Have you eaten?
A dinner invitation has a special and different meaning in the Middle Kingdom than it does in the West, as it is the most common form of gift-giving that exists and, therefore, it is rarely thought of or treated as just a social pleasantry as we might naturally assume. In China, two people are expected to maintain something of an unspoken yet, nevertheless, rigid ¡隆茫balance sheet¡隆脌 over time in regard to reciprocity.
Aside from being invited to a banquet dinner in your honor by your employer shortly after you first arrive (and this is not a gesture that is bestowed upon most), acceptance of a dinner invitation indicates that you are both prepared and willing to reciprocate by responding favorably to some forthcoming request. On occasion, you will know why you have been invited out to dinner, as you would have first offered something of value¡ªbut, more often than not, you will be initially showered with a very elaborate dinner as a way of obligating you for what will soon follow.
If you are not certain of what will be expected of you in exchange for that dinner, you should not accept the invitation until you have first ascertained what that expectation will be. Instead, politely defer your decision, e.g., "That is so nice of you, but I"m wondering if we couldn"t first sit down to a nice cup of tea so we can talk without distraction," invite the potential host for a cup of tea or coffee, and then encourage him to share with you what he has in mind. If you are willing and able to respond favorably to the request, allow him to pick up the tab, and indicate you accept his dinner invitation. If you don"t feel a dinner is fair payment for what is being asked of you, then suggest a fee for the services that are being requested of you, and be sure to pick up the tab.
Aside from its gift-giving function, Chinese coworkers may invite you out to dinner as a way of simply befriending you or forging a beginning relationship (with the same expectation of reciprocity). In China, it is not customary at all to "go Dutch," and the one who makes the invitation is responsible for paying the entire check. In turn, you should extend an invitation at a later date, during which time you will pay the bill. Try to make certain that the dinner you buy is not significantly less or more in cost than the one you were invited to, and, related, it is considered a significant faux pas to place the Chinese in a position of obligation in which they might be unable or unwilling to return the favor at a later time (and rarely will they allow this to happen).
Gan Bei! and Table Manners
During a formal banquet or dinner, alcoholic beverages are served far more for toasting than they are for quenching thirst. You should never drink that beverage until after the first toast has been made, which is usually extended by the highest ranking official or person at the dinner.
It is polite to try to sample every dish you are offered. Of course, the Chinese serve all meals "family style" and various dishes will be brought to the table and placed on a lazy susan. The lazy susan will be rotated in order to position the latest dish in front of the guest of honor, so it is customary to wait your turn until he or she has first sampled the dish. The first time around, only take a minimal amount of food from each serving plate. After everyone has had the opportunity to sample all the dishes, it is perfectly alright for you to take a second or even third helping, just as long as you are not the one to finish off the dish. In addition, it is best to leave a little bit of food remaining in your plate, as to "clean your plate" in China means that you are still hungry and that you have not been served enough food.
In China, it is not considered impolite to pick your teeth at the table with a toothpick after finishing a meal just as long as you cover your mouth with the other hand (there will always be an ample supply of toothpicks at the table). If you need to blow your nose, you should turn your head away from the table, or, better yet, just step a few feet away from the table before doing so.
Finally, when taking a break during the meal, be certain to lay your chopsticks down flat on top of your plate or rest the tapered ends on top of the small caddy positioned just to the right of your plate, if one has been provided. Under no circumstances you should ever stand the chopsticks upright inside a bowl of rice as this is reminiscent of the joss sticks that are used to mourn the dead, and doing so is considered quite insulting (it suggests you are wishing death upon the host or other guests).