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Chinese eating habits: what you need to know

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I recently retired as UK senior partner of BDO after 23 years as a partner with the firm. Last year, I took up a position as visiting professor at Xiamen University, China. My wife is Chinese and I decided to spend three months exploring business opportunities in the region and trying to learn some Mandarin.

I’m blogging about my experiences in China for Real Business – catch up on part one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight of my journey so far.

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Business meetings are usually preceded or followed by food and this is where real business is often done. 

Dining is a big thing in Chinese society: the most common greeting amongst friends is not “how are you?”, it is “have you eaten?”. A host invariably provides more food than can be (sensibly) eaten, so it is not appropriate to eat everything put before you (or more will appear!).

This is a challenge for those raised in post-rationing UK, where nothing went to waste! And whilst it is polite to offer to pay for the meal, do not push it: the host loses face if you insist on paying for a meal he is expecting to pay for.

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Toasting with alcohol, while eating, is an important protocol; a guest should toast each host in turn as the meal progresses, with sincerity. 

Don’t be surprised if the host’s party includes several people who say little, but toast you in return and have a huge capacity for alcohol: my brother has been doing business here for over a decade and can match these “professional drinkers”; I, on the other hand, have got more drunk at a Chinese banquet than any time since university. One has to learn to seem to drink more than is actually imbibed!

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