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.

How chopsticks showed me the difference between German and Chinese culture
Photo: Depositphotos/nioloxs

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.

SEE ALSO: Oh fork! The shocks – and joys – of German dining customs as an American

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]

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Living in Germany: Energy levy, lazy pig-dogs and a big bend in Saarland

In our weekly roundup, The Local Germany team looks at how energy bills are increasing, pig-dog insults, tourist spots in Saarland and cultural etiquette when it comes to birthdays.

Living in Germany: Energy levy, lazy pig-dogs and a big bend in Saarland

German households to see gas bill hike in October

Though we’ve all heard the terrifying news about soaring gas prices, most people in Germany haven’t had to bear the full brunt of the rising costs yet. In October, that’s set to change. To help bail out energy firms who have had to buy gas at a hefty premium this year, the government is introducing a new levy that will be added to people’s gas bills. We don’t yet know how much this will be, though it could be as much as five cents per kilowatt hour of energy. That would mean a family of four could pay as much as €1,000 extra per year, and a single-person household could face extra costs of around €300.

Though there are still some issues to iron out with the levy, it seems pretty unavoidable that people will see their bills rise this winter. This week, we looked into whether it could be worth buying an electric heater for the home to save on gas bills, and also delved into the rules around replacing old heating systems. Have you taken any steps to reduce your energy consumption or make your home more efficient this year? Let us know at [email protected]. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Tweet of the week

Just when you think you’ve got to grips with the language, German throws you a curveball like this. (Incidentally, ‘inner pig-dog’ was our Word of the Day a short while ago – be sure to check it out if you’d like to learn more about this wonderful phrase.)

Where is this?

The 'great bend' in Saarland.

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Harald Tittel

The blistering weather clearly didn’t stop tourists flocking to see the Saarschleife – or the ‘Great Bend’ – on their summer holidays last week. This magnificent curve in the river Saar can be reached by a treetop walk, culminating in a lookout point where you can take in these breathtaking views. It’s one of Saarland’s most famous tourist attractions and well worth a visit if you find yourself in Germany’s smallest state – though possibly not in 35C heat!

Did you know?

Is it just us, or does everyone’s birthday seem to fall in either July or August? Either that, or people are much more likely to throw a party during the glorious summer months. (Statisticians – let us know.) In any case, if you do get invited to celebrate a birthday with a German friend of yours, you may need to observe some special birthday etiquette to avoid offending anyone.

Most importantly, if you see your friend ahead of their special day, the words “happy birthday” should be banished from your lips as celebrating early is a massive faux pas. And if it happens to be your birthday, don’t expect your German friends to cough up for a round of drinks or a birthday cake. In fact, as the birthday boy or girl, it’s your responsibility to bring treats to the office and you’ll even be expected to buy the drinks at the pub afterwards.

With traditions like these, we won’t blame you if you happen to get a bout of amnesia next time your birthday rolls around…

Thanks for reading,

The Local Germany team

This article is also sent out as a weekly newsletter just to members every Saturday. To sign up and get it straight into your inbox just go to your newsletter preferences.