Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Lesson in American Table Manners


Around 6:00, we headed over to church for Bible Study/ English class. Class was very good. We read about Jesus not being accepted in his hometown. There were moments that it felt like they were truly understanding what was happening in the story. At 8:00, we all got up to leave because the students for the advanced class were coming in. Sharon from our Mon. night conversational class arrived. We were at the door explaining that we had only two Wed. nights left before we would be going back to the US. They were very disappointed that we were leaving, so I blurted out that we could have a party at our house before we go and I would cook them American food. Woah! That got a reaction. Sharon, who had already sat down for the 8:00 classtime, jumped out of her seat and asked if she could come, too! We had a hard time leaving for all the planning they wanted to do and the excitement that they could not contain. So we’re having a party next Thurs. at 6:30! I’ve decided on hamburgers and hot dogs, baked beans and potato chips, the All-American meal. After supper, we’ll play UNO. There will be about 10 of us. Yikes! What did I get myself into?


Last week at Bible Study/ English class, I had made the big offer to have a dinner/ party at our house on Thurs. night. After talking to Debbie about it, we changed it to Wed. The guest list had risen to include all English classes…Conversational plus both Wed. night classes. We had also invited Jerry’s wife and Happy and Pastor James. We were expecting 12 people. We borrowed tables and chairs from the church.  

I had planned to cook hamburgers and hot dogs. We went exploratory shopping at the RT Mart and Carrefour in Chia-yi City after church on Sunday. We found almost everything we needed except hamburger and buns. This was not going to work, so we switched the menu to spaghetti. We went shopping for all our supplies and groceries on Wed. morning. We needed to get paper products and some extra serving bowls and utensils. We found nearly everything we wanted at the RT Mart, but they didn’t have salad dressing. We went over to Carrefour where we knew they had 5 kinds of salad dressings.

Shopping at the RT Mart where the escalators accommodate shopping carts,"trollies," that have specially made wheels to grip the grooves of the escalator.
By 6:00, everything was ready for the party. Don went over to the church as planned and guided everyone to the house. Well, almost everyone. They lost Sharon for a bit, but she showed up after tracking her down on her cell phone. Clark and Jenny both brought friends with them, Eric and Mini. That brought the count up to 14 for eating. I was prepared with an extra table. The more the merrier, I always say!

The living room was quite crowded, but they wanted to see the rest of the house, so we didn’t spend much time all huddled in the living room. They were very impressed with the size and “beauty” of the house.    

We were going to wait to eat until Jerry, his wife and Happy came since he couldn’t get here till 7:00. By the time we had toured the house, Jerry was arriving with his family. I still needed to do a few things in the kitchen, so they all gathered in the living room again. It was truly packed. Sharon had brought several kinds of sliced fruit that we set out on the coffee table and I served orange juice, a common beverage for the Taiwanese to serve before or with a meal, and water. Debbie came in the kitchen with me as I cooked the noodles for spaghetti.  

When I was done in the kitchen, I had to get everyone’s attention in the living room in order to have them come to the dining room for instructions on what to do next. I had all the items for place settings (dinner plates, bread plates, salad bowls, silverware, etc.) on the buffet. I explained to them to pick up one of each item and bring them to the table. When they were all seated with their tableware, I showed them how to place each item on their place mat according to American table-setting tradition. They were very attentive and fascinated with this whole process. The Taiwanese have no equivalent to this.

Then we talked to them about thanking Jesus for our food before we ate and that this was done by the one who is at the head of the table, usually the father of the house, or he may choose to ask someone to say the prayer. Either way, you know he is done praying when he says, “Amen.” We covered it all.

Then I served the meal “family style,” starting with Don and passing to the right…everything being passed to the right. We talked about asking to have something passed to you if you wanted more. Again, we covered almost everything you can think of that might take place at the dinner table. For example, I told them that the napkin is big enough to set on your lap through the whole meal and you are expected to use it throughout the meal. I needed to tell them this because the Taiwanese have small squares of “Kleenex” in a pop-up box that is set in the middle of the table (maybe) that are used as napkins. They are smaller than the napkins in a dispenser at a soda counter. They often don’t use them at all and they never put them in their lap. When I showed them during the place-setting instruction where to put the napkin, they didn’t understand what its purpose was, but when I demonstrated its use, they nodded their heads and quizzically said, “Ohhhh.” That example explains how different it is to eat American-style as opposed to Taiwanese. I have to say, they were good sports and really wanted to learn.

I think the biggest difference in the way Americans eat a meal and many other countries in the world, including Taiwan, is that we serve food only three times throughout the meal…salad, main course and dessert. The Taiwanese, as many, have multiple courses served throughout the meal. I have described this several times when talking about restaurants, so I won’t belabor the point. However, I think this was very foreign to our guests the other night to realize that once the food was served, that was all that was going to be served.  

Vincent came during the meal because he had a dinner to go to at the hospital that night. We were honored that he left his event early in order to get in on some of the fun at our house. Shortly, Pastor James came as well. He was just in time for ice cream, egg rolls and coffee.  

Note: Clark had brought “egg rolls.” They are a specialty “cookie,” like krumkakah, that are made in Chia-yi City in a shop in a little alley. I’m told you have to go to this shop an hour before it opens at 8:00am in order to get these delicacies before they run out. Debbie said we were very privileged to have gotten a bag of “egg rolls.” They were the best Taiwanese treat we’ve had! Thank you, Clark.   

We had had two tables together to make one big table for supper. When we were done eating, we cleared away the dishes and separated the two tables in order to play two games of UNO at once. We had taught the Wed. 6:00 class how to play UNO last week, but the others had to learn. It, of course, is such a simple game that they caught on very quickly. It’s a good way for them to practice their numbers and colors in English. It wasn’t long before there was laughing and shouting and good-natured rivalry was happening! They became quite a rowdy bunch! It was fun!

By 10:00, they realized they needed to be going home. As they were preparing to leave, someone got out a camera…then another and another. We spent time getting in the group picture or taking the picture. It was such a wonderful feeling of friendship and fun. I felt like we had had a night like the hundreds, maybe thousands, of nights we’ve had with any number of groups of friends throughout our married life. Another proof that people are the same all around the world. This had to be one of my favorite nights in Taiwan!

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