Upon our return from the walking tour of Changting, we were escorted to the conference evening banquet. Being the out of town honored guests, we were seated at the ‘head’ banquet table with the FPL director and deputy director, as well as the local Changting library director and other Changting library staff.
A quick note on Chinese banquets. Tables are always round and seat 8-10 people. A large lazy susan is in the middle of the table and restaurant staff bring family-size plates and bowls of food out one-by-one and each person takes their own portion (with chopsticks or a ladle for soups). Banquets usually consists of 15-20 dishes and the last dish always seems to be watermelon. Generally, the guests of honor are given the first opportunity to take from a new dish that has been brought to the table and for specialty dishes (or those of local note), honored guests will be served a portion by the host, as a show of respect. Each place setting consists of a small plate, a bowl (sometimes two), chopsticks and a spoon. We’re not quite sure the proper etiquette of whether you’re supposed to put food on the plate or bowls (we’ve seen it done both ways), but the small plate is a place to put your discarded food (e.g. bones, shell casings from seafood, etc.)
As with our library conferences, the banquet dinner was the big evening event for the conference and the catering/restaurant staff at the hotel really went out of their way to provide many specialty dishes for conference attendees, including a snake and egg soup, a dish of snails, and what we think was the liver of perhaps a pig? This was definitely the most exotic choice of entries that we have faced so far in our eating adventures and there was some nervousness when these particular dishes were brought out, as we were concerned that we might be served some of these specialty dishes by our hosts, which generally means you have to eat it, or at least attempt to eat it.
However, we learned early on in our banquet dining that sometimes, if you make yourself look busy with the food on your plate (i.e. trying to pick it up with your chopstick), when such a food is first brought to the table, they’ll allow a dish to pass you by without serving you or expecting you to take a serving before others at the table do. This strategy appeared to be useful on this particular banquet evening, and a good reason to always leave a little bit of food on your plate (and not too get to adept at using chopsticks)! The other strategy we’ve discovered, is to take a small amount, put it on your place and then surreptitiously hide the item under your discards when attention in diverted.
Pat and Angela gamely tried the snails, but Lori took a pass, based on Pat’s comment that the French way of cooking snails with tons of butter and garlic make them little more palatable than the Chinese way of simply steaming them.
Another tradition of Chinese banquet dinners is the “toasting”. This typically begins when the head person at the table stands up and goes over to another person at the table and toasts him or her. The person being toasted is expected to stand up to receive the toast and both individuals drink from their wine glass. Once the toasting begins, there can be a lot of standing up and down at the table. And if the person toasting you says “Ganbei”, then it’s bottoms up! As you might imagine, this can quickly get out of hand, especially when you have several people at a table coming up to toast you (as a guest of honor).
Again, as with our library conferences, this dinner was a chance for the attendees to cut loose and have some fun (as you know only librarians can), so the toasting and the “Ganbei’s” were flying a little more frequently than other previous banquets we’ve attended. On this particular night they were serving us rice wine, instead of grape wine, and it was freely flowing among the attendees. Luckily Angela taught us two words, which helped to mitigate the constant “Ganbei’s” we were hearing: yi ban (half) and dian dian (little bit). Another lesson in the importance of taking the time to learn a dian dian of the local language.