Chinese Family Reunion Dinners 101
By Wayne Chan
For those of you who may attend a Chinese banquet or are Chinese and are planning a big get together with
family, I have compiled a set of guidelines that should help you in your preparation.
My qualifications? My parents have 17 brothers and sisters among them. Growing up, I attended so many family
reunions that I sometimes wondered when the separation occurred that justified having another family reunion.
With that said, here are some helpful hints on how to proceed, in chronological order:
Excerpted from "The Problem With Being Perfect ". Reproduced with permission of the author.
- You must select a restaurant (Chinese, of course), in the most concentrated part of town, on a
busy Friday night (in your local Chinatown), preferably with no free parking in the vicinity that will
force you to drive past a number of pay parking lots in order to park free in a dimly lit alleyway close to a neighborhood pawn
- Once you have arrived, you must make sure the restaurant you have chosen has ambient noise loud
enough to drown out any kind of meaningful conversation. After all, this is a family reunion. It’s not
the time or place for any kind of small talk.
- Once the restaurant has been chosen, adults are seated at one table and children sit at another.
All tables are round and large enough to seat approximately 15 people. All children must sit at one table,
regardless of how many are in attendance. If there are so many children that some must share a seat or
play “tag-team dining”, so be it.
- The first big test of the evening is in ordering the appropriate dishes. The dishes ordered for
the adults must be so expensive that you may need to get a second mortgage on your home to pay for it.
However, it is important for you to give the impression that you always eat this way, as if you normally order shark fin soup
at $150/bowl. This image projects success.
It is also a good idea to order something off the menu in which the animal of choice is cooked whole and
presented in it’s entirety for the enjoyment of the guests. As a rule of thumb, the larger the carcass, the better.
Dishes for the adult table are seafood based. On the other hand, dishes for the kid’s table are carbohydrate
based. The dishes for the children must include vast quantities of starch, particularly rice and noodles. Non-carbohydrate
based dishes, such as sweet and sour pork, should include the smallest bits of the toughest meat possible, covered
with a thick layering of starch, and then deep-fried beyond recognition. As a side note, the meat within the starch
must be so small as to make it difficult to detect or taste until you have flossed later in the evening and dislodged
it from between your teeth.
Although it is hard to find, a children’s specialty would be a dish of nuggets made entirely of starch,
then covered with flour batter, deep fried and covered with a gooey, sugary red sauce which should eliminate any nutritional
Finally, for budgeting purposes, the dollar ratio between dishes served for the adults vs. children should
be approximately 35 to one.
- When the first dishes arrive, it is best to ask the waitress to slow everything down so as to make each
course a test in patience. Chinese tradition dictates that true prosperity allows the family the luxury to slowly
enjoy their meal. If, in the course of your meal, you notice that the newspaper delivery boy is going about his rounds,
you have accomplished your task.
- During the meal, the role of all those who attend is to show mock amazement and to beseech the host that
they have ordered too much. This is a customary ritual designed to convey the guest’s observation that the host has
enough money to feed a small army. The host must respond in kind by ordering five more dishes.
Another Chinese custom is to communicate your pleasure in the dishes by eating as loudly as possible. This
conveys the pleasure you are experiencing to your gracious host. Once the sound level of smacking lips and gums begins
to sound like a chorus of tap dancers, you have made your feelings known.
- Towards the end of the meal, the roles of the elders in the party are somewhat different. It is their
responsibility to grade each dish based on how much they disliked it. The grading scale is between a B- and
a D, and it is customary to add some judicial comment along with their evaluation. Comments such as “The
fish in that dish
is too fishy tasting” or “This used to be one of their specialties” are always acceptable observations.
- After the last dish is finished, toothpicks are handed out so that everyone in the party can join in
a round of teeth cleaning. Of course, etiquette demands that while one hand is poking and prodding, the other
hand covers the mouth to obstruct any direct viewing by others seated at the table.
- At the end of the meal, the waitress will promptly present a bill for the evening’s festivities. It is
at this point that at least two or three of those in attendance must argue over who will pay for the dinner.
The negotiations that ensue must be loud, insistent, and unwavering. It is customary and even suggested that
someone grab the bill
and walk towards the waitress with the intent to pay. It is also appropriate for the other person to follow
him and grab their shoulder in order to continue bickering. However, tripping the person as they are walking
up with the bill
is considered to be stepping over the lines of proper etiquette.
One simple tip to help determine how fervently you should fight over the bill: For the most part, the less
money you make, the more insistent you should be to pick up the tab. This is called, “Being in denial”.
- On the drive back home with each family going their separate ways, it is appropriate for the adults in
the car to repeatedly question, “Why do we always have to go through the same thing every time we get together?”
The children, slouched in the back seat and stuffed to their ears in carbs, should promptly respond by burping in unison.