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Mea Culpa! What NOT to do When Dining Overseas

Picture this: you are in a foreign land far far away, with a totally different culture, with people speaking a language that sounds very Greek (or Japanese, or Chinese, whatever) to you, and if you’re really lucky, maybe even with food you don’t recognize at all.

Not to worry, my friends, for I am here to guide you on what NOT to do to avoid committing some gaffes when it’s chow time. In my 13 years as a business journalist moonlighting as a food and travel writer, I can tell you that I’ve eaten my way in 35 different countries and perhaps embarrassed myself in as many places and accumulated many faux pas at the dining table.

Mind your chopsticks manners

When in Asia, know that chopsticks are a serious business. Never ever stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice upright. Ever. I made this mistake once in Japan, and I was scolded by an obachan – an ‘auntie’ who is not really your aunt, because if she were, then she would be called oba-san. Complicated, I know! In most places in Asia, older people are called aunties and uncles, regardless of blood relations. So this nice obachan told me that apart from being considered bad manners, sticking your chopsticks upright is also how rice is offered to the dead! It also looks like the incense sticks that are burned for the deceased, especially during O-bon – the Hungry Ghost Festival – or Yu Lan for the Chinese and Hungry Ghost Month in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

As if that’s not scary enough, passing food from your own chopsticks to another’s is also frowned upon, as it kind of resembles a Buddhist funeral rite of passing the remains of the cremated deceased among family members, using chopsticks. A major faux pas, no doubt, and a creepy one at that!

You can easily avoid any chopsticks calamity by making use of your chopsticks rest. Yes, it is meant for the chopsticks. No, it is not a shoehorn, silly. If there is none in sight and the chopsticks come in paper sleeves, just fold the sleeves to make a DIY chopstick rest.

If all else fails, just be the gaijin (Japanese word for alien, or non-Japanese) that you are and ask for a fork.

Open your mind (and your mouth)

Eating Stinky Tofu

If you are being hosted by a local family, or you are invited to a meal, it is a good idea to open your mind and your mouth. Are you one of those people who can’t say no? Then what I’m about to tell you might be a blessing or a curse: try to eat the local delicacies that are being offered to you. Yes, I know, some of the food you’re being offered look very different – some are probably moving. But your hosts take pride in their local food, and it would be good for you and perhaps even your nation’s reputation if the locals see that you are willing to try their food. Try not to look and sound arrogant by trying it out – you don’t have to eat the whole thing, just a tiny bite would do, and maybe you would even like it enough to finish it off!

It will also make for good conversation about the most adventurous food you’ve eaten. In my case, it’s a tie between the deep fried scorpions in China and duck embryos in the Philippines. Runners-up are fried grasshoppers in Thailand, bear sausages in Finland, kangaroo and alligator steaks in Australia, stinky tofu in Taiwan, and beef balls in Korea – and by balls, I mean testicles.

Hold that drink!

When drinking in Asia, do not pour your own drink and do not refill your own cup!

Yes, my thirsty friends, you better hold it! People say patience is a virtue, but that trait is all the more important when drinking in Asia — especially in Japan and Korea. Whether it is alcoholic or virgin drinks like tea or water, don’t fill your own glass, instead fill the cup of the person next to you and wait for them to do the same.

To make it even more complicated, when in Korea, it is also a good idea to literally hold on to that drink: hold the cup with both hands when someone is pouring your drink, as it shows respect to the person who is nice enough to give you a drink.

So let me tell you what happens when you don’t do as I told you to: if you pour yourself a refill of sake, soju, Kirin beer, or the likes, you would be perceived as an alcoholic — and an impolite one at that! If it’s a non-alcoholic drink, you would be perceived as rude and arrogant, putting yourself first before your peers, and you would probably not be invited again.

Now if you’re really parched, or you just swallowed a big chunk of kalbi and you need a drink to help you push that off your esophagus — and as long as you’re not dying — the trick is to pour the person next to you a drink first, and almost always, they would reciprocate. Unless you sit beside me, of course, who’s probably too busy taking pictures of food and drink on the table to notice that you’re turning blue!

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