Speaking of that dinner (see below), it was quite a feast: platter after platter of meats, noodles, vegetables and fish brought to each table of 12.
But before the first bite, I can’t help but think of the book I’m making my way through, “Tai-Pan,” about the British colonizing of Hong Kong in 1841. Throughout, the British refer to the Chinese as “heathens,” while the Chinese brand the Brits as “barbarians.” There are vivid descriptions of the Brits eating with only their hands, tearing apart chickens, the grease dripping into lice-ridden beards.
I’m new to China. And I’ve yet to broach this with my students. But I wonder if a sense of “barbaric” Western customs still resonates. (In my first trip to a restaurant here, they served me a fork and knife. I had to request chopsticks, like the other diners.)
So I wait and watch how the students serve themselves. Yet no one has. I ask why, and am told that tradition bestows first dibs to “elders” – that would be me and another veteran journalist seated at the table, Zoher Abdoolcarim, the Asia editor of TIME International.
The eyes are on me. Rex helpfully advises me not to use my own chopsticks, but the communal ones resting beside the dishes. Fortunately, I wield a mean pair of chopsticks. Modestly helping myself to a bit of beef and snowpeas, I succeed in not dropping a single piece.
Then the others dig in. When a platter of two large broiled fish is later placed in front of Zoher, I realize I had it easy. He grew up in Hong Kong, as his ancestors first came from India 130 years ago to trade in textiles. But now he’s protesting having to be the one to tackle the fish.
The students insist, so he deftly plucks a symbolic piece. Overall, the meal goes off without an embarrassing hitch. At least, not that I’m aware of.