How chopsticks showed me the difference between German and Chinese culture

The Local
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How chopsticks showed me the difference between German and Chinese culture

Jainey Chen, a Chinese resident of Munich, shares how cutlery shows the differences - and sometimes similarities - between Chinese and German culture.


There are over 212,000 Chinese people living in Germany, according to the latest figures from the Institute for Population research - seen in Germany through the large number of Chinese university students, business partnerships and, of course, Chinese residents.

Jainey Chen, a reader of The Local who is based in Munich, wrote about how a visit to a restaurant with food from her home country revealed how Chinese and German work culture differs.

When I was passing the Karlsplatz U-Bahn in Munich, I spotted a typical dish from my home country: Chinese pancakes, in a nearby little restaurant.

This used to be one of the typical breakfast fast-foods in Beijing, but is rarely seen nowadays in China, not to mention in Europe! In this little restaurant everything, however, was served authentic - the pancake was handmade on the site, with your choice of flavour.

The only inauthentic detail is that the pancake was presented in a small box, equipped with a fork and a knife.

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Fortunately chopsticks were also offered. Now everything became natural and enjoyable.

Obviously, my great satisfaction with my country's cuisine attracted others' attention. A local man, apparently European, stopped to asked for my comments. Then he quickly followed my advice as well as my choice of chopsticks. I was surprised to find he was quite skillful with chopsticks!

That only lasted a few minutes - he switched to a fork and knife, understandably a better choice for him. The Chinese pancake now turned into Italian pizza in my eyes.

Cutting into cultural differences

Many Chinese people are not accustomed to dealing with various forks, knives and spoons in the course of one meal. It’s a bit funny to receive only three plates (or courses) which one has to manage with at least 5 little tools.

On the other hand, Germans may not understand how useful chopsticks are for the Chinese - they just do all jobs. One pair of chopsticks works well for 10 or more plates throughout a meal. Whether in work or eating, the Chinese are generalists and the Germans tend to be specialists, praised for their specific roles in different sectors.

A woman prepares tea at the Yu Garden restaurant in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

When you dine in European-style restaurants in China, certainly you can get forks and knives, but just one pair for each person. Waiters don’t understand why you need to change them over different courses.

It is worth noting that a pair of chopsticks is always working in parallel in the same hand - never switching to the other hand.

Chopsticks may not be good at cutting, but Chinese cuisine is always presented in small pieces. You don’t really cut anything at the table. All you need do is to pick up the item at hand, whether peanuts or pancakes. Don’t forget your teeth are as good as knives, or even better.

A philosophy behind the cutlery

What lies behind the cutlery is the philosophy, the approach to solve problems, and the way to work. Chinese tend to work in a multi-functional manner. Like with chopsticks themselves, each person is flexible in coping with various jobs.

In government agencies and companies, top talents are always required to work in different posts and environments. Like an experienced pair of chopsticks, you are supposed to skillfully manage all kinds of dishes.

In contrast, Europeans - particularly Germans - appreciate expertise in a single area through long term dedication. They generally observe clear boundaries among various jobs. They may wish to do the same job for decades. Their successes often come from their expertise in niche markets.

Teamwork is essential for both sides. To feed yourself at the table, Europeans need both hands at the same time (again dedication is required).

The Chinese on the other hand - quite literally - may eat with only one hand (the other one remains standby for other potential jobs), but chopsticks must work in a pair.

Finally coming back to pancakes, Chinese eat them simply with hands, the same style as Germans do at Christmas Markets. All you need is a paper napkin to wrap pancakes properly.

You don’t need any cutlery as long as your teeth are standing! Sometimes cultural differences are clear cut, while other times they blend together seamlessly at celebrations that all cultures can enjoy.

Jainey Chen has lived in Munich since January 2017. She has worked in the finance industry for 25 years, mostly in China and also in the U.K.

Do you have an experience in Germany than made you see the cultural differences between Germany and your home country? If you'd like to share it, write to us at [email protected].


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