Zuozhuo 坐桌 or how to have a feast in Niuji village

Zuozhuo 坐桌 or how to have a feast in Niuji village

Recently I posted a few pictures and videos on my facebook, complaining about the weekly/daily banquets held by my neigbors.

Today, I was invited to another one. So, out of the occasion I thought it is time to share this experience with my readers. I am wondering the whole time if I am weird, ungrateful, spoilt or something? But let’s start from the beginning…

The time I still liked Zuozhuo

zuozhuo rural china feast

The term Zuozhuo 坐桌, literally means ‘to sit at a table’. I have not found it in a dictionary yet, and even google does not explain the real meaning of this term.

A few years ago, when I first visited my in-laws, my mother-in-law would on random occasions ask me if I would want to zuozhuo. My Chinese was not really good at that time, and I always wanted to make a good impression, so I would just smile and nod. Of course, I want to take part in it. Whatever ‘it’ is.

And the thing is: I actually liked it. I thought it was so interesting, and I felt honoured to be part of such a gathering. Zuozhuo is nothing else than a big feast, a banquet. Usually held if someone gets married, is about to get married, has gotten married, has a baby, is about to have a baby, has had a baby, the baby is one month old, the baby is 100 days old, birthdays (especially 3 years, 12 years, and older), or someone has died… So, with the amount of people getting married in this village, and consequently having babies, you can do ‘zuozhuo’ every day. If you want to.

All those years I kinda enjoyed it. The dirt and the horrible table manners of everyone else didn’t bother me. It felt like being free. You could just throw your trash on the floor, spit the bones on the table. Food was abundant, and I was just impressed by the amount of dishes…

People were very welcoming. Everyone wanted me to be sitting at their table. Baijiu (the Chinese wine) was flowing in liters, and maybe my brain was dulled by the alcohol, but I really liked being there… It’s a gathering of people, and everyone seemed so relaxed and happy.

When things started to change…

Chinese feast

I don’t remember a date or exact time when it changed. I guess it happened gradually. But after a few years, I started to dislike every zuo zhuo opportunity. I tried to find excuses why I couldn’t go.

All of a sudden I started to pay attention to other details. The dirt and the spitting started to bother me. I felt disgusted by the amount of babies and children peeing and pooing next to the eating table. Even the food started to taste different. When I liked all the different dishes, all of a sudden I felt repulsed by the view of a pigs head.

This year I started thinking about it consciously. I still went to some of the banquets, trying to see if it’s just my brain playing tricks. I mean, the people are still very welcoming, even more now since they consider me part of the clan, but no matter how friendly and considered they are, I felt very out of place.

All of a sudden I started to hear my mother in my ear; telling me “sit straight when you eat!”, “Don’t put your elbows on the table!”, “And for god’s sake, don’t spit your food on the floor!”

I got very self-conscious, and started to realize how wrong everything felt. I wished I was sitting at a clean table, with people who would not eat like starved dogs… and at the same time I felt very guilty for having those thoughts. After all they all were nice people…

A late culture shock, maybe?

So, what is wrong with me? Why, all of a sudden, started I hating these gatherings? Am I a spoilt brad who cannot appreciate the friendly gesture of the people around me, cannot appreciate a nice banquet? Maybe. And maybe it really is a late culture shock or maybe I just grow up and realized I don’t have to except everything just so I can please everyone. People have started talking badly about me in Niuji village. Saying I am a spoilt foreigner who feels too special to join them in their zuozhuo.

Sometimes I feel like defending myself and explaining my feelings, but they wouldn’t understand anyway. Most of the people here have been living here all their life. They have never left the confinement of Niuji village. They don’t understand that someone might dislike the way they behave, the way they gather, the way they eat… and I am not here to change them, I just don’t want to take part in it anymore.

 food in rural china

It just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Has anyone else experienced something similar? How do you deal with it? Should you just swallow it and adapt no matter the cost?

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

10 thoughts on “Zuozhuo 坐桌 or how to have a feast in Niuji village

  1. if that makes you feel better even my mother in law doesn’t accept it, she didn’t want a banquet Sing’s father wanted – for a whole company (company is from Hong Kong but factory is based in small city in south China, hiring a lot of not educated but well skilled people so their manners are quite similar to what you see at your place). she was afraid of that kind of images, so being Chinese (Shanghai) herself she cannot be a spoiled foreigner. I think there’s nothing wrong with your thinking, I’m sure you appreciate their gesture, but what’s wrong with wanting a more quiet meal without public toilet under the table, spitting or dirt. so remember, you’re not alone, even ‘their’ people are not able to accept :) too bad you can’t do anything about it…

    • Actually yeah it does make me feel better. It just made me realize something… I don’t think I am having a culture shock.Because having bad manners and not caring about hygiene has nothing to do with culture, but with the level of education.
      I don’t blame them. Education here is horrible! And it’s a vicious circle.
      I am really naive and I think things are gonna change here, because there are so many bigger cities in China where people’s manners have changed, where they have access to better education. It might not happen today, but I am sure it will.
      I will start working in a school in October. I might not make a huge difference, but I believe buy teaching some of the kids here, I can help them to understand some things, educate them in little simple things like, don’t throw your trash on the floor :)

  2. Oh, dont feel bad about it. My Chinese family would never participate in such events. For them it is all about hygiene, table manners and so forth. I would love to try it at least once but I never get the opportunity :)

  3. I think it’s perfectly understandable that you’re experiencing “late culture shock.” I have moments when lots of the cultural differences really bother me, and other moments when they don’t phase me at all. I guess it’s just part of being a foreigner in a strange land. :)

  4. “Try it three times and then draw a line” was what I would say to myself about everything I disliked in China. Of course one has to try to adapt as much as possible to the local habits, but you have the right to set your limit. As long as you think you did what you could to fit in, there’s no way you should force yourself into uncomfortable situations over and over again just not to be the “spoiled foreigner”.

  5. I can totally understand, my husband too. Even though we live in Guangzhou, we live on a village on an island where people are used to their old ways. Their whole life is there and they may not be even interested in the outside world. I think I’ve been having “late culture shock” too, I guess it’s because now I know I’m going to be here for a very very long time and things start to bother me. I also think that even though we live in China and want to respect the culture, we don’t have to change our selves completely to please others. For example I’ve been unhappy because of my father in law nags about the same things over and over again and at the moment refuse to go to their house for dinner, I’m not gonna accept everything just because in China you are supposed to do everything your parents tell you to do. The parents and the villagers are old generation, they probably never change. But me and my husband belong to a totally new world, it makes clashes between all of us. So don’t feel bad about not going to the banquets or even having those people to talk about you. I’m totally on your side on this :)

  6. It’s perfectly fine to feel the way you do. What is important is that you don’t feel contempt toward the people for their flaws because as you have pointed out the people don’t know any better.

    I think you’re doing just fine. For what it’s worth, I think you have done more than most foreigners would to immerse yourself with the locals.

  7. Just out of curiosity:
    Is Jin accompanying you to Germany ?
    (Getting a visa for him for the second time should be
    much easier than last Christmas, I would think)

  8. Pingback: Home sweet home? – Reverse Culture Shock | The Mandarin Duck

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