Wednesday, 5 February 2014

In celebration of a place I love #2: Banquets!

In celebration of Chinese New Year I'm blogging a few stories, emails and photos of my time there.
Today - Chinese banquets! 

I wrote this post on my Chinese blog (which has long since dissappeared :-( ) after returning from observing my student teachers on teaching practice in the country. Despite having enjoyed endured many banquets at to this point, the concentration of banquets I experienced on this short 4 day trip almost pushed me over the edge. I felt 'i was made to eat lots' didnt really sum up the experience so this was my attempt to explain the phenomenon known as the Chinese Banquet! 

*** N.B. I feel that its important at this point to make a disclaimer and say that I do actually LOVE chinese food. Its my absolute favourite and I still search for 'authentic' chinese food in the UK. If you ever get the chance to try the genuine non-sloppy, salty, sour and hot food from Hunan or Sichuan do. You wont regret it! ***

One of my students 'Fairy' (self chosen name) doing a great job teaching one of her first classes
Chinese banquets are something of a lavish affair and are given as a standard gesture of welcome.  Despite the fact that China is still a developing country, they will always have at least 3 times more then everyone can eat, even in the smallest towns and villages. That’s even after you have eaten way more then your fill and are splitting at the seams ‘post Christmas dinner’ style! 

A banquet is an occasion where your guests will try to impress you by giving you the best/ richest tasting dishes. They will order the most expensive specialties of the area, which means you will inevitably get a goats head,  sea cucumber, snake or something equally as nauseous set down in front of you: the most expensive dishes are generally the odd ones!  As a foreigner in China, wherever you go, no matter why you are there, you stand out like a sore thumb, and because people want to impress you (its a great source of pride for them that you would visit),  you are very lucky to avoid a banquet. 

An ornately carved bird made from pumpkin to help decorate the table

Now banquets would be quite pleasant occasions, if it wasn’t for the fact that you didn’t know what tortures you would have to endure to keep your guest happy.  
First you HAVE to try ALL of the ‘delicious’ dishes – bear in mind that the most scrumptious things in the eyes of your host are likely to be the things you least want to see sitting in your rice bowl. As a general rule, your guest will pass you the choicest morsel, whether that be the meatiest eyeball, or the fattiest turtle leg (always telling you its medicinal properties or how good these things are for your skin) and then watch you with eager anticipation, to see just how much you enjoy gulping down said item. To refuse would mean that your guest would ‘lose face’, something to be avoided at all costs in Chinese culture.  I have however become very crafty at hiding the bits I don’t want to eat under everything else in my bowl. Then comes the drinking...


Now drinking is usually one thing I enjoy doing very much on all but one occasion – this one! The alcohol is usually not one of your choice (no g&t's in rural China) instead the preferred lunchtime tipple (and I think I’d be safe in saying this) of a great number of Chinese men is Baijui: rice wine – on average 50% proof - tastes and smells like puke. You can still feel the full after effects for up to 3 days afterwards as it has a tendency to repeat on you! 

Now the average Chinese man has been drinking this for years, at lunch and dinner time so they are pro’s. I on the other hand drink of little of it as possible as it does really nasty things to me, but when it comes to banquets, there is usually little choice in the matter. Hence more torturous moments (unless you learn the trick as I did recently, of very swiftly tipping the contents of your glass out when the host is otherwise occupied – they now think I’m fab at drinking Baijiu!).

The average banqueting conversation (usually with as many officials as you can fit in the room) generally goes like this:
Headmaster: “Miss Katie, Welcome to our school, thank you so much for teaching the students. Ganbei!!!
(all in Chinese of course – even the English teachers barely speak English – Ganbei means that you stand up and finish your glass. The literal translation is ‘dry glass’– so whether its beer (very seldom) or red wine(something that resembles what red wine is really like in appearance, but is disappointingly much more like a very sickly sherry  – nothing like a good Merlot here) or Baijiu – usually Baijiu – you have to drink up.)
Headmaster: “Have the ducks (or fish’s) head” – always given to the most important person at the meal.
Me:  “No thanks, seeing eyes staring at me from my bowl kind of puts me off my food.” (so they put stomach in your bowl instead)
H: “Nevermind. Let me toast you then. Ganbei!”
Minutes later…
H: “Have a goats foot ”
Me: “Erm, thanks, not really too much meat on feet is there?"
H: “Of course there is, just nibble around the toes. Would you like to try the dog hot pot then?”
Me: “ Well… actually in our country we don’t like to eat dog. We usually keep them as pets”
H: “O.k. well help yourself anyway. Ganbei!!!”

We then down another glass of alcohol.
Cries of “Ganbei!” proceed throughout the meal with everyone having to ‘ganbei’ everyone else as a sign of respect with people standing and sitting with such regularity its like a game of musical chairs. 

The meal in all its excess continues for about 2 hours, with different dishes being brought at regular intervals. It usually comes to an end with jaozi (meat dumplings) and rice, by which time you would be hard pressed to find a single spare millimetre left in your stomach to put any more food!  Everyone departs from the table staggering and swaying along from the excesses of food and drink – and that’s only at lunchtime!
'Maybe ban gan bei???' (half gan bei?)

Needless to say that after observing teaching practice where I was banqueted noon and night for 4 days (I wish I was exagerating!), I didn’t need to eat another thing for about a  week! 

I did however learn how to play my comrades at their own game...

At one point I thought I’d cope better drinking wine or beer instead, so I played the sweet innocent female, saying that baijiu was too much for me, and being a woman, they allowed me to swap beverages (if I were male I would have been stuck with baijiu!). Every time I toasted one of them I made them join me in whatever I was drinking and soon discovered that when they move away from their normal alcohol, they actually get drunk very quickly! Lol! Consequently, I had lots of fun with that and decided to use my foreign status to my own advantage. I started requesting that we Ganbei in beer instead (being the request of the foreigner they complied), and there were actually occasions where I was the soberest one at the table!!! Ha ha! I can actually say that I’m now looking forward to the next banquet! I’m requiring quite a reputation for being able to hold my own and I think I have them running scared!!! World domination is next!!!


  1. Ganbei! So interesting to read more about the somewhat infamous banquets! Hope your woodland crowns are making good progress.

  2. :-) Actually I've made VERY little progress as am back to my normal day job today! Doh! Fingers crossed for the weekend eh!

  3. I'm enjoying your posts about China. I'm not much of a traveler, but do like hear other's stories.

    1. Glad you are enjoying them Kelly. I'm not much of a traveller these days either (not that I wouldn't love to be) so reliving it on here it fun!


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