Davidson, N.C.  

Doing business in the Chinese-speaking world



The following article by David Boraks is reprinted from Mandarin Speaks, published by The Chinese Connection, Charlotte, N.C., 1995

Lesson II . Lunch with the Mayor

A group of visiting economic development officials from an eastern U.S. state is visiting a small village on the Yangtze River in China's booming coastal province of Jiangsu.

Lunch is served at a round banquet table in a private room at the town's lone hotel/restaurant, which was developed several years ago by the municipality's largest enterprise -- the village itself -- to attract foreign business. The mayor and other local officials are there. A parade of exotic (and expensive) dishes begins appearing on the table — fish, pork, seafood, vegetables and a few dishes the visitors have never seen or tasted — eel, tripe, turtle, snake.

The local officials speak glowingly about the exotic dishes — and wait, increasingly impatiently, for the guests to reach with their chopsticks. There is a moment of tension. Finally, the mayor offers the eel to the leader of the visiting delegation.

"No thank you," he replies. Tension inches up a notch. Then one of the guests announces they are "vegetarians." It sounds almost as if they have rehearsed their response to the possibility of meeting strange foods.

Trouble already

The conversation, or what little there had been, halts. This fledgling relationship is in trouble already.


The American visitors knew (or should have known) that unusual foods might be part of their business lunch. Their response — to reject their host's offer — was ill- advised. They did not fully comprehend that such a meal is one of the subtle rituals of relationship building that are essential when doing buisiness in China.

The visitors may not have understood that the Chinese officials had prepared a special meal with exotic (and probably expensive) dishes, to show good will and respect to their guests. By refusing the special foods, for whatever reason, they were failing to return the good will and "losing face" for their host.

If you expect to face a situation like this, the most simple advice is to be ready for it. If you are squeamish about strange foods, do all you can to get a taste of China's exotic dishes ahead of time (and that doesn't mean American-style Chinese food from the China Palace down the street). If you have time to travel in China before you begin your business meetings, try to taste the local specialties where you go. If you must do your preparation back home, find out where the Chinese-Americans in your community like to eat and go there on a weekend day, when the kitchen works extra hard to satisfy their fellow immigrants -- the toughest customers. At the very least, read a good guide book or a Chinese cookbook.

And use common sense. You can show respect for your host by accepting his offer of an unusual food. What happens next depends on the situation: You may be able to politely leave the food on your plate or take just a small taste. (If it is a particularly fancy table, you may be happy to find your server will constantly be removing your plate to make room for the next dish.) Your host may even understand your reluctance to taste. But having accepted the food, you will have avoided difficulty. The most important thing is not to flat-out reject the offer.

Drinking with the Chinese

Another potential minefield for westerners is toasting. This is the centerpiece of a formal Chinese meal and you can help build your relationship by taking part. Your hosts may offer you a choice of drinks -- beer, cognac, a Chinese white liquor such as Mao Tai, or perhaps even grape wine. But wait: Before you choose one, it's best to feel out your host, who may already have a beverage in mind. Express an unfamiliarity with the drinks and ask your host to choose. (And hope he does not choose Mao Tai.)

Your meal will be considerably more fun (in more ways than one) if you participate in toasting. But while refusing exotic foods may not be advisable, in this situation, you may have an easier way out. If you do not wish to drink, you can decline by saying you don't drink at all. Or you can say you have an "allergy." Ask for a glass of fruit juice. A word of warning: You will find it much harder to decline a drink if you have already sipped a bit with your hosts. If you don't want to drink too much, don't accept any drink at all and you'll be off the hook.

Even if you do not drink, by all means participate in the toasting, which will go around the table, usually two people at a time toasting and showing respect for one another. The most crucial moment of the meal may well be when the ranking representative of your potential partners raises his glass to you. Be prepared to offer a toast in kind, with words that will show deference and demonstrate your worthiness as a member of a new partnership.

A couple of more points about drinking. First, when a table full of people at a Chinese banquet drinks, they usually all drink the same thing. Do not expect a server to take orders for several different kinds of beer and liquor. Your host will usually order the beverages (and the food, for that matter). And second, at a formal meal such as this, do not expect to sit down and begin sipping your drink by yourself. Instead, you must toast or be toasted in order to sip.

Don't be afraid to toast your host. In fact, that is among the most important items on your agenda at this meal. If you have an opportunity to refill glasses, do so. Be prepared for continuous toasting with individuals at the table. If you're thirsty, then toast someone. Raise your glass no higher than your host's — preferrably lower. If the liquor is expensive, note this.

If you remember all these tips, you will "give face" to your hosts and start your relationship off on the right foot. Try to pick up the visual and verbal cues during the eating and drinking — you will earn respect if you do so. And have fun!

Updated 23 November 1996

Lesson I . Cultural Humility

Perhaps the most useful negotiation skills you can bring to a first meeting with potential Chinese business partners are humility and patience.

Lesson III . The man who knew too much

Of course, you can go overboard in your desire to adopt Chinese customs. Once you begin to gain proficiency, be humble about your knowledge of the other culture; you will never be "as Chinese as the Chinese."

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About the author

David Boraks is an independent writer and producer in Davidson, North Carolina, USA. He has lived in Shanghai and Taipei and traveled widely in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Write him at dboraks@yahoo.com

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Copyright 1995 by David Boraks. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Updated 10 July 2007 (originally posted 23 November 1996)