Etiquette at Dinners

We learned about Chinese business etiquette at meals. It’s remarkable how hierarchal and authority-driven it all is.

American etiquette, vis-a-vis power and status, might call for the most important person to sit at the head of a rectangular table, collect the check, and initiate a toast if necessary.

Chinese etiquette is so much more elaborate. The most important person sits facing the door and then people sit in different positions based on decreasing levels of importance. If you chime drink glasses with someone of higher status, your cup is to be slightly below theirs when the cups connect. There’s much more. It’s complicated.

Eating in China

What’s the history of family-style eating? You know, the method of food serving where it’s all put on communal plates in the middle and each person helps himself.

I’m told that this became the Chinese-way originally as a way to save / conserve resources and food.

Is it possible that this style of eating somehow reduces overall individualistic tendencies or culture in a country in general? (I strongly prefer individual plates to family style.)

Other observations on Chinese eating: there is usually a single bowl or plate and all food you eat gets managed from that bowl (usually filled with rice on the bottom). The idea of side plates or bowls is uncommon (I even asked Chinese people about this and they confirmed that extra side, empty plates for bread or other food are rare).

Given the smallness of a typical plate or bowl, you inevitably have to put some food directly on the table (not on a plate). Or some food just spills over. Given how unclean most of the tables are, food gets dirtier more easily.

Chopsticks get the job done most of the time but there are times which call for a knife. But knives aren’t used.

As in all poor countries, Coca-Cola is more common than water at meals. Anything but water is served at meals.

Napkins are not a big deal, and sometimes not offered at all at cheap places.

A Rural Village Outside Beijing

In any country it’s true: the big city doesn’t represent the whole country. California is way more and way different than San Francisco and Los Angeles alone. New York is not America.

In China this is important to remember. How many tourists have visited Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and then report back home on “China”? Really, they saw Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Not China.

Yesterday, we drove four hours north of Beijing to a small village admittedly ready to accept tourists but still pretty basic. It was beautiful countryside. Less polluted, more breathable than Beijing proper. We hiked around the village, around water, up a mountain of sorts, and took in all the natural beauty. And it was beautiful, the rolling hills, sun off the lake, the grass and trees. I’ll post pictures later to make the point.

At night some of us lay on the top of the castle and watched the stars, to the play-by-play astronomy commentary by a budding astrophysicist. I haven’t done that in awhile — stargazing. I should do it more often. On a clear night, in a non-urban place, with meteor-showers in the sky: this is quite a tranquil experience. If you ever want to feel unimportant and small, just spend a night looking at the stars (lying down — on your back — do it right for the full experience).

The following morning we went to the less touristy part of the Great Wall. I was at the Great Wall three years ago, but the section closest to Beijing, and so packed with tourists (and thus, touts). The section we went to this time around was remarkably uncrowded and therefore more pleasant. What to say about the Wall? The great Richard Nixon put it best, perhaps, when it said something to the effect of, “It is, indeed, a very great wall.”

I appreciated the beauty of the non-cityscape, but found myself itching to return to Beijing, oddly enough. I think this was for the high speed internet connection and showers that awaited me; I’m guessing if I had those amenities in the village, I would have wanted to stay a great while longer.

Back in China

“Get me out of here.” Those were my first thoughts upon landing back in Beijing after the pretty painless 12 hour non-stop from San Francisco.

It’s not the first time I’ve had moments of instant regret of sorts when arriving in a place that’s dirty, dangerous, poor, or some combination. It’s usually followed by some immediate action toward following through on the regret — checking to see if I can change flights, change hotels, or in some other way improve my situation. I remember settling into my “bed” in the hut that was planted in the water deep in the Amazon jungle in 2008, bugs all around me, and thinking, “Why oh why did I leave behind my nice lifestyle in the U.S.?”

Usually, though, things improve, and I look back and feel proud and glad I did it.

In Beijing, I think my early discomfort stemmed from sleep deprivation more than anything. I’m still recovering from South America. But there are also real things about China that make life difficult, and no matter how good the “moments” are, China will never be one of my favorite countries. The smog and pollution in Beijing is insane; the language is absolutely foreign to me and I have trouble communicating even basic things; the food is decent but usually too spicy, even in the east (the west’s cuisine is crazy spicy); there are holes not toilets.

My first two weeks in Beijing I will enjoy the soup-to-nuts services of my hosts and fellow delegates here. Thinking back to when I was here solo in 2006, I am absolutely amazed I got around and functioned on my own. I think once you have a host or someone who knows the ropes, you immediately cede control of the situation and become pretty helpless on your own. You’re in “follower” mode. Had I landed in Beijing knowing I’d be fending for myself, my attitude would be different and more aggressive toward making myself get to where I need to go.

In 2006 I was in China in October. Now it’s August. Then, the weather was pleasant, save for smog. Now, the weather is miserably hot and humid. If I’ve learned one thing through travel, it’s that I really do poorly in extreme temps in either direction. I’m a man of moderate temperature and regular fog.

The good news: I think I’ve gotten most of my negativity out of the way, the sky is actually blue today in Beijing, and I’m beginning to get some sleep on my rock-hard mattress of sorts. I feel like better times are on the way.

Impossible Loads on the Rickshaws – Pictures

My friend Geoff Workman sent me this link to incredible pictures of people carrying impossible loads on a bike or rickshaw. I couldn’t capture these sights on my own camera, so I’m glad there’s a web site that does it so well itself.

Link: Lords of� the Logistic.