"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Table Manners, Mrs. Linder’s Dancing Class, And Chinese Finishing Schools

Let’s face it – children are little animals that need a lot of training. Without mothers to harp about “Elbows off the table” or “Eat with your mouth closed” we would never evolve beyond eating with our hands. My young son, for example, wondered why you had to poke and cut with a knife and fork when just picking the meat up and yanking a piece off would be a lot quicker and easier. He ate like a squirrel, said the maid, with bits of bread, potatoes, and lettuce always littered the floor by his chair.  He grew more and more impatient with my wife who insisted that he sit up straight, because the throw between his plate and his mouth was even greater, and there was so much food scattered around his place that it looked like a zoo keeper had just thrown a bucket of food scraps into a gorilla cage. He was caught in a bind.  If he hunched down over his food and forked it in, leaving little litter on the floor, he was reminded about his posture.  If he sat straight and tall, he was asked to try harder not to eat like a squirrel.

I told him once that I had an idea that would solve the problem.  We would lower his chair so that his mouth would be level with the table.  Then he could sit up straight, shovel the food straight into his mouth, and leave no trail. “Don’t encourage him”, said my wife.

“Who cares?”, he said later in his teenage years. Manners were simply a bourgeois nicety to satisfy the chattering classes. Food was sustenance, a biological necessity, but transforming dinner into a Baroque minuet of silverware, china, table napkins, and the right place settings was ridiculous.

“I care”, said his mother.  “I have to sit across from you and watch feeding time.  It is gross and disgusting”. Women, bless them, have always been the firewall between men and the jungle, and after that uncharacteristically blunt remark, my son shaped up.

I went through the same kind of training by my mother; but it never took.  I am still guilty of plate-hunch, picking at the last bits of roast chicken from the serving dish, and making a point by waving my fork.  I have sat across from enough people who chew with their mouths open, however, to keep mine closed.  Watching this disgusting mess get mashed and rolled around by bad teeth and a fat tongue is enough to reform even the most anti-bourgeois eater.  It must be also noted that I don’t lick my fingers, belch, or swipe the back of my hand across my mouth instead of a napkin.

In much of rural India when I lived there, giving a loud, rumbling belch after a meal was a sign of satisfaction and a kind of trumpeted salute to the cook.  As an adolescent at boarding school I had learned to belch at will, taking in great gulps of air, and propelling them out in loud, thundering belches. I had no occasion to use this skill until India.  After a particularly spicy and greasy meal in the hut of some village chief, I would lean back, suck in air, and rattle the rafters with a loud, stentorian, blasting belch. No one batted an eye.

I always liked the idea of dinner at the court of Medieval England before kings, queens, and courtiers ate with utensils. Hunks of meat were simply pulled off the roasted meat, hands reached across the table to grab the ripest fruits, and soup and porridge were sucked down noisily straight out of wooden bowls. My favorite part of the scene was that these nobles used the dog as a napkin.  The cur, happy with all the leavings on the floor of the banquet room, thought he was being petted as one Viscount and Chevalier after another wiped their greasy hands on his fur.

When I was 12 my parents thought it would be a good idea to add to my social training by sending me to Mrs. Linder’s Dancing School.  There I would not only learn how to foxtrot, waltz, and rhumba and be prepared to begin the mating process on the dance floor of the Mistletoe Ball, the West Hartford Cotillion, and the Holly Ball; but I would also learn important social skills, like politely asking a girl to dance, thanking her graciously and taking her to her seat.  Posture, attitude, and confidence were part of the package.

In retrospect, I am not sure my parents got their money’s worth because Mrs. Linder encouraged one of the most primitive mating rituals ever.  Boys stood on one side of the room, and girls sat on the other.  At Mrs. Linder’s whistle, the boys ran across the slippery dance floor, elbowing and high-sticking each other in order to get the prettiest, most desirable girls.  There were usually more girls than boys in the class, so after the stampede was over, one or two fat girls were always left on the bench, disconsolate and teary-eyed.  What was Mrs. Linder trying to do here?

All of which brings me to an article in the New York Times about finishing schools in China by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore (12.12.12). Chinese manners – if you can call them that -  are revolting and disgusting.  The worst and most well-known is the habit of hawking and spitting everywhere.  My son – who, by the way, did learn good manners eventually – was appalled at how the corridor of Chinese trains were always sticky and gummy from all the lungers and loogies. The sound of travellers dragging back a big gob of snot and letting fly on the floor was permanent.

In Beijing, locals hawk and spit in restaurants, public swimming pools and on the street  (a practice the government tried, and failed, to stamp out before the 2008 Olympic Games). It is not uncommon to see parents providing water bottles or plastic bags for their children to urinate into in public, even in five-star hotels or at the airport.

The Chinese have come to understand that just having huge treasuries of cash, a disciplined and motivated workforce, Confucian ethics, and an inbred entrepreneurial spirit, is not enough to win over foreign clients.  Hawking and spitting, no matter how full the moneybags, will not help you close the deal. “In China, many nouveau riche traveling abroad for the first time in decades are acutely aware they have cash but no class.”

Sebag-Montefiore goes on to tell of her sojourn at a finishing school class brought to Beijing by Sara Jane Ho, a product of Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school:

How does one eat a banana gracefully?  With a knife and fork, slicing it into thin slivers  —  of course! At least that is what we are told during a three-hour etiquette training course held in one of Beijing’s priciest hotels.

Last week, I paid $61 to learn how to become a lady. Carving fruit with silverware was just one part of a five-course European-cuisine meal, eaten under the watchful eye of our impeccably mannered teacher. Nineteen women, both expat and Chinese, tackled eating ‘‘tricky foods,’’ including spaghetti and soup. Any mistakes were swiftly corrected.

Not only will these finishing schools help with table manners, but with the same social skills that I was supposedly taught at Mrs. Linder’s":

How does one close a door while not turning one’s back to the room? It’s harder than it sounds. How does one walk in heels? Balls of the feet down first, girls. Greet one’s future mother-law? Retain an air of mystery and don’t gush. Sit? Never, ever, cross your legs. It’s crass. One by one, attendees nervously parade across a wooden floor while pretending to be at a high-society cocktail party, Ho waiting on the side to critique their every step.

Chinese women attending etiquette lessons in 2007. Successful students were selected as hostesses for the Beijing Olympic Games.

Guang Nu/Getty Images

Anyone with a lingering concern about Chinese Communism should be now completely at ease. Finishing schools are the most bourgeois affirmation of capitalism there is.  There is no turning back once you have learned Western social graces.  With any luck, those who cannot pay the price of Ms. Ho’s rarified and select training may pick up something – that hawking and spitting, for example, are not done by ladies.

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