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How to Eat Like an Asian

Manners

By Mark Liao

Features columnist

Students, faculty, and administration... lend me your ears. There is an epidemic sweeping the nation, and MIT is right in the middle of it all. It’s called the Asian Male Crisis, or AMC for short.

Everywhere you look, most of the interracial relationships around MIT consist of a female Asian with a non-Asian counterpart. It’s gotten so bad that if an Asian guy is walking down Newbury with a -- gasp -- white girlfriend around his arm, every other Asian guy between Copley Square and Ankara’s has his spider-sense going crazy; each of us has to consciously fight the urge to run up and shake his hand. Simply being in close proximity to this legend allows us to live vicariously through him, even if it’s just for those fleeting three seconds, as the Asian Dude with a White Chick.

Now I could bitch and moan and gripe about this whole situation. Instead, I’m going to take the higher road. As Brandon Fraser’s character in “Blast From the Past” says, “Manners are a way of showing other people we care about them.” I will teach you the proper way to conduct yourself at the dinner table.

That way, when you’re at dinner with your Asian counterpart’s parents, you’ll be able to win them over with more than just your winning personality. All I ask in return is that you send over a brown-haired blue-eyed second cousin my way every once in a while, eh?

So here’s the scenario: you’ve been dating this Chinese girl for three months now and her folks happen to be coming to Boston next week for her grandma’s birthday. Naturally, all twenty-something of her closest relatives will be there. She really wants to show you off and, hopefully, you want to make the best impression possible. Let’s walk through the dos and don’ts of a typical dinner with the evil eyes of the entire Asian clan judging your every move.

When first being seated, take a moment to survey the scene. You should see a giant circular table fitted with a Lazy Susan. First thing first, allow the eldest member of the family to sit at the head of the table. Generally speaking, the head of the table is the point where the circular table runs tangent to a wall with a giant, gaudy, gold Phoenix and Dragon. Otherwise, allow them to seat themselves the point furthest from where most of the traffic flows.

From there, the next priority is seating the next eldest people to one side of the elders and the youngest members to the other side (followed by their parents.) This is because scalding bowls of soup don’t deal well with rambunctious little firecrackers, so we need to hide them furthest away from where the food will be served.

Next step: tea. The most important thing to keep in mind with tea is to keep it flowing. Serving tea is a sign of respect. Seeing how most Asian cultures are patriarchal by nature, you serve the eldest male first, followed by his counterpart, and so on and so forth. If it comes down to it, age takes precedent before gender.

Throughout the meal, keep your eyes out for empty cups. Since these cups are entirely too small to begin with, you will have many opportunities to serve. Don’t be alarmed if the person you’re serving starts tapping his hand on the table behind his cup; simply keep pouring until he stops or the cup’s about to overflow.

Also, the teapots have unforgiving, small handles. Put your first and middle finger through the handle and your ring finger to support the handle from outside. If you have pudgy fingers, life sucks for you. Lastly, once the pot is empty, prop up the lid ever so slightly. This will tell servers that the pot needs more hot water.

Almost all types of Asian meals are served family-style: many community dishes are placed in the middle and are shared amongst the group. Therefore you should be very careful of your actions.

First and foremost, the biggest faux pas you can make is reaching for a dish that has just been placed on the table -- that’s just rude. Your safest bet would be waiting until someone else has started, usually the eldest person at the table. However it is common for the host to pressure the most important guest to start.

This is where you can gain bonus points: show your generosity by diverting the attention to the youngest person at the table (hopefully her kid brother) and say that he should be first. You’ll win major points from everyone at the table; besides, being that kid brother growing up kicked major ass. The same goes for finishing off a dish; try not to be the guy who takes the last serving. You can convince the crowd that the youngest child can have it by saying he needs to eat more because he’s still growing.

There are other subtleties that you may be unaware of but are definitely important to remember. Try to avoid having any contact with the Lazy Susan when someone else is taking food from a dish; it is not a toy, but a food-serving device. When taking food from a dish, remember to take small portions. For example, if it’s a plate of shrimp, take at most three pieces. You can get fat and be a jackass when it’s just you two going out.

Also, it’s food up to mouth, not head down to food; bowls containing rice can be brought up to the mouth. Otherwise, I can hear her mother’s internal dialogue now: “He eats like a bum off the street.” That’s probably not the image you want to be presenting.

Along those same lines, do not, under any circumstances, selectively take food from dishes. Say there’s a plate of kung pao chicken. No matter how much you love chicken and hate peanuts, don’t just take pieces of chicken. Spoon naturally and let the nuts fall how they will. If you must, just eat whatever chicken you got and leave the peanuts on your plate, then go back for more.

That’s all the room I get for this time. We might pick up this topic later on, maybe title it “How To Impress Asian Parents.” Until then, remember, brown-haired blue-eyed girls.