3 "Polite" Things You Do When Trying a New Cuisine That Are Actually Rude

It's always a good idea to ask questions.

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At the dinner where my father's parents, both born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, first met my mother's parents, both born and raised in Nanjing, China, there was an incident.

My mother's parents weren't able to make it to their wedding, but they later came to New York where my parents lived. My mother's parents took my father's parents out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. My Hawaii-born and raised grandpa raised a bowl of soup to his lips. Unfortunately, it wasn't actually a bowl of soup, but rather a finger bowl used for cleaning one's hands between picking up Chinese delicacies. Horror ensued, but eventually the faux pas wound its way into family lore, retold time and time again, mostly by my Hawaiian grandpa himself to guffaws that he got.

Related:6 "Polite" Things You Do at a Chinese Restaurant That Are Actually Rude

I've navigated multiple sets of table manners throughout my life. With parents from two very different cultures, I've been saddled with the weight of several sets of superstitions (especially in Chinese culture, where small gestures are imbued with many layers of meaning and table etiquette involves a lot of protocol). So I understand that eating on unfamiliar territory can be a minefield of cultural mistakes.

We all have different programming. We are all entrenched in our own customs, which may be at odds with our host's. Showing up with a gift, for instance, is often baked into guest protocol and, at the very least, it's a social lubricant. But showing up with the wrong gift can sometimes be worse than showing up empty-handed.

Here is a short, incomprehensive guide to navigating unfamiliar meals and emerging a gracious guest, born from interviews with my friends and colleagues.

1. You abide only by your own methods of consumption instead of trying someone else's.

Food often doesn't come with directions. Communicating your inexperience can be key to enjoying a new dish. "I only have one tip: Ask how to eat it," advises Jill Weber, an archaeologist and restaurateur. "A lot of times it isn't clear exactly how to eat a new food. Sometimes foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but rather with one or two other items on the table as condiments. Or sometimes foods should be scooped up with bread, rather than a fork or spoon. Just ask!" Australian PR director Kylie Flett follows this up with a cautionary tale. "That's how my college roommate ended up projectile-vomiting across the kitchen. Because she dipped a cracker in a jar of Vegemite like it was Nutella … I tried to tell her we don't eat it like that in Australia, but she didn't listen. Any good Aussie knows you scrape [a thin layer of] Vegemite across pre-buttered toast."

2. You eat with your hands, or you don't eat with your hands. Or you eat with the wrong hand.

Self-awareness will save you in most instances, especially when deciding how to use your hands at the table. Melanie Sarachilli, a Puerto Rican social worker based in Philadelphia, says, "I ate food with my left hand at a Muslim family's house. [They are] a family I work with—they were so kind and invited me over for lunch as a thank-you for helping them out. They were absolutely gracious and said nothing at all about it, but I only realized when I looked up and saw that they had printed out a little sign for their kids that reminded them that we must eat with the right hand, as the left is thought to be unclean." Sarachilli goes on to add, "I also have left chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice at a Chinese family's home." There are many nuances to properly handling chopsticks, and placing chopsticks sticking up out of a bowl is how one would present food at altars to deceased relatives.

3. You don't follow your host's lead.

At the end of the day, self-awareness is the most important thing in any unfamiliar situation. Michal Levison, founder of Seasoned Moments, recollects when her brother "asked for soy sauce before tasting the food at a Chinese family's home. Thus, he implied that the food would not be flavorful enough." Former diplomat Ivy Lerner-Frank explains how, over time, Chinese manners became her own manners: "In China, we were warned so many times never to finish our plate of food or take the last morsel at a banquet or in someone's home that I'm hoping we didn't commit that faux pas. The interesting thing was the absolute horror of watching other visitors do that kind of thing. I would positively recoil when visitors would serve themselves before others—you know, how you might kindly offer food to your host the way that they would do for you. Or pour tea for yourself without pouring first for others, and taking for yourself last (if there was any remaining!). I found it interesting how through observing others we begin to understand another culture—if we're capable of paying attention." Lerner-Frank grew to love Chinese manners and seeing them play out in her non-Chinese family. "Now it's so sweet for me to see the way my son always lovingly puts food on his girlfriend's plate."