The U.S. Olympic articles are full of surprise and praise: how welcoming, how kind, how gracious are the Chinese athletes and people toward the Americans!
But foreigners who live here, and the Chinese people themselves, would expect nothing less from this country of 1.3 billion. Chinese are very hospitable. They follow their Chinese etiquette well, even those who are from economically poor backgrounds.
This is one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in China. Fitting into another culture requires a good eye at noting, remembering and performing that country’s social graces. And although I’ve lived in China for many years, I still take diligent mental notes when it comes to etiquette.
This happened to me yesterday evening when Jalin’s mother’s friend brought over her 16-year-old daughter to visit me. I wasn’t expecting guests but the doorbell rang and in everyone came — Jalin, her mom, mom’s friend, and friend’s daughter.
Before I could even hustle about to find enough chairs for everyone to sit on, my hands were weighted down with 3 huge bags of apples, plump purple grapes and bananas. Fruit is the customary gift when visiting someone’s home, even if the person isn’t well-known to you. However, the amount of fruit was incredible! This was enough for a family of five, not of one.
When I visit someone, I often have difficulty knowing just how much fruit I should bring. I always thought it was too showy to over-do but maybe over-doing shows respect to someone and also gives some apology in having burst in without asking. As always, I made a check of this in my mind that next time I visit someone, I’d better bring more than just a few apples and pears, my usual offering.
Everyone was quick to position themselves on chairs at my warm embrace to visit my home, which is yet another thing I’ve learned from the Chinese. Unexpected drop-ins are customary and it’s important to treat these as if they were on your calendar. Bring out the tea right away, pull out your stash of wrapped candies or chocolates, slice up the fruit you’ve just been given so everyone can share in the gift, display family photos for all to see, keep the conversation flowing and make everyone feel as if you’ve known them for years.
Before I spoke Chinese or knew what I should do, I found these visits awkward. I felt somewhat put out that no one had informed me of their visit beforehand so I could properly prepare. I didn’t know what to do with all the fruit so I just left it there on my table. I sat in silence, waiting for translations.
I really dreaded those visits when I first came to China.
Now is a different story. It’s fun to have people drop in suddenly, especially now that the Olympics are taking place. We all have our TVs on so when someone pops in, such as yesterday, we have something to watch, cheer for and discuss.
After initial introductions and a short sit, the moms left Jalin and “Chris” (the 16-year-old) with me to watch women’s volleyball, tennis and swimming semi-finals. It was a good opportunity for Chris to practice her English and for me to have company for the Games.
As a good hostess, I had already shared a lot of the fruit with those who had given it, but this morning, I still had a lot left. I wondered who did I know to give some fruit to?
My immediate thoughts turned to the swimming pool where my daily swims have me always chatting with the locker room attendants. We have such a good time together, sharing stories about our families or what’s going on for the day, that they would be the perfect candidates for a fruit gift. Since grapes don’t last long, I loaded up 2 huge bunches and off I went to the pool.
I arrived at just the perfect time for a fruit dessert, which was noontime.
The staff are always served lunch from a canteen that brings over a selection of stir-fries placed in a huge cart. Everyone from lifeguards to cleaners to pool attendants takes turns loading up containers with rice and different dishes. These they share with one another back at their stations. You’ll see the off-duty lifeguards sitting alongside the pool while eating, the ticket staff digging into their overflowing bowls strewn across the counter and the locker room ladies picking over the dish selections they’ve each chosen as well.
When I gleefully pulled out my grapes in the locker room, everyone was surprised. I explained about my guests the previous evening and all the fruit I’d received.
“I have apples, bananas, grapes . . .It’s too much for one person,” I said. “Please, help me eat these!”
The ladies were very pleased and thanked me again and again. I was happy they’d have a nice finish to their meal and also that the grapes wouldn’t go to waste. We all seemed satisfied as I walked out to the pool deck for my work-out.
Two hours later, I returned to find four of the attendants soundly sleeping on benches with two more waiting on us swimmers. As I was dressing, suddenly over came my grapes, placed in a bowl full of water.
“Eat!” one of the attendants told me. “They are now washed.”
Of course, this would be the custom. A fruit gift is to be shared with everyone and since I was the giver, I should get first pick of enjoying my grapes along with everyone else.
I quickly dressed and brought out the bowl, which I set on the counter.
“Come on!” I called out to my waiting crowd. “Let’s eat.”
One of the ladies carefully handed me the plumpest grape in the bunch. Then we all hovered over the bowl, picking out grape after grape. We peeled off the thick skin, popped the juicy grapes into our mouths, and spit out the seeds onto newspaper. Everyone commented how sweet and tasty these were, adding they were probably from the west’s Xinjiang province, which is well known for grapes and watermelon.
I eventually took leave of everyone and let them enjoy the rest. It was fun sharing the gift of someone else with yet another group of friends who then, in turn, shared that same gift with me.
Everyone in China is always telling me how much they can learn from the West: western dress, western technology, western way of thinking. But China has just as much to offer us in America, and I’d definitely put the custom of hospitality gift-giving at the very top of the list.
From Chengdu, China, hoping your day is once again full of “Ping An” (Peace).