Editor’s note: The school year often brings international Chinese travelers and students to the U.S., Australia, Singapore, and other places all around the world. How can you best care for and befriend these Chinese internationals in your community? There’s no need to be intimidated. We’ve gathered together several articles from over the years that offer invaluable tips for anyone who wants to welcome Chinese internationals into their lives and homes.
This article was originally published in 2015.
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 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 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 I’ve learned over the years. I hope they can help you as you seek out friendship with those from the Middle Kingdom.
Be the Host
The first key is understanding Chinese hosting expectations. Hosting is a big deal in China, and very different from 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.
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… the Chinese host is expected to think of her guests’ needs before they themselves can.
For our Chinese friends, hosting is a place of honor and 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, 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 you probably enjoyed, but didn’t know you wanted or needed. In short, there is no “help yourself” in China.
Additionally, the host is always 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 more responsibility (anticipating needs, paying for the guests expenses, etc.), generally one person is designated. This does not mean others cannot participate, 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 relationships? For starters, think of yourself as the Host with a capital H. If you invite 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.
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If you are eating together, this extends to food. If you have prepared food, 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 serve them a second time yourself.
If you are eating together at a restaurant, if you are the host, you are expected to pay the bill. If your Chinese friend is the host, it is his responsibility. 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 expectation.
Anytime you host Chinese friends, think through how your time together will be spent.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to help your friend order at an American restaurant. Remember, the menu might be new to them. 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. In eating, it is especially important for the host to anticipate the guests’ desires and take the first step.
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 is mingling. The host provides 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, eat or drink, and chat among people as they wish. During Chinese parties, there is more structure. The host has 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 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 specific ideas. 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 cut down on American-style mingling, which may make 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 ensuring they arrive home safely. Do not wait for Chinese friends to let you know they must leave – this is an American habit. Rather, when all you have planned for the evening is finished, play the role of the Chinese host and close the evening graciously. Your responsibility as host continues until you have seen them home.
Mix it up
Most likely you are making friends with Chinese in America. Remember that, even given all of the above, your Chinese friends are likely interested in learning about and experiencing American culture. The above tips are not about how you can be Chinese (you will always feel distinctly American, even with your best efforts at Chinese hosting), but rather how you can help your friends feel comfortable. As your relationships grow, bring aspects of both cultures into the mix.
The above tips are not about how you can be Chinese, but rather how you can help your friends feel comfortable.
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 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. Some choose to take off their shoes themselves, but there is no rule. 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 to become Chinese. Your friends know 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 relationships might flourish and the peace of Christ might be made known. There is much an American host can learn to help Chinese guests feel at ease.
Hannah Nation is the Managing Director of the Center for House Church Theology. A prolific writer and student of missions history and World Christianity, she is inspired by this historical moment and the privilege of witnessing a new chapter in church history unfold across China.
Pray for God to provide opportunities to open your home and share life with Chinese in your area.