Monday, June 08, 2009

The Banquet Circuit

As we have traveled from university to university, there have not only been lectures to deliver, but banquets to attend as well. Over time, we have accumulated a series of observations about how this particular form of Chinese hospitality unfolds.

It all starts with the baojian, or private room. From the host's perspective, enjoying a meal behind closed doors is a sign of respect for the honored guests. It signals the idea that not just any old table is good enough for the occasion at hand. As fans of the noise and chaos of Chinese dining rooms, this aspect of banquets has required the four of us to put aside our personal preferences, and spend the time celebrating as our hosts have deemed fit.

As for the food itself, it has invariably turned out not only to be delicious, but to be way too much. Once again, there is some "face" at work in this aspect of the Chinese banquet. To order more than is possible to eat is seen as a way of stressing that no expense will be spared on behalf of the visitors. The upside of this generosity is a wealth of dishes to sample from. The downsides? Well, there is the waste of leaving all that food behind. And then there is the idea of pacing. If we know there is a series of banquets (such as a lunch followed a few hours later by a dinner) being offered on our behalf, we take steps to pace ourselves, so we have room for what's to come. (Augustus! Augustus! Save some room for later!)

When seated at the table, there are a few small protocols that dictate the flow of the meal. For example, the seat located opposite the door of the private room is considered the place of honor. When the dishes arrive, usually one-by-one, the fuwuyuan will place them on the Lazy Susan and spin them over in front of the person occupying the special seat. Not a good location to be in if you do not want to lead the group in the sampling some of the more, to Western palates, exotic dishes that can make appearances at banquets!

And then there are the drinking rituals. For example, how high or low you hold your glass when toasting with the person next to you is a function of your place in the hierarchy of the occasion. This has led us to go to great pains, almost comically, to barely raise our glasses off the table come toast time...Not an easy task for Westerners who are used to throwing their arms way up into the air!

Overall, we have found banquets to be fun, fascinating...and exhausting!



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