Eating and drinking in China can be a mind-broadening and enjoyable cultural experience. However, there are likely to be many surprises along the way. We would like to prepare you for, and even warn you of, the main differences between eating and drinking in China and in the West. (Some of the things mentioned below you will (fortunately) not experience if you don't eat with Chinese people and stick to the largest restaurants.)
We at China Highlights realize Westerners usually come to China to experience things you don't have at home. Our customers usually want to eat different things (that probably won't include everything China offers though!). See Chinese Food for an introduction to the huge variety out there.
There is a lot of "Western food" in China, however much of it is "fake" or low quality "Western food", e.g. gritty insipid hot chocolate. Chocolate, bread and milk particularly, apart from the most expensive products, often leave a lot to be desired. Keep your expectations low and look out for worldwide brands when buying. In restaurants portions are usually smaller than in the West (sometimes half an American portion).
See Chinese Dining Etiquette for some general rules for Chinese table manners.
In China eating is more of a communal activity. In contrast to the West, where everyone orders their own meal, which arrives on a plate and is eaten individually, food is generally ordered dish-by-dish in China to be shared by all present at the table. Each diner has their own small rice bowl, into which food from the plates and bowls in the center of the table is placed using chop sticks, or perhaps serving spoons — a bit like a sit-down buffet perhaps.
It is common in China for everyone to use their own chopsticks for fetching food from the dishes in the center. If you would prefer, for hygiene reasons, serving spoons and serving chopsticks can be provided for food in the center of the table.
Be prepared for your Chinese host placing food in your bowl, usually without even asking. The host will often put chicken legs or other choice parts of the meal in the guest's bowl. Though Westerners may see this as interfering with one's independence and personal space, it is a sign of hospitality in China.
Don't be embarrassed by using chopsticks poorly or not using them at all. The main thing is that you enjoy the food. Food is so important in Chinese culture, and the Chinese are such a practical people, that all around you will most likely be fine with whatever method you use to eat. They will be very impressed though if you can use chopsticks proficiently.
In large restaurants forks may be available and all restaurants will have spoons, though they may be of the ceramic Chinese leaf or boat-shaped design (see picture right). We recommend giving chopsticks a try as part of the cultural experience. Once they are mastered you should find they are the best thing for picking up most medium-sized pieces of food, and certainly the superior utensil for noodles.
The standard way to hold chopsticks is as per the picture on the right. Start with an open right hand, thumb uppermost. Put the middle of the first chopstick on the third finger and the butt of the chopstick in between thumb and forefinger. Grip the middle of the second chopstick in between thumb, forefinger and second finger as you might a pen, tapered eating end facing forwards, then you're ready to begin.
The first chopstick remains stationary, held in place by the middle of the thumb. The second chopstick can move to grip the food by bending the forefinger and second finger. To lift food that is not easy to grip, e.g. soft rice or tofu, hold the chopsticks a small distance apart, get underneath the piece of food and get it well balanced before lifting it. For more on chopsticks see Odds and Ends of Chinese Food.
In China it is also common practice to spit things out on the table or the floor. In more upper-market restaurants people usually refrain and use one of the methods below rather than spitting. Often food has small pieces of bone or other inedible parts that need to be removed from the mouth. Using chopsticks, a hand or a tissue is a polite way around the problem. You might want to ask for a side plate or an extra bowl for the bones, etc. Be warned if seeing piles of things that came out of someone's mouth may put you off your food. You may want to order dishes with no bones.
Though in the West it is sometimes considered rude to put one's elbows on the dining table, this is quite acceptable in China, particularly when eating noodles. You however may want to avoid this in some restaurants where the table is only wiped with an old cloth and there may be some unseen residue from the previous patrons' meals. Using your own antiseptic wipes may help to put your mind at ease in some situations.
Be warned that in some popular local restaurants, especially in the evenings, the noise of uninhibited chatter and drinking games can become very loud. Smoking is also permitted in most Chinese restaurants. A way round this, in larger restaurants, is to request a side room for your meal, which will have its own door to insulate you from the noise and smoke.
Eating noisily and with one's mouth open may be considered rude in the West. However, slurping, smacking the lips and leaving the mouth open when eating can be viewed as demonstrating enjoyment of the food and a friendly atmosphere in China.
Eating something sweet for dessert is not a Chinese custom. ("Western" restaurants often provide a dessert menu however.) Sweet things can be found hidden among everything else on a Chinese menu. Fruit salads [水果沙拉shuiguo shala /shway-gwor shah-lah/] and caramel covered apple (or other fruit) [拔丝苹果 basi pingguo /bah-srr ping-gwor/] are Chinese sweet dishes that are popular with Westerners.
Refrigerated soft drinks are widely available, but beware ice cubes made from tap water, as most tap water in China is unpotable and should be at least boiled before drinking.
Beer (pijiu, pronounced pee-jyoh) is very popular in China, but it is all very similar (about 3–5% alcohol), with none of the stronger or darker varieties brewed in the West. The other popular alcoholic drink is rice wine (baijiu, pronounced bye-jyoh). Beware, this can be very strong (40%+ alcohol).
In China, drinking alcohol is still mainly a male custom. Male guests are routinely offered alcohol and cigarettes at meal times (usually not breakfast). Just politely refuse if you don't want them. An empty glass is always refilled, no matter about protests that the guest has had enough, as a mark of politeness or good will. Often a refusal has to be given three times. See Chinese Guest and Host Customs. Maybe if you've had enough a good thing would be to leave your glass full. Getting drunk is generally not seen as a problem in China and is often encouraged.
There is a "do whatever" attitude towards toilet rolls, tissues and the like in China. It is all called paper (zhi, pronounced jrr) and none of the various varieties seem to have a set purpose. Toilet rolls can be found on the tables of lower-market restaurants, or perhaps a box of facial tissues, for wiping the mouth and hands; while middle-to-upper-range restaurants often supply small plastic wallets of tissues, one or two per table, to be passed round and paid for at the end of the meal. Table napkins are very seldom seen.
Toilets, apart from in the more expensive restaurants, usually don't have toilet paper, so remember to bring your own. Plastic packets of 10 tissues can be bought outside most public toilets. Soap, paper towels and hand dryers are also only found in the more upmarket places.
Another word of warning about toilets. They are usually of the squat-over-a-bowl-set-in-the-floor-style. Usually your hotel will have the Western sit-on toilet option for rooms. Some public toilets (presumably plumbed with small bore pipes) provide waste paper baskets for used toilet paper so the toilets don't get blocked. You may want to brace yourself before entering, or even steer clear of, bus station, train station and other heavily used public toilets. Sometimes the cubicles have no doors, flushing systems are primitive or not functioning, and cleaning is only daily.