Communal Living

In August of 2001 when I began teaching English in Benxi, China, I had one burning desire. I wanted to speak fluent Chinese and I was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish this goal. This language-learning aspiration is what first led me to participate in a long-term homestay. My friend John had just spent a year in Xi’an studying Mandarin while living with a local Chinese family and his language learning had progressed quickly. I was determined to follow in his footsteps and do the same.

The family I was introduced to in Benxi was an older couple in their seventies that also happened to be my boss's in-laws. To this day I don’t know their names. I was told to address them simply as “Yeye” and “Nainai” or “Grandpa” and “Grandma”. For $100 USD per month I was given a room, meals and Nainai did all of my laundry.

Family get-together in my homestay family's apartment. Yeye is to the left with his back turned to the camera.

I was a true beginner in Chinese and I understood nothing beyond the most basic vocabulary. When Nainai had something to communicate with me she would sit next to me smoking her cigarette while repeating the same phrase over and over progressively louder. I think she had the idea that she could will me into understanding. Nainai’s personality perfectly fit the Chinese stereotype of a Northeastern woman – strong, intense and willing to make her voice heard. After learning some Chinese vocabulary related to the body and health, I remember Nainai smoking a cigarette while enthusiastically telling me that she had smoked most of her life and she couldn’t be healthier. Cigarettes were good for her she claimed.

Nainai cooking one of the many delicious meals I had the privilege of enjoying.

Yeye’s quiet and relaxed demeanor was the perfect balance to his wife. He was the one who showed me around the neighborhood and helped me figure out which minibus to take to work. He also introduced me to the local shower. The apartment where we lived had nowhere to bathe in the bathroom but there was a community shower house where residents could shower. It cost about 15 cents per use and for less for $1 there were men that worked in the showers that would scrub you down from head to toe. Like everything else during my homestay experience in Benxi, showering was a communal experience.

Though I had a room and a bed which was my own to use, I soon realized that it wasn't “my” room in the way I would have liked to define it. Living with Yeye and Nainai revealed to me that personal space in a communal society isn’t really personal. Every morning they freely entered my room without knocking, whether I was asleep or awake, to perform the daily moping of the floors. My possessions were often reorganized and laundry washed whether I asked for it or not. Nothing was off limits. My friend John in Xi’an had told me of similar experiences so I had an idea of what was coming. However, the daily reality of living so much closer to the people around me than I was accustomed to became exhausting and stressful at times.

For Yeye and Nainai their way of showing me that they cared for and respected me was to be in my space. The boundaries of personal space set by westerners was something they had no concept of. It was their concern for me that motivated them to be involved in every detail of my life that they could. The stress that their care caused me was something they couldn’t understand coming from their worldview.

In the same way that I felt cultural stress living for the first time in a communal society, your homestay student may feel the same discomfort with our western, individualistic ways. To a Chinese person the distance and privacy that we are accustomed to giving our guests can feel cold and lonely. At Sojourn.Life we strive to prepare participants for the culture in which they will be hosted. However, host families that spend some time studying the culture from which their homestay students are coming can also be a great help in bridging the cultural divide being crossed. If both sides of a new cross-cultural relationship understand the challenges faced, a smooth transition is much more likely.

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