Chinese restaurants can provide a unique experience unlike anywhere else in the world. As such, behavior norms are also unlike anything else too.
Before You Eat: Clean Your Own Dishes
Many restaurants in China will not have running water, and if they do, the dishes will not be anything more than rinsed off. They might get cleaned but not protected from roaches, rats, or flies before it gets set in front of you. It is your job to make sure your dishes are clean.
Chinese place settings do not conform to western standards. Typically, you will be given three dishes that make up the place setting. You will receive an empty rice bowl, a small empty plate, and your chopsticks.If you have disposable chopsticks, remove the wrapper and break them apart. Rub them together over the floor. This breaks off any splinters you do not want ending up in your food or breaking off in your mouth. Set them evenly on the small plate when youare finished.
Chinese meals always begin with tea. In this case, you use the tea to sanitize both the dishes and your chopsticks. Ask for a large empty bowl and a pot of boilinggreen tea to be brought to your table. When it arrives, stand the chopsticks in the small rice bowl or the empty teacup, making sure to rinse the edges where your mouth will make contact. Do the same with the other dish, whether it is the rice bowl or teacup. Empty the water into the large bowl. The waiter will remove it when you are finished.
Don’t count on the table being clean. Anything that touches the table is unfit and unsafe to eat. If any food reaches your table or drops to the floor, leave it there. As a guest, you are not expected to pick it up.
After You Eat: Fight over the Bill
In China, it is customary and even expected, to fight over the bill. This is not your normal, “I got this, don’t worry about it”, type attitude. No, instead you’ll see people shouting at each other, getting red in the face trying to pay the bill. For the most part, it is a bluff, but to not do so is taboo. It is seen as impolite and rude not to fight over the bill.
The only way to avoid this fight is if you end up with the bill and sneak off to the washroom with it, paying the bill behind your Chinese friend’s backs. They will likely make a scene anyway just to show their displeasure, even though the notion that you paid the bill will be welcome. If you plan ahead and pay ahead, you can avoid the fight. What you cannot avoid is the dramatic display of annoyance when they find out they cannot fight over it.
You have to use your own judgment, which comes with experience. Don’t pay the bill or even fight to pay the bill until you get a feel for the Chinese culture well enough to know when to pay it and when to back down. The entire fight is done on the spot, making a dramatic display, but it actually pans out as if it is an orchestrated or choreographed scene.