By Jack Turley, Chinese Banquet Survivor
There are many spoken phrases that send shivers through my spine. Perhaps the most frightening of all, uttered night after night during past business trips to China was “As our honored guest, we have a special surprise for you. Tonight we are having a traditional Chinese banquet!”
Oh please God no.
I long ago fell in love with China, and it is still my favorite place in the world. The people are amazing, the culture beyond compare, and the cities and countryside are mesmerizing. The hospitality that a speaker from the West receives is remarkable.
The food can be…uh…interesting.
I’m not one to talk trash about the textural subtleties of Duck Tongue, or think disparagingly about Chicken Claws (or even the more rare Chicken Beaks). You won’t even see me cringe when given the traditional honored guest serving of Fish Eyeballs. Unusual food aside, it is an incredible place, and I recommend that you put it at the top of your bucket list.
I spent most of my time in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. There were regional differences in the food, both subtle and extreme, but the one thing that unifies the palates of this geographically huge and diverse country is their wine.
It is awful. I mean really awful.
All Chinese banquets have many things in common. For instance, the tables are big (the smallest ones seat 12), round, and have a lazy Susan in the middle. Upon those lazy Susans will be placed tons of food, and they will keep bringing more no matter what you say. If you are foolish enough to clean your plate, (which insults your hosts by showing they did not provide enough food for his guests), people will take food off their plate and put it on yours.
Another commonality to Chinese banquets is that there will be toasts. Lots of toasts. And Chinese custom is not to say a quick sentence, tip your glass to the crowd, and have a sip of your drink. Oh no. Chinese toasts are only complete when your glass is empty, and as the guest of honor, there is no doubt that your glass will be kept full at all times.
The meal will not be considered a success unless each person at the table has made a toast (NOTE: always try and sit at the smallest table). Twelve people at your table means at least twelve toasts. If you’re lucky, you will be at a very upscale restaurant with Australian, Chilean, or Argentinian wine. On very rare occasions, you will be served French or American wine. But most likely, you will be served something from China’s burgeoning wine industry.
Chinese wine is not all that bad. It has a proven history as an industrial solvent, a bathroom disinfectant, and a valve lubricant. That the rich, fertile wine regions of China receive their grape-enhancing sunlight through thick, smelly smog-filtered skies can only be seen as a positive.
Hey, they’re trying. They’re really trying. And given the resources being applied, it’s only a matter of time before it approaches international quality standards.
But for now, while being served a bottle of “Xanxchao Vineyards ’08 Reddish Grape”, you may wonder if your host is indeed trying to kill you. Do not worry. It is simply not so, no matter how much the wine’s afterburn makes you suspicious.
And if you follow my advice, based on my hard-earned experience, there is a way out of this. My many trips (and several stomach pumpings) have taught me that your secret weapon is in anticipating the toast. The best way to do this is to always keep your eyes moving to see if someone is looking at you, about to raise a glass. If you can see it coming, you have three plays available to you:
- Go for your cell phone – right as you see your host go for his glass of grape sludge, pick up your cell phone, look at it, raise your finger toward your host in that silent “so sorry, I have to take this” gesture, and walk away from the table. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to time your “call” to last for as many as three more toasts.
- Prepare a dash to the bathroom – as in the example above, anticipate and stand, saying in the only really important Chinese word you bothered to memorize, “cèsuǒ” (toilet). You should be able to stay away from the table for at least six toasts, seven if you come back with your hand over your stomach and a pained expression on your face.
- Play the jetlag card – halfway through dinner, confide in your host that the jetlag is overpowering you, and it would bring honor to your family and glory to your company if you could be excused from the festivities early. Do this even if it is your third week in China.
Someday China will emerge as one of the great wine making countries. We’ll all be dead by then, but your grandchildren (or perhaps their grandchildren) will in the future enjoy wonderful wine, expertly crafted, and at a cost of only 12 cents a glass. Until then, cover for me…I think they are about to do another toast.