The Importance of Being Finished
By CLARISSA SEBAG-MONTEFIORE
December 11, 2012, 8:10 am

BEIJING — 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.

Leading the class was the Hong Kong-native Sara Jane Ho. She is a product of Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school, where a six-week course covering skills including flower arranging, hostessing and table-setting costs around $20,000.

Now Ho is bringing finishing school to China. In March 2013, the poised 27-year-old Harvard Business School graduate will start the Institute Sarita, a boutique finishing school offering courses in Mandarin for high prices (exactly how much she won’t say). Ho, who speaks English with a pristine British accent, tells me she is here to teach Chinese the ‘‘importance of being finished’’ — the European way.

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.

Such exercises may seem silly and out of date. In Europe itself, finishing schools are dying out. Teaching it in Beijing may sound ludicrous. But Ho might just be onto something.

If finishing schools have a future at all, it’s in emerging economies. Ho’s class at Institut Villa Pierrefeu was made up mostly of girls from countries such as India, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In China, many nouveau riche traveling abroad for the first time in decades are acutely aware they have cash but no class.

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.

Lucy, a Chinese fellow student, confided to me after the class that many Chinese want to be regarded abroad as ‘‘civilized.’’ As they have become richer, they think more about their international image. The key lesson she took away was how to behave at a formal Western dinner.

‘‘You maintain your own space and don’t invade others,’’ she explained, adding that this applied at the dining room table and in the subway. ‘‘Chinese people need to learn that.’’

Lucy has to entertain foreign clients as part of her job in a Beijing-based P.R. firm. She said she found the event, as did most of the other mainly businesswomen attendees, fun and informative. Learning what to do with a fish or butter knife, neither of which are used in China, was invaluable.

Ho wants to attract a more exclusive clientele for Institute Sarita when it starts: moneyed housewives or unmarried girls from newly well-to-do families. Lessons like ‘‘European Etiquette, Hostessing & Protocol’’ will cover the art of entertaining and organizing household staff.

‘‘Right now, successful men are having a hard time finding wives. Women who are sensible, social and from a good background are not easy to find,’’ she told me. ‘‘In China, you have a lot of young women who could be groomed.’’

Apparently, a woman who attends her course can learn to be her husband’s ‘‘social Rolodex.’’ What is more, women are increasingly taking on typical masculine traits as they move into the boardroom, says Ho. This isn’t something she wants to stop (she is, after all, launching her own business). But she does ask: ‘‘Who doesn’t want to be a good housewife?’’ I bite my tongue.

If there is one thing that I take away from etiquette training it is that it does not pay to be snobby. I guessed that I might be at an advantage over my curious Chinese classmates because of my upbringing in London. I was wrong.

Before the meal, Ho asks me to demonstrate to the class how to walk across the room and shake her hand. Confidently, I swagger off. I do not even reach the finish line. Ho whips up her hand before I can shake it and says ‘‘Please, do that again. Properly.’’ My heels, she says, clack too loudly, my steps are not dainty enough, and my walk is unfeminine. Red in face, I scuttle back to repeat the exercise. I have, it seems, a very long way to go.

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