Major: Political Science and Psychology
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Study Abroad Program: Mahidol University International College
When you travel to a foreign country, there are certain things you have to do in order to truly experience the local culture. In Paris, you have crepes at a café and visit the Eiffel Tower; in NYC, you might attend a Broadway play and walk in Central Park.
In Hong Kong, you visit Victoria Peak and have dim sum.
Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal involving small portions of a variety of dishes served with tea. Legend says that there are more than 1000 different dishes — ranging from meat dumplings to steamed lotus seed buns.
With strong recommendations of friends in the states, Amber, another UNC student with whom I traveled, and I decided that we would make reservations to enjoy a proper dim sum experience. We chose a popular local restaurant along Hong Kong’s waterfront “Boulevard of Stars,” which overlooks Hong Kong Island. For 70 Honk Kong dollars, or about $10 American, we could enjoy the all-you-can-eat style dim. Since this was our first authentic experience, we thought sampling the various Asian delicacies made the most sense.
Unfortunately, we didn’t do our homework first. Each of us having a vague idea of what the meal was supposed to entail, we left our hostel with hungry stomachs. We were expecting to see carts of food like in old American films. When we arrived for our reservation, the hostess directed us to the forth floor. As we stepped tentatively out of the lift and onto the red carpet, we suddenly were surrounded with lace, flowers and wedding decorations.
Thinking we had gone to the wrong floor, we started looking for food and waiters and causally dressed people — things that tend to indicate a restaurant. One man, who looked like he might be a waiter, motioned for us to come into a room and pointed to a table where we took our places ... right in the middle of a wedding reception. There was a cake, a frantic mother-in-law, about seventy elegantly dressed Chinese people, and a banner reading “Congratulations Vickie and Oliver!”
We were the only westerners in the room, and we were clearly out of place. You could tell we weren\'t Chinese, but we were also casually dressed. People snapped pictures of the bride and groom — and of us. Before we had even ordered a few people walked by just to stare.
Once the waiter arrived, we were ready. Having already gone through the menu the day before, we began to check the boxes of food we wanted. At the top of the menu it said “8 dishes per person.” At least we will get to sample some good food amidst this embarrassment, we thought.
Obviously, we wanted to try it all, and since it was all-you-can-eat style, we could. Assuming this to be the suggested amount rather than the maximum allowed, we each ordered eight dishes. Our ordering card was passed around waiters and waitresses and hand-covered grins appeared from every corner of the room.
Did we not order properly?
Still confused by the laughter and not realizing our mistake, we smiled for the cameras and forgot about our order. Then the food came out.
Amber and I began to eat, and eat. And eat sum more, and dim some more. After five dishes had arrived, the waiter stopped to explain that the others would be a few minutes. Others? We quickly realized that we had thirteen dishes to go. We had steamed dumplings, fried dumplings, soup, wantons, buns, pork balls, noodle dishes, vegetables, cakes, fruits, and tea. People were staring, we were laughing, and more pictures were snapped. We were quite embarrassed of our dim sum faux pas.
As baskets of buns were stacked four and five high, we kept trying to eat more and more. Finally, we resorted to spreading around the food so it would at least look like we had consumed a decent amount. We felt like kids who didn’t want to eat their vegetables!
An hour later, we decided we had two options, neither of which looked good: we could be either the Americans who ate everything, or the wasteful Americans who ordered more than they could eat. An unfortunate decision and some wasted food later, we asked for our check. People began to get up and again look at us. This time, their eyes were fixated on the immense mountain of half-eaten food stacked on our table.
The bride and groom, ceased to be the main attraction as camera flashes pointed in our direction. We sat there and waited an eternity for our check—faces red—internally giggling and toasting Vickie and Oliver with last bit of our tea.
And although we completely messed up, we were able to enjoy a cultural meal. So advice to all those studying abroad: it’s always good to know the cultural nuisances and how to be polite in a new country. However, there are going to be occasions for which you can’t plan or rules you just forgot to Wikipedia. Embrace the learning experience; you might end up a star in someone’s wedding album.