Hospitality… with Chinese characteristics

Our experience this weekend is a great example of an important and difficult (for us) cultural difference which we must embrace if we want to live in China and share life with Chinese people. We learned a lot.

We returned from Beijing Sunday night, where we were on the receiving end of Chinese hospitality for an entire weekend. (All day yesterday we were helping orient some new language students.) Hospitality is one area where Chinese and Westerners have very different expectations, and it’s quite easy to cause misunderstanding or even offense. Of course we’ve read about the rules and expectations, and had previously experienced the great and eternally forbearing hospitality and generosity of our friends in Taiwan. But this was our first time to actually stay in a Chinese person’s home in China (we lived with a Taiwan family in the States for two weeks once, but that’s a little different).

Our friends, a young couple about our age with no kids whom we first met when they were studying in North America, came into Tianjin late Friday morning. They wanted to see where we were living before heading to their place in Beijing for the weekend. Since they were in ‘our’ town, I supposed we were supposed to be the hosts, but it wasn’t totally clear since they were playing host to the foreigners at the same time. In China, the host pays for everything. So we went out for lunch (first time to eat rabbit) and I managed to get away with paying, but only because I employed the oft-used sneak-away-from-the-table-3/4-through-the-meal-and-pay maneuver. Basically, I got the jump on the husband and he couldn’t stop me (I tried and failed to get the jump on ‘Shine Far,’ our language partner, when we went to the zoo). Mingdaw, our friend and employer in Taiwan, is a master at this – though at the time we were so ignorant we just assumed he was always excusing himself to use the bathroom and thought it was a little weird that he did it at the same time every meal. In fact, there’s no Chinese word for American-style dining out where everyone splits the bill. They call that “AA制”, creating a term with foreigner letters for such un-Chinese behaviour!

That meal was the only thing were we allowed to pay for, aside from a small bag of peaches, from Friday afternoon until returning to Tianjin Sunday evening. This couple has personal reasons for being generous with their money, in addition to the regular Chinese cultural hospitality expectations and concerns about getting “face.” They aren’t among the rich Chinese, but their experience in N.America meant we were able to talk explicitly about cultural hospitality differences in a way that (I hope) wasn’t impolite. They paid the taxi to the train station, train tickets both ways (at 165 km/h!), every meal, entrance to tourist spots like the Temple of Heaven, and even bought Jessica a souvenir in spite of her objections. In their one-bedroom apartment they made us sleep in their bed while they slept in the living room. Saturday night a bunch of people came over for a big family-style meal, and some stayed the night – all guests of their hospitality. We sincerely tried to help with the costs, but knew from the outset it was a lost cause. Once we were taken out to a ridiculously fancy restaurant by the Chinese friend of an American friend who was visiting us – ordering food was like walking through an aquarium – and when we mentioned to the American friend we didn’t mind helping with the bill he said emphatically, “Not a chance.” Your role is to humbly receive their generosity, whether it strikes your cultural fancy as excessive or not.

Jessica and I are both really thrifty-borderline-stingy by temperament, and I shudder to think what they spent on us. But I think North Americans in general cringe at the thought of being indebted to someone that way. We’re much more comfortable with AA-zhì because it affirms our desire for self-sufficient independency and frees us from expectations of reciprocation; N.Americans can feel hindered or trapped by “owing people” in this way.

In addition to being blown away by their generosity and greatly enjoying their company, the weekend was great for many reasons. It was fantastic language practice (in which Jessica lost no time in showing me up). We saw the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the Great Hall of the People, the Temple of Heaven, and other famous sites which we’d previously only seen in history videos and news footage. It was actually a little eerie to see Tiananmen square and the Great Hall of the People. We watched our first Korean movie (“Our Happy Time” aka “Maundy Thursday”). Many Chinese love Korean films, and this one has some interesting messages about guilt and forgiveness in addition to the usual pathos-saturated romance-doomed-by-impending-death plot line. We also ate fish eggs and lotus (not together) for the first time, and Jessica had her first ever train ride. My one regret is that I passed up the chance to buy a pet cricket in a cage from a lady selling them from her bicycle (they looked just like in the Disney movie Mulan). But we did buy a jiàn zi (Chinese hacky sack, far superior to that of the West).

Click here for more photos from this weekend!

4 thoughts on “Hospitality… with Chinese characteristics”

  1. WOW..
    what a fun weekend! I cant wait to tell the kids you saw a lady selling crickets! We read a book last spring that was all about a cricket.. .. anyway.. how fun!!!
    I am just in awe of the pictures.. such amazing color and architecture! it must be sort of wild to see it in person.. I think i would have to just sit and breath deeply to take everything in! …

    thanks for posting the pictures.. i cant wait to show the kids in the morning!

  2. I can’t tell you how many examples of the reluctancy to accept hospitality I’ve seen at Starbucks…I’ve witnessed several fights (some play, some getting serious, some physical…elbows are involved) over who pays. And often, the person who finally accepts will only do so on the condition that they pay the next time.

  3. Hey Meredith! Macedonia is getting closer, eh?

    I bet you could write a dissertation on Americans by working at Starbucks… not to mention supporting Jessica’s coffee addiction. =) (thanks!)

  4. It is right around the corner! I leave for Washington DC on the 21st and we fly out to Macedonia via Vienna on the 23rd.

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