It’s nice to respect different cultures’ table manners, but I won’t stop slurping my soup noodles
- While it’s nice to respect different cultures’ table manners while travelling, I won’t feel embarrassed and hide my food heritage
Whenever I travel to Europe, the same dilemma always crosses my mind, which is: to slurp or not to slurp when I eat in the company of Westerners or anyone unfamiliar with Asian cultural norms.
When travelling abroad, it is reasonable to assume the need to respect and follow certain universally accepted table manners, like not talking with your mouth full or chewing loudly, and rightly so because these habits are rather unsavoury in most countries.
However, certain rules must be enforced. Given that table manners differ from culture to culture, it is necessary to follow a reasonable level of dining etiquette to avoid giving offence or committing any undue faux pas.
For example, eating with your left hand is taboo in India. The culture rarely uses cutlery, so the right hand is reserved for eating while the other one is strictly for doing your business in the toilet. In Chinese culture, it is ominous to put the chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice because it resembles incense sticks being burned in memory of the dead.
Having stayed in France for the past several weeks, I have been aware of my table manners, but I decided to slip back to more familiar ways once I felt settled. I made myself a bowl of noodles and ate it in the traditional Chinese way, which meant I slurped through it unashamedly till my bowl was completely empty. I felt great afterwards, or, dare I say, liberated. All this was done in the presence of my French host, but only after I sounded the slurp alert to forewarn him.
Every culture has its own rules at the dining table and what is considered acceptable in one culture might be perceived as disrespectful in another.
When planning and serving a great Chinese meal, the chef often goes to great lengths to ensure the dishes are colourful, aromatic and tasty. This means the diner often feels obliged to make an audible effort to show how much they have enjoyed their meal.
I do agree that chewing like a cow is without doubt the most unpalatable dining behaviour, no matter how delicious the food is. But there is one habit which I would be reluctant to break; slurping soup and noodles, which to most Chinese people is the definitive expression of culinary enjoyment.
Soup noodles can only be fully enjoyed when eaten with loud slurping sound effects, and the louder it is the stronger the recognition. It can be likened to what almost every driving enthusiast would swear by, which is that driving a sports car is most fun when shifting a manual transmission. Many would agree that without it, the excitement and authenticity of racing simply isn’t there.
I am not saying we should shove all “Asianness” down the throats of others who have opposing views of cultural conduct. But we should try to make people understand that while some of these traditions might appear odd, or even annoying at times, they are unique and have their distinct values. And people sometimes do it out of habit and without any intention to offend others.
In this globalised era, different cultures are constantly overlapping and interacting with one another. We work, live, study and even marry people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. There is no denying how significant it is for us to understand each other better in order to bridge diverse differences and coexist in harmony.
There is absolutely no need to feel embarrassed and hide or abandon your cultural behaviour, provided they are harmless and not unethical. Neither should you feel the pressure to assimilate and bury your heritage. We should be proud of our ancestry but remain respectful and accommodating to others, which means not looking down on their customs.
We have to increase cultural awareness and sensitivity. Many of us already know this principle intuitively; the best cultural practice is to make sure we manoeuvre delicately and respectfully in dealing with other cultures, for fewer misunderstandings.
We need to be more aware of our individual behaviours, be mindful of cultural differences, show respect, communicate openly and explain our reasons (like my slurp alert). It is essential to find common ground so that we can allow each other to accept differences in a mutually comfortable manner and make room for cultural diversity to flourish.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post