Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mixed eating

I’ve lived in France so long now I’ve stopped telling those stories about the clash of cultures and what you don’t know might really embarrass you. I guess I don’t really have those stories happening to me any more. A sign of progress? Of acclimatization? It’s a little sad to pass that stage, actually: it made for such great blogfodder.

The same thing is happening to a couple of my friends, though. Let me tell you about it.
Laisheng is a grad student from the countryside in China, just finishing up the year he’s spending in our lab, learning the ropes of how to find mutations in breast cancer genes. In the 10 months so far, he’s learned to speak a little French, and his English has improved tremendously. His table manners too.

Laisheng is excruciatingly polite, but there are blind spots. If you’ve never thought of something as rude, it just isn’t. It’s just normal to bring your plate of food very close to your mouth to eat. Or, if the plate is big like they are at the cafeteria, you just lower your head to it. And it’s just normal to suck your food off the end of your chopsticks/fork/spoon instead of putting the utensil in your mouth. Knives are for the kitchen - if it’s on the table it’s either bite-sized already or meant to be picked up with your fingers.
So you might imagine, if you’re a Western European, how disturbing it could be to sit across from Laisheng at lunchtime. We did deal with this, I hope in a sufficiently tactful way, and now not only does Laisheng eat fairly quietly and sitting upright, but he even differentiates salad from meat & potatos from dessert, rather than mixing them all together.

I had a group over for dinner back in June, and it was his turn to cook for us. A whole new experience in cultural mealtime differences. First off, he brought a friend over to do the cooking, since on his own he doesn’t go much past rice. We’re happy to meet new people, but we thought she’d be sitting down with us and we’d get to know her and all. No, no, she was just there to cook! Her boyfriend was picking her up at 8 sharp, but we didn’t realize that until 8.

The Chinese way, you eat the plates as they’re prepared, nice and hot. The French way, nobody dares touch a fork until everybody is seated and served. So there were the first plates, cooling, and we wondering when our chef might come out to the garden and partake with us and possibly be introduced. It took some doing to get her and Laisheng to come out and spend a few minutes with the guests gathered hungrily around the table, explaining that we just don’t feel right eating without them. We compromised on starting the meal together and allowing Jen to go back inside to finish cooking the remaining dished while her beau honked for her in the street. If only I had a bigger kitchen we could have arranged for most everything to be ready at once instead of in stages. If only the couple had just joined us.

Then there was the serving issue. Naturally, we set the dishes out family-style, which we’re not strangers to. Each free to choose how much to eat of what. The Chinese way, you take food off the main dish with the same chopsticks you’re eating with. The French way, there’s a spoon for serving and never shall it touch a diner’s lips. I don’t really mind the Chinese way, because if you are indeed using chopsticks (which we weren’t), you pretty much touch only the morsel you’re taking, leaving the rest untouched. Some of my French guests, however, can’t stomach the idea of eating from a dish somebody else’s fork has been in.
So that was all explained rapidly, and new serving spoons were brought out and everything was fine. More wine all around!


steven said...

wouldn't it be cool if international affairs could be settled so easily and so effectively. oh, and everyone goes home full of tasty food! steven

Jessica Maybury said...

French dining etiquette sounds very much like Irish dining etiquette.

Titus said...

Brilliant story! More wine all round.
I remember the first time I sat down to eat with my Japanese sister-in-law. King Prawns still in their shells. She ate the lot. Same with crab claws.

I always think it's funny the way we're happy to kiss people, but don't like sharing their flatware and cutlery, or their toothbrushes.

NanU said...

well, the french 'hello' kisses are just a brush on the cheek, often no contact at all. certainly no spit, Titus! Spit it for lovers.