East Asia is among the most popular destinations for students wishing to study abroad as well as those wishing to teach English abroad.
Thousands of American students get their diplomas and transcripts translated, then head to China, Japan and South Korea to study and soak up the culture.
East Asian nations are known for having some of the most intricate and nuanced cultural practices in the world, which naturally extends to dining habits and etiquette. If you’re heading to China, Japan or South Korea to study, you will almost certainly be invited for a meal at someone’s home or a restaurant.
If you’ve had previous exposure to some of these cultures, you’re probably already familiar with some of these customs. If your study abroad experience will be your first time engaging with Chinese, Japanese or South Korean culture and you want to be in the know, here are some useful tips:
Japan has one of the most nuanced and rich cultures in the world, placing heavy emphasis on etiquette and ritual. As a foreigner, especially one who is experiencing the culture for the first time, it can be very easy to make a mistake.
If you are planning to study abroad in Japan, read on to find out tips for Japanese dining.
Mind your chopsticks
There are some very strict rules regarding the use of chopsticks in Japan. Using your chopsticks for anything other than eating your meal is frowned upon. For example, you must never point with your chopsticks, wave them, or play with them in any way.
It’s really not that different from the US, when you think about it – you really shouldn’t be pointing with your fork and knife, either.
Beyond these simple rules, there are some things that are taboo. For example, both passing food with your chopsticks and sticking your chopsticks vertically into a mound of rice remind the Japanese of funeral rituals, so definitely make sure to avoid both these things.
Be delicate with sushi, but slurp your soup
Sushi etiquette in Japan is also very different from what we’re used to in the US. You are expected to only dip the fish in the soy sauce and to use condiments sparingly. Leaving behind a pond of soy sauce and wasabi or any food on your plate is considered wasteful.
On the bright side, if you’re enjoying a delicious Japanese soup, there’s no need to worry about slurping! This is actually good manners and indicates that you’re enjoying the food.
Save your yen
If you’re invited out to dinner, it is customary for the host to pay for the guests. Accept this and be sure to express your gratitude several times.
Tipping is not customary in Japan and could be considered offensive. This ties into the concept of “saving face” and accepting money could result in your server losing face, which is unacceptable to the Japanese.
You’d be lucky to study abroad in China. As one of the oldest civilizations on earth, China’s customs and culture have been cultivated and preserved over thousands of years.
These customs and rituals are intrinsically bound to Chinese history and the social hierarchy … so don’t mess them up!
Seriously, don’t play with your chopsticks
Etiquette related to the use of utensils in China is very similar to what has already been mentioned for Japan. Passing food with chopsticks and sticking chopsticks vertically into a mound of rice is also considered taboo in China because of its connotations.
If you are taking a break from eating, leave your chopsticks on the side of your dish instead of in it. Otherwise, this might signal to the server that you have finished eating.
Respect your elders
When invited for a meal in China, you must wait for the elder or highest ranking person to take his or her seat before sitting down. You must also wait for the elder to begin eating before you can. This indicates respect for this person’s position and recognition of them as your social superior.
Wait your turn
Often at large Chinese meals, you will see a rotating round tray for serving, which is known as a Lazy Susan in the US. If someone is serving themselves from the main bowl, it is considered rude to turn the Lazy Susan. It is also rude to turn the Lazy Susan if you would like seconds of a dish until after everyone has gotten some.
If alcohol is served at the meal, it is expected that you do not drink until after a toast has been made. Your glass will immediately be refilled for the next toast. It is considered highly offensive not to take part in the toast, though if you do not want to drink, you may simply touch your lips to the glass.
It is not considered rude to burp, slurp your soup, or smoke at the table.
Also save your yuan
Possibly the most important aspect of Chinese etiquette for dining out is the paying of the check. It is a complex ritual that might seem strange study abroad students at first.
The host is always the one who pays; however, you will be expected to playfully argue for the chance to pay at least two or three times. Not participating in this fake argument implies that you believe the host owes you something. On the other hand, if you argue your case too much, this implies that you do not think the host can afford to pay, which is highly offensive.
Finally, if you are bringing a gift for your host, always bring it in a red envelope or packaging. Never bring a gift packaged in black and white, as both colors are associated with mourning in Chinese culture.
South Korea has its own unique traditions and dining rules.
If you decide to study abroad in South Korea, you’ll be expected to follow these rules:
Again, respect your elders
Just as in China, you are expected to submit to your elders during mealtimes.
Elders and guests of honor will always be seated first and others will take their seat in descending order of age with the youngest guest being seated last.
While you’re eating…
Once at the table, if you are being poured a drink or handed something, you must hold your cup or accept what is being handed to you with both hands. It is considered very rude to take something with one hand. It is also considered rude to refuse a drink if it is being offered to you.
Also, you must never pour your own drink, whether it’s an alcoholic beverage or tea. Instead, you must always wait for someone to pour you a drink. You will also be expect to remain alert and refill your neighbor’s beverages if you notice their cups or glasses are close to being empty.
In South Korea, you will be expected to eat everything that is on your plate, so do not take more than you intend to eat. Leaving food on your plate is considered wasteful and inconsiderate. If you would like a second helping of something, you must decline the host’s first offer and finally accept when your host insists that you take a second helping.
It is not acceptable in South Korea to lift your rice bowl up to your face, though this is done in Japan. Your bowl must remain on the table at all times.
Put your won away too
The host also pays the bill in South Korea, but it is considered polite for the guests to offer to pay. This will never be allowed by the host, but doing so expresses respect for the host. After the meal, you are expected to express your gratitude to the host and tell them how much you enjoyed the meal.
Dining etiquette and other customs in East Asia might be a huge culture shock for students arriving to study abroad, but being aware of some of the cultural practices before you go is always a safe bet. Becoming involved in a culture that is significantly different from your own and learning from it is sure to be an endlessly fun and rewarding experience. Now that you’re aware of some of the customs, don’t be afraid to dig in!
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