It is becoming more and more popular for foreigners to stay at a Chinese host family while being overseas for studies or work.
Visiting a Chinese family invariably provides a deeper insight into Chinese culture and local life, but in order to get the most out of it, there are some do’s and don’ts related to culture and traditions you should bear in mind.
When entering the house…
Offer your gifts. They will probably be placed on the table or taken away unopened (as it is the Chinese custom). Fruit is a very popular gift, though confectionery or souvenir products from your own country would also be welcomed.
Greet all members of the household (most senior first), or as many as you can see from the door. A simple “ni hao”, or “hello” if you would rather stick to English, would be fine.
Take your shoes off and change them for a pair of slippers waiting for you by the door or offered to you by the host. If you have an umbrella, hand it to your host to store.
Once inside you will usually be asked to sit down. If you have bags or a coat you want to take off they will be given a seat too. Putting bags on the floor is a no-no (the floor is considered unclean, though it may seem fine from a Western perspective) and coat racks are uncommon in China. Sit where you are instructed to sit. Certain seating arrangements are followed by Chinese as a matter of tradition.
You will then be offered something to drink and eat (whether you want it or not).
Plain hot water is very popular. The alternative is usually Chinese tea. It is impolite to request a drink or an alternate beverage. The first food offered will probably be fruit, with peanuts and candy if it’s a festive time of the year. Accept these and drink/eat, or put them down on a table in front of you if you don’t want to have them immediately.
During the meal, try to follow the lead of your host. If your hosts slurp, feel free to slurp a little to create a harmonious atmosphere.
(Your hosts will probably continuously urge you to eat more, and only be satisfied that you’re full on the third refusal)
Then the conversation begins…
Your host will try to keep you entertained and ask you a few questions first.
Expect to be asked about your family, work, and income (which you can politely decline to answer even if the host tells you theirs). You are also bound to be asked where you come from.
The Chinese love to talk about the prices of things: the prices of property and land, rent, cars, commodities like rice and fuel, meat, fruit, and vegetables.
Enter into this conversation and you’ll have your host’s interest.
Questions for Various Hosts
If they have children ask about their education. If you have children too it can be very interesting to compare school in China to school life in your country.
If you visit older people you may want to ask how China has changed. Keep in mind that many still hold Chairman Mao in high esteem, despite his failings, so avoid getting into criticism, or negative questioning.
Questions to Avoid
In China it is considered best to avoid politics and one’s views about the government.
Questions on statistics like local population, distances, areas, etc. may be better directed to a guide, as locals may waffle on or give vague or best-guess answers, rather than say directly that they don’t know.
Avoid questions that will cause your host to lose face. In China it is customary to avoid embarrassment at all costs, and maintain dignity. Chinese are generally not as open as Westerners. If it seems that your host is having difficulty with a particular question, move on to something else, rather than pressing the issue…
Interested in doing a homestay in a Chinese family? Apply here!