Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series of three that will address the subject of hospitality. In this post we will introduce some of the fundamental ways in which Chinese culture differs from Western culture in defining host-guest relations.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine yourself as a new student:

It has been three weeks since you landed in your new home a foreign city, hundreds of miles away from your family that, to this day, you’re not convinced you know how to spell or pronounce correctly. It has been…difficult. Along with new furniture and a host of new vocabulary words, you’ve also picked up a new appreciation for your hometown (which was definitely a lot more convenient, visually appealing and just plain better than this crazy place!).

Had you not met your first native, in-country friend those first few days, you’re confident you would’ve lost even more sleep than jet lag has already stolen. Having a cultural insider on your side to guide you definitely helped you weather the bumps of transition that almost certainly would have bowled you over otherwise.

But as helpful as your friend was, even he could not prepare you for the next step of your cultural adjustment. Ironically, when he invited you to dinner at his house earlier today, it was he who became the newest source of your anxiety…


Differing Expectations

For those of us who have grown up in America and have been taught all our lives the importance of being a good houseguest, we may squirm inwardly imagining all the cultural faux pas we might make entering the home of a person from a different culture. Am I supposed to help out in the kitchen? Take my shoes off when I enter? Do I accept the third offer to refill my bowl even though my stomach is already bursting at the seams? In most shame-honor cultures, like China’s, however, these thoughts may never actually occur in the mind of a houseguest. Why? In Chinese culture, it is actually upon the host and not the guest that the majority of social pressure and responsibility falls.  

Where in American culture, the expectation is primarily on the guest to be helpful, respectful, and accommodating to his host, the opposite is true in Chinese culture. In China, it is not the homeowner, but the guest who determines the content and rhythm of the night’s activities; the guest whose demands and requests hold the most weight and require the most attention. According to Chinese culture, hospitality is not a courtesy, but an expectationone of utmost social importance. It is the host’s duty to make sure that the guest is well entertained, well fed, and well looked after. To fail in this responsibility is to invite great criticism. A bad show of hospitality can feasibly hamstring a host’s reputation and status within their community and result in a severe loss of face.

In the process of building meaningful relationships with Chinese students, at some point, we will likely welcome students into our homes and families as guests. What then will it look like for us to balance the tension of China’s “good host” expectations with America’s “good guest” ones?

In the weeks to come, we will explore this idea from the perspective of a Chinese guest and an American host.

Stay tuned!

Thoughts to Ponder

What expectations do we have of our houseguests that may be culturally Western and not universal? What expectations do we have of hosts?

Have you ever been a houseguest in the home of a Chinese student? What did you notice about their hosting style that was different than your own?