Nixon eating Chinese food
Bettmann / Getty Images
Bettmann / Getty Images

The Biggest Faux Pas Americans Make While Eating in Asia

In Asia, food isn't just sustenance and Instagram fodder. It's often a symbol of prosperity, honor, longevity, and togetherness. As such, you'll encounter dozens of rituals and cultural subtleties around eating and drinking that are rooted in superstition, upholding deep respect for your elders, and cultivating an honorable self-image.

And as you do, guaranteed, you will screw some of them up.

As an Asian American who grew up in a traditional Chinese household, I learned firsthand many of the little things that can be flubbed at the dinner table, which often led to a lightning-fast thwack on the wrist with chopsticks -- or worse, a stern stare-down. I picked up other tips along the way from friends and my travels through Asia. Crucially, I learned some dining etiquette overlaps between Asian cultures while other manners differ significantly. You might never be able to completely prevent a raised eyebrow somewhere, but when traveling to these countries, here's what you really need to know to avoid looking like a heathen at the dinner table.

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Your chopstick isn't a spear

Where this matters: Pretty much all Asian countries that use chopsticks, though mostly in China, Korea, and Japan
No one becomes a pro at holding and using chopsticks overnight. It takes practice, and practice you should, patiently. Occasionally I see people get exasperated enough from a few minutes of struggling to pick up an especially slippery walnut shrimp that they end up stabbing the mayo-laden critter with their chopsticks.

Dude. Don't do that.

Not only is it considered terribly rude in many Asian countries, but it's a serious affront to a certain superstition: When you pierce food with chopsticks, you mean to offer this food for the dead.

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Actually, there are a lot of chopstick rules

Where this matters: China and Japan, especially. Other countries like Korea and Vietnam have some chopstick no-no's but are generally less strict than, say, Japan.

In Japan, don't try to pass someone food directly from your chopsticks to theirs. This innocent-looking practice is part of a funeral ritual, wherein mourners pass the deceased's bones between chopsticks. Similarly, you don't want to place your chopsticks upright in your food, as that's also a gesture meant for the dead (in many parts of Asia).

In China, especially when eating at restaurants with others, you generally use a pair of communal chopsticks for grabbing food from a communal dish. Ask the waitstaff for extra chopsticks if needed. And when grabbing food, don't be choosy; take what's closest to you. Otherwise, it's the equivalent of licking your fingers, then running them over all the bread in the bread basket before grabbing one.

In Korea, it's customary to eat with both a long spoon and chopsticks, but you never hold both the chopsticks and spoon in the same hand. That's rude, plus what do you hope to accomplish, anyway?

In Thailand and the Philippines, don't bother asking for chopsticks. You don't need them.

Finally, pointing with your finger is already considered rude. Using chopsticks looks that much worse.

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Keep that tea flowing like fine wine

Where this matters: China, mostly
Recently I had Chinese dim sum with a friend of mine (he's American) and kept his tea cup topped off every chance I got. He had a puzzled look on his face but never said a thing. It occurred to me later that I might've seemed way too obsessed with pouring tea when, in fact, I was doing it out of habit and as a sign of respect.

If you want to impress someone, offer to pour tea, but once you start pouring tea for one person, you should do it for everyone at the table, starting with the eldest. Only after everyone else has had their share do you finally pour tea into your own cup.

When someone else pours tea for you, use your index and middle finger to tap the table twice to express "thank you" without needing to say it.

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If someone puts food on your plate, you'd better eat it

Where this matters: China and Korea
It's a sign of endearment to be given food, especially the "best" parts of something. If someone makes the effort to serve you, hold your plate or bowl with both hands to humbly receive the food and at least try it -- even if you secretly don't want it. Similarly, if someone, especially an elder, offers to pour you tea or alcohol, you'd offend them by not accepting it.

Put up a fight to pay the bill

Where this matters: In China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and other countries that have been influenced by Chinese customs
Traditionally, it's not common to split the check in Chinese culture. One person usually gets the whole thing, not because he or she is ballin' out of control. It's just a matter of principle.  

When I was a kid, I used to roll my eyes when my dad fought whoever was with us over who would pay the restaurant bill. "No, let me get this!" he'd cry as he snatched up the check; meanwhile the other person would make a showing of wresting it from my dad's hands. In reality, it's like watching a peacock dance for pride and honor. (What's more, the decision over who'd settle the bill was secretly decided in each person's mind before the meal even started.)

Simply, to offer to pay for the bill is seen as polite, an appreciation of the relationship, and a way to flex your financial prowess. It's also customary for the other person to resist and put up a fight. If you're a visitor having a meal with a local, it's best to try to reach for the bill or, if you "lose" that race, to put up a battle to prop up the other person's pride. It also makes you seem like less of a freeloader.

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When drinking with your seniors, turn your face away to drink

Where this matters: Korea and sometimes Japan
Japan and Korea have stressful drinking cultures. Not only do they tend to drink a lot, but they often drink with their managers and colleagues as a way to prove their loyalty and to further their professional career.

After you clink glasses, you're expected to hold the drink (usually a small sake or soju cup) with both hands and turn your face away to drink if you're drinking with someone who's your senior. To directly face the other person you are drinking with is to suggest that you are equals.

Wait for everyone, especially elders, to eat

Where this matters: Mainly in China and Korea. In other countries like Vietnam, it might be considered rude to let your food go cold.
Whether you're eating with locals or with friends, it's polite to wait for everyone to be ready to eat and for your elders to start eating first. Once you've started eating and want to go the extra mile to impress, you can grab food -- the best parts -- and place them on your elders' plates out of respect. If you're traveling on business, you can tell your clients or hosts to eat first, but chances are they'll keep insisting that you go first.

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How you sit makes a difference

Where this matters: Most places
There are a couple of innocent things people subconsciously do at the dinner table that can make them look like a complete ass. The two standout things are propping your elbows on the table (which isn't even exclusive to Asian culture) and shaking your leg repeatedly. The latter is not only distracting, but generally looked down upon because, according to my parents, it's what a homeless person would do.

Don't walk and eat at the same time

Where this matters: In Japan, although it really depends on where you are. For example, it's more common to see people eating and walking in Tokyo.
It seems normal to munch on a sandwich, a burger, or snack as you walk around to soak in the sights, but in Japan, this most basic of multitasking isn't considered proper. They believe that you should sit down to truly appreciate your meal. (Which, c'mon, who can argue with that, really.) Plus, with so many other pedestrians around, eating while walking is a ruined shirt just waiting to happen. Younger Japanese people are less likely to be judgmental about it, but if you pay close attention you won't see too many locals eating while they walk or sit on trains.

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Stephanie Lee is a Los Angeles-based writer, but most of the year she travels the world with her laptop and shares her nomadic shenanigans through her website FY!S. You can also keep up on Twitter and Instagram.