting for it to warm up. It’s been nice to have a good couple of months being perfectly happy with the weather just as it is!

But sadly, it can’t all be perfect; all of the corner store fridges have now been turned off. If you want a chilled soft drink you have to buy it and put it in your own fridge at home. People here think it’s truly bizarre that westerners still want to drink cold drinks in the winter. If you ask a shop owner for a cold drink you might as well have asked them to shave your back for you, as they’ll be equally shocked and baffled by either question.

Another uniquely Chinese problem faced in early November is in regard to heating. Centralised heating comes on around November 15th. You have no control over the heating in your own apartment here; it is turned on for you in November, and turned off for you in March, all courtesy of The Man. You can’t even adjust the temperature of the heating, so it’s quite common for people to open windows to let out some of the warmth. It’s an incredibly inefficient and peculiar approach to heating, and something I still have trouble getting my head around after more than two years here.

Anyway, in just two days time I can sit in my incredibly warm apartment with my freshly shaven back home-chilled beverages and enjoy the remainder of the fall from the window, and it’s exactly what I intend to do.

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