Jesse enjoying life as a guest in Inner Mongolia, China.
Experiencing cultural differences between the west and China is one of the fun things hosting a student from the Middle Kingdom brings to your family. It’s why most of us choose to host. Homestays transform families into spaces where win/win learning happens. It's the desire of homestay families to make their guest feel welcome – especially in the beginning. But what does it look like to welcome a guest in a Chinese context? The answer to this question is something to keep in mind as you begin your journey as a homestay host.
In China guests are welcomed in a way that does not take into consideration their personal space or time. It is seen as the responsibility of the host to see to their guest’s every need and ensure that the he or she is not lonely or neglected in any way. As such, for a westerner in China, playing the guest role can be a trying experience. From morning until night activities are planned, meals cooked and social interactions are maintained between the host and guest. There is typically little or no down time for the guest to relax in their own personal space. The communal mindset of Chinese culture tends not to recognize the need for this personal space or time. For a western introvert, immersion in Chinese culture is exhausting.
On the other hand, for a Chinese person experiencing western hospitality our culture can feel isolated and lonely. The western practice of respecting a guest’s privacy, space and time is interpreted through the Chinese lens as cold, distant and inconsiderate. Chinese guests can also misinterpret the western habit of accepting a guest’s answer to a question as a true indicator of what he or she wants or doesn’t want. In Chinese culture it’s considered polite to decline offers of food or drink when visiting a person’s home. And for the host, it’s his or her duty to make sure a guest’s needs are cared for whether communicated or not. A typical interaction between a host offering food to his guest would go something like this:
Host: “Are you hungry? Why don’t you have some fruit?”
Guest: “No. I’m not hungry.”
Host: “Don’t be polite. Here, have some fruit.” (Host piles fruit on a plate and sets in front of his guest).
Homestay families welcoming Chinese students should get into their personal space, especially in the beginning. Don’t be afraid to go into your guest’s room and help him unpack. If your student isn’t sharing a room with a child in your family, make sure that she doesn’t sit in her room alone. Go in and pull her out. And remember that if she tells you she’s not hungry she may just be acting polite. Remember that your guest doesn’t have the same expectation or need for personal space that we do.
The first few days of a homestay are key to building a good relationship and your actions communicate that you care. Just remember that your actions can be interpreted differently than your intended meaning when crossing cultures. But I guess that’s why we host and why students participate in the homestay program – to experience those differences first hand.
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