Editor’s note: With the school year starting back up and ministry among Chinese international students launching into full swing, we continue a series this week offering some practical advice to Americans desiring to make friends with Chinese internationals. Although by no means comprehensive, we hope this and next week’s posts can help those with little prior Chinese cultural experience to be more confident in serving and befriending their Chinese neighbors by helping them better understand the areas of conversation, hospitality, and food. Thousands of Chinese students are arriving at American airports this month to start degree programs across the country and we encourage readers to consider befriending them in Christ’s name. We encourage you to also read the first post of the series 9 Tips for Being Other-Centered in Conversation and Friendship with Chinese.
If you’re like me, hospitality is not something that comes easy, even in my own culture. I’m naturally introverted and opening up my home can sometimes feel chaotic, even overwhelming. With the added element of cross-cultural hosting, I can feel at a loss. But there is something perpetually rewarding in sharing life together with other people, especially those who are “sojourners” in our city.
For years I’ve been trying to learn how to open up my home to my Chinese neighbors. At times, I’ve considered my efforts successful and have been able to say goodbye to my visitors confident that they relaxed and enjoyed themselves. At other times I’ve seen less success, wondering if I made my guests feel uncomfortable and awkward. During those times, I’ve had to trust that Christ is bigger than my small efforts.
I have by no means completely figured out how Americans can extend culturally aware hospitality to their Chinese neighbors, but there are a few tips that I’ve learned over the years and I hope they can help you as you seek out friendship with those from the Middle Kingdom.
1. Be the Host
The first key to extending hospitality with your Chinese friends and neighbors is understanding Chinese hosting expectations. Hosting is a big deal in China and very different from our ideas of hosting in America. Here, the best host is one who doesn’t infringe on their guests. An American host is expected to be available and to provide, but mostly, to treat their guests as one of the family. We tell our guests to “help themselves” and “make yourself at home.” These expressions epitomize American hospitality; the host has provided everything and now the guest can take initiative.
For our Chinese friends, hosting is a place of honor and it is a much greater responsibility. Whereas the American host is expected to take a step back in deference to the guest, the Chinese host is expected to always take the first step. As I have observed it, the Chinese host is expected to think of her guests’ needs before they themselves can. If you have ever been the guest to a Chinese host, you’ve most likely experienced this as your host continually giving you things, which you probably enjoyed, but didn’t know you wanted or needed. In short, there is no “help yourself” in China.
Additionally, the host will always be a clearly marked role in China. Unlike America, where there might be multiple laid-back, help-yourself hosts at the same time, in China there will generally be one true host. Because the role carries with it more responsibility (anticipating needs, paying for the guests expenses, etc.), generally one person will be designated to put on the mantle. This does not mean others cannot participate in hosting, but usually they will be expected to assist the host rather than play that role themselves.
This is a lot of cultural background, but what does it actually boil down to in your relationships? For starters, think of yourself as the Host with a capital H. If you invite your Chinese friends to your home, they will feel more at ease if you clearly play the role of host rather than taking a laid-back approach. Tell them exactly what to do with their coats and bags, give them drinks, and even tell them where you want them to sit. This might feel pushy as an American, but for most Chinese this will not even be notable.
If you are eating a meal together, this extends to food. If you have prepared the food, make sure you tell your guests how to eat it. Serve them directly rather than passing it around. Don’t wait for them to ask for second helpings, but rather serve them a second time yourself.
If you are eating out together at a restaurant, consider that if you are the host you are expected to pay the bill. If your Chinese friend is the host, it is his responsibility to pay the bill. Even if you are students, your friend will probably expect one of you to take the role of host and pay the bill. As the friendship develops, you may agree to split the check American-style, but don’t assume that is their expectation.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to help your friend order if you are at an American restaurant. Remember that the menu might be new to them and it is appropriate for you as the host to be forthright in recommending options they might like. You don’t need to order for them (though they might ask you to!), but don’t shy away from explaining the menu, American dining customs, and what they might enjoy to eat. In eating, it is especially important for the host to anticipate the guests’ desires and take the first step.
2. Have a plan
A very important difference in hosting is that it is good for the host to have a plan. Not only is the host responsible for the guests’ needs, but the host is also responsible for the guests’ time. This is best highlighted in the differences between Chinese and American parties. At an American party, the primary activity for guests is mingling. The host provides the space and refreshments, but unless it is a formal event such as a wedding shower, guests’ time is their own at an American party. They are free to come and go as they wish, eat or drink as they wish, and chat among people as they wish. During Chinese parties, there will be more structure. The host will have a plan for everyone’s time together and just as they prepare to take care of the guests’ needs, they also prepare for their guests’ time. Whether it is playing games, singing songs, or eating, a good Chinese host keeps his guests entertained.
My suggestion is that anytime you host Chinese friends, think through how your time together will be spent. You don’t have to go crazy with this – there is no need to have a time-lined agenda. But it is helpful to have some specific ideas you can turn to. For example, if you are having people over for dinner start with eating, then play a game, and finish with desert. If you are hosting a larger party plan to do everything as one large group and try to cut down on American-style mingling, which may make your Chinese friends uncomfortable.
Most importantly, let your guests know when they are free to leave. Because the host is responsible for people’s time, he is also responsible for dismissing his guests at the end of the evening and for ensuring they arrive home safely. Do not wait for your Chinese friends to let you know they must leave – this is an American habit. Rather, when all that you have planned for the evening is finished, play the role of the Chinese host and close the evening graciously. Your responsibility as host for their needs and time continue until you have seen them home.
3. Mix it up
Most likely you are making friends with Chinese in America. If this is true, it’s important to remember that even given all of the above, your Chinese friends are most likely interested in learning about and experiencing American culture. The above tips are not so much about how you can be Chinese (you will always feel distinctly American to your Chinese friends, even with your best efforts at Chinese hosting), but rather how you can help your friends feel comfortable. But don’t be afraid to be open about American hosting culture as well. Especially as your relationships grow, bring aspects of both cultures into the mix.
Be open about the cultural mix. Don’t be afraid to let your guests know when you are following American tradition and when you want to follow Chinese tradition. For example, I decided that despite my efforts to be more like a Chinese host in many other areas, I would stick with American tradition concerning shoes in the house. My husband and I frequently wear shoes in our house and when guests come over we do not expect them to remove their shoes. As is typical with Americans, some will choose to take off their shoes themselves, but there is no rule about it. When we host Chinese in our house, we simply explain that because we are American, we are accustomed to wearing shoes in the house and it is not necessary for them to remove their shoes. Of course, this can sometimes introduce awkwardness, but I place a cup of hot water in their hands once they enter and the cultural mixing begins.
Again, the goal is not for you and your house to become Chinese. Your friends know that you are American, and they will be excited to experience some of the strange things you do. But the goal of any host should always be to welcome your guests and make them comfortable so that relationships might flourish and the peace of Christ might be made known. With that goal in mind, there is much an American host can learn to help Chinese guests feel at ease.
Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for the China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. She first traveled to China in 2005 and has cared deeply for the country and its church ever since. Follow her personal blog at Carved to Adorn.