“A Chinese banquet can be many things, but it is never a gastronomic occasion.
It is more like a sport, one in which the primary goal is to drink a toast with each individual sitting around the table, in a rigid successive order, starting with the most prominent and proceeding clockwise. If that sounds straightforward, it isn’t: Bear in mind that everyone at the table is playing the same game simultaneously, which means just as you’ve homed in on your target and are ready to make your move, he could be raising a toast to another guest, who could very well be looking to drink with someone else.
Other rules: Make sure to turn the shot of baijiu bottoms up with every encounter; say flattering words in your toast, but nothing too flowery; appear cordial and personable; smile, but avoid inappropriate body contact. Finally, while you’re busy circling the table, don’t forget to eat.
At a Chinese banquet, the eating is the least important part. The problem, though, is that Chinese food is irresistibly delicious, especially if you’re someone who’s lived outside China for the last four years. And so this summer, when I returned to my home city of Chengdu for a visit, and a friend called to ask me to meet up at a local restaurant, I said yes without any hesitation.
On the day of, I arrived late. The restaurant had been revamped since the last time I’d visited, six years ago. A slim hostess in a red qipao welcomed me while I stood dazzled by the colossal crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. I told her my friend’s name and was escorted to a private dining room at the end of the hall.”