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Monday, October 24, 2011

Chinese Hospitality

China in general has a very hospitable culture. People are very open to foreigners and love to be in their company. In your travels, if you meet difficulties such as finding places to go or restaurants to eat at, people on the street are perfectly happy to help you out if you are polite and can speak a little Chinese. If you travel with friends to their hometowns to meet their family, you will find that Chinese familial hospitality is nothing short of first class. The Chinese have a very giving culture, and it will become evident, especially in food culture. What is mentioned below is even more true in the Northwest of China, which is known especially for its hospitality, sort of equivalent to the Southern hospitality of America, but even more so. 

Like mentioned in earlier sections, foreigners are still something of a novelty in developing parts of China, so if you travel with a Chinese friend to their home, his family will be simply ecstatic to host a foreigner in their home. They will have no qualms about fixing dinner, letting you sleep in their beds, watching their TV, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their beer, and buying you gifts. When you are in these situations, it may feel uncomfortable to accept this amount of hospitality, but your hosts genuinely want to give you these things, it is not simply good manners. 

Food is one of the most obvious manifestation of Chinese hospitality. When a Chinese person treats you to a meal in a restaurant or in their home, you will be overwhelmed with hospitality. If you go to someone’s home, you will immediately be offered an arrangement of fruit, sunflower seeds, and a cigarette. They have most likely bought all of this specifically for you, so you should partake of some of it, but make sure to leave room for your meal!

The Chinese have a habit of always ordering/cooking more food than you can eat and pushing you to eat more than you can. When you are full and put down your chopsticks, your hosts will say something to the effect of, “You didn’t eat very much, please, please eat more.” When you say you have had enough, they will continue at least two or three more times and put a little more food on your plate. There is a sort of negotiation process that needs to take place before you are actually allowed to stop eating and it takes a little getting used to before one gets it figured out. The first few times you go to someone’s home or are invited to a restaurant, you will probably eat too much (although the food will probably be excellent). Traditionally, the host of a meal is not allowed to stop eating until the guest has stopped eating because it is seen as impolite if he does so. This figures somewhat into the negotiation process. 

After the meal, you will be offered soup and fruit of some kind to help smooth over your digestion of this massive quantity of food. After you’ve eaten this soup and fruit, you will again be offered sunflower seeds, more fruit, and more cigarettes.  Again, this whole process is part of China’s giving culture and your hosts genuinely want you to be fully satisfied and happy. If you don’t want more, tell your hosts that you are very satisfied and could not possibly want any more. After a brief negotiation, they will believe you and you’re done with your meal!

Besides being hospitable in regards to food, Chinese people are all very hospitable and nice on the streets, with the exceptions of the bigger, New York City type of places, where there are more jerks. When you are a foreigner in a mid-sized or small city, people are very nice and will help you out with anything as long as you can communicate what you want. If you need directions, people will give you directions. If you need to buy something, they will tell/show you where to buy it. If you are just standing around by yourself, they will come up and talk to you just so they can have a conversation, maybe even in English! If you are in a city without a lot of foreigners, there is a 70% chance that the person will ask for your phone number so they can contact you later and if they find out that you have a QQ account (Chinese version of AIM/Myspace), there is a 100% chance they will ask you for your QQ number. Everyone wants to be able to say they have a foreign friend - one, because it makes them seem cooler, but also because they genuinely want to be your friend. It is very different from the American experience, where foreigners are ever-present and no one gives them a second glance. 

In regards to my personal experience in Lanzhou, every time I went outside of the campus by myself, I had a conversation with strangers in both languages. Whether I went to a shop, to see the Yellow River, to stroll around downtown, no matter where I went, I always had at least one conversation with a stranger, about half the time in English. Sometimes they were short, but a genuine effort was made on both sides, which is what really matters. If the conversations were in Chinese, they were always longer and a sort of crowd always gathered. The person would begin talking to me, then would wave to his friends, who came over. Then strangers wondered what was going on, so they came over to watch, and so I would be surrounded by 6, 8, or 10 people while having a simple conversation! This kind of thing happens very frequently in areas without a lot of foreigners. A great way to start this conversation is to, if you smoke, ask for a light, or, if you don’t, ask what time it is. Very simple questions, but they will get you started!

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