Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cross Cultural Misunderstandings - Should You Clean Your Plate in China?

In my family, as in probably most American families, you were taught that you have to clean your plate. You take it, you eat it. No waste was allowed. Especially in my family, where a lot of times there wasn't much food to go around.

So, there comes a day when I found myself in Qingyundian, China at the New Day Foster Home. I just went there for a visit after teaching in Korea for a year, but ended up doing much more than that. It was a blast. It was one of the best times of my life, and was hard to leave and go to the Philippines.


It was during the SARS scare, which left the orphanage and community center short handed. Normally, they had five or six volunteers come and help them out each year. That year, because of SARS, they had none. Then I showed up. Two days after I came to visit, two of the factory workers came up to me and asked when their English classes were going to start.

That surprised me, as I only intended to be there for a week. I asked them why they thought I was there to teach them English. It was the last thing I had intended to do.

They said Byron had told them that I was an English teacher.

So I asked Byron, who along with his wife Karen, are the American co-directors of the operation, why the factory workers thought I was there to teach them English. That's when he explained what had happened, and how they were really short handed. He asked me if I could stay and help.

So it was off to Hong Kong, to turn my 1 month "L" tourist visa, into a 3 month "Z" expert visa.

When I came back, I did all sorts of things, helping out wherever I was needed. I taught English to the kids in the orphanage, kids from 2 1/2 to 4 years old. I also taught the factory workers, villagers, their children, and whoever else wanted to learn.

I also played around with their computers, and did whatever was needed for the kids.


One of my jobs was to help in the kitchens. I usually did clean up and dish duty. That really endeared me to the kitchen staff. They always made sure that I was well fed.

It was cafeteria style dining. You grabbed a tray, they asked you what you wanted, and they put it on your tray. Being an American, I always finished what they gave me.

The food was great, so I eagerly ate it all up. Well, they kept giving me more and more, and of course, I kept finishing it. More and more food kept getting piled on my tray, until I was sitting down with a tray that had enough food for three people. They couldn't figure out why they had to give me so much food, and I couldn't figure out why they expected me to eat so much.

What I didn't realize was that to the Chinese, if you finish everything, it means that you are still hungry. You show that you are finished by leaving a little bit on your tray. This was totally opposite to what I was taught. For me, it was a sin to leave even the smallest speck of food on your plate.

Finally, I caught on, after the portions got to a size where if I ate anything more, I would have burst.