I did most of my growing up in a small town of about 200 people in the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. This basically ensured that I have the ability to make awesome sweet tea, bake deliciously unhealthy snacks you can’t turn down, and keep a conversation going to entertain my guests.
For the last year and a half or so, my husband and I have been living and working as university teachers in Southern China. Now, before I continue, I must say that China is huge and is comprised of fifty-six people groups. With such diversity, it is not surprising that the Miao people in Hunan Province have very different customs than the Han people who make up about 91 per cent of the population. Moreover, the generational gap is also huge.
So here are some major aspects of Chinese hospitality:
- Eating together is investing. Chinese culture (especially Southern Chinese culture) is extremely people-oriented. When you need to find a plumber, they never simply call a random plumber. They will ask a friend who asks his friend who knows a plumber who did a good job at their house. Many Chinese believe that you cannot trust someone who has not been tested by someone you trust. Therefore, relationships are super important. How do you make relationships? You eat. Chinese people love their food. In the south, lunch or dinner will potentially take two or three hours. It will be very loud (the loudest table is the happiest) and people will get very drunk.
- The chicken head. Oh, and being the guest, you may be offered the chicken head to eat. Turning it down may be taken personally, so just enjoy the experience.
- Pouring tea. When pouring tea, the host or hostess will pour tea for everyone except themselves at the beginning of the meal. If you want more tea, you must pour it for those around you before yourself.
- You are not allowed to pay. Reputation or “face” is immensely important to the Chinese. One person will often pay for everyone else’s meal in order to display his or her generosity. As the guest, arguing to pay for your own share is considered shameful for both you and the host. Some younger people are more open to splitting the bill, but definitely not the first time.
- Opening the home. For a Chinese person to invite you to their house and cook for you is a huge honor. It is a treat only offered to those the host truly wishes to deepen the relationship with. Also, the host or hostess will often not eat anything during the meal in order to ensure that you have had plenty to eat. For this reason, it is polite to leave some food in the serving dishes to indicate that they fed you well and so that they have something to eat after dinner.
- Escorting the guest. Whenever you are finished eating or doing an activity with someone, it is a Chinese custom to “send you off.” I don’t mean just walking you to the door and saying goodbye: they literally escort you out of the building and to your taxi, bus stop, or bike. In other words, it is not easy to make a quick getaway (kind of like trying to escape from an agile host or hostess in the American South).
- The cost of receiving hospitality. Everything about Chinese hospitality comes down to “face.” A person’s reputation is judged based on how generous their hospitality is and how the favor is returned. Thus, every relationship is a balance of favors being given and returned in like kind. This sounds ridiculous, but you probably do it without thinking about it. Take Christmas for example. It is kind of embarrassing in American culture to give a gift to someone that really doesn’t measure up to what they gave you.
Hospitality is a fundamental part of every culture. For the Chinese, it is a vital and beautiful part of life and relationships. Perhaps we can learn a lot about hospitality from Chinese culture.