I remember the very first time I went to eat Dim Sum. I was in my second year of college and visiting my LDR boyfriend at the time, a snarky Taiwanese guy who had moved to California as a teenager. I had so far enjoyed going to his favorite restaurants, as they had always proved to be crazy delicious.
This time around, I had no idea what kind of learning experience I was in for; I just knew that as those doors opened and the glorious smells wafted from the kitchen into the waiting area, I was going to be in for a treat.
Once seated, I found myself unable to take in all the new information quickly enough. The establishment was a sight to behold — dozens upon dozens of large, circular tables seating entire families dotted the floor with servers dashing quickly between them, zipping from the kitchen to the hungry masses and back again.
But all eyes were on the carts that slowly but steadily chugged along, like merchants peddling wares through a busy street, calling out the names of each plate as they made their journey through the crowd. A steamed bun or a sizzling dish might catch the eye of a peckish customer, and the cart would stop to unload its treasures. The steamer would land with a “clunk” on the table, and the employee would hastily scribble the name of the dish on a piece of paper before speedily turning on her heels to find more ravenous patrons.
“Shu Mai!” Clunk. Scribble.
“Cha Shu Bao!” Clunk. Scribble.
“Xiao Long Bao!” Clunk. Clunk. Scribble. Scribble.
Carts kept coming through, and steamers kept piling up; the taller the tower, the higher the accomplishment, and the more satisfied the customer.
As this was a new experience for me, I couldn’t help but ask questions at every turn. “What is this one called?” “Can you repeat that in Mandarin?” and “What is in this bun?” was almost on repeat. My seemingly endless queries would be met with valid explanations at first, but after some time my then-beau’s patience began to wane. “Try it, you’ll like it.” “Just eat it.” and “It’s bull testicle.” (he was kidding).
But there was one thing that stood out to me in particular; when the servers would refill our tea cups, he always tapped two fingers on the table. When he first did it, I thought he was perhaps drawing attention to that particular area of the tablecloth, as if it needed cleaning or something. But after the second time, it became evident that this was done on purpose after something specific occurred.
My curiosity got the better of me. “Why’d you tap your fingers on the table after the server poured your tea?” I asked.
I expected a smart-ass answer (something about bull testicles), but what I got was an unexpectedly fascinating tale.
According to legend, there was an emperor named Emperor Qian Long who wished to travel the world as common people did. He wanted to see life through the eyes of his people without the all the fanfare and prestige that would otherwise be a normal part of his existence. So he donned the outfit of a commoner and required his servants to treat him as an equal.
Of course, this must have been unfathomable for those accompanying him on his journey, but who were they to go against the emperor’s requests? So they went along with it, walking in step with the royal in disguise.
Eventually, they came to a restaurant and the group was served tea. The emperor, very committed to the ruse, took it upon himself to pour tea for his servants. This was beyond shocking to the servants, who would normally have to show their gratitude for such an honor by bowing or some other manner befitting of an emperor. But to do so would reveal his true identity, and the jig would be up — everyone would know that their ruler sat amongst them.
So the servants came up with a simple way to thank their emperor for the gesture — tapping two fingers on the table after the tea had been poured. That way, they could express their thanks to Emperor Long without arousing suspicion, enabling the party to continue their travels without giving away their real selves.
(This also proved to be quite a practical mannerism, as tapping on the table was far less disruptive to the conversation than turning and thanking the server. The gesture stuck and has survived to modern day usage.)
The story may seem small to some — maybe even trivial — but at that moment I became absolutely enamored with Chinese etiquette. Mannerisms and phrases seemed to hold more meaning, and I wanted to know the captivating tales behind them all.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be during this meal — just as he was finishing his story, a cart full of delicious food passed us by, and he couldn’t help but cheekily take another dig at my ignorance.
“Oh look, your favorite–“
“Let me guess, bull testicle?”
“No, taro puffs. Don’t be racist.”
He grinned from ear to ear, the joke he’d cracked at my expense too good to pass up. I rolled my eyes and shook my head, making a mental note to get him back later. Taking a sip from my recently filled cup, I accepted the fact that I couldn’t learn the etiquette and nuances of an entire culture in one afternoon; instead, we drank tea and ate dumplings, laughing the day away and enjoying our time together.