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East Eats with West

Welcome fellow InterNations Expats to my regular slot in which I will be sharing with you my experiences and learnings from living in China’s third largest city, Guangzhou.

This is a special double length blog in celebration of one of the best experiences we have ever had in China.

When my former Teaching Assistant ‘Sally’* invited my wife and I to her family home for an evening meal at the start of the Autumn Moon Festival, we knew this was a rare honour.  Sally had visited our apartment and that was the first time she had ever been inside a Westerner’s home. She had never invited Westerners to her home, in the north of the city, away from the skyscrapers and over-priced restaurants, before. Her mother, father and younger brother had never even seen Westerners before. We had to be prepared for the many cultural differences and practises ahead.

We were lucky because Sally speaks excellent English and, having worked with Westerners for several years, she is used to understanding our particular foibles. Having said that, mistakes will and did occur!  So here are ten tips for visiting a Chinese person’s home. They are in no way representative of every experience and home, but they should help you with adjusting your table manners appropriately:

  1. Leave extra time when travelling at the start of a festival holiday. It took a long time for us to get a taxi, the metro was jammed full and our host lived amongst winding backstreets where few taxi drivers go.
  2. Bring a gift to the home just as you would in the West. Fruit is expensive but it is a common gift to show appreciation to the host, though we also brought wine and chocolate.  
  3. You take your shoes off when entering the home.
  4. Don’t expect your hosts to have knives, forks or spoons. Practise using your chopsticks.
  5. You will be given a small bowl to place your food in. The bigger dish to the side is for spitting out bones or any waste you don’t eat.
  6. Chinese hosts will insist on filling an empty bowl. It is their solemn duty to refill it. Leaving your bowl empty is your way of signalling you are still hungry, which is the reverse of the Western table manners.  If you want to finish eating, leave some food or drink.
  7. If the host raises his glass and says, “cheers” you will be expected to clink glasses at the bottom and down the entire contents. This is why beer and wine is drunk out of small glasses.
  8. Get used to a lot of slurping, spitting and happy burping. (We did not feel comfortable joining in.)
  9. After the meal, take up the offer to enjoy some tea served in tiny glass bowls. The same rules apply as number 6. (English readers note: Chinese black tea will not be served with milk but you really won’t need it.)

10. The language being spoken may not be the main Chinese language. Our hosts used their local province dialect all evening. They still understand Chinese and our host’s sister taught English at a local school. 

We ended the evening feeling that in our own tiny way, we all contributed to global peace and understanding. While our cultures may appear very different, we are all fundamentally the same. We value family, food, laughing and sharing stories. Sally’s ten year old brother even likes the ‘Thor’ movies just like me. I’m a broader minded MJF, this is Guangzhou and that’s an unusual 606 words.

*Sally is not her real name in various senses. She has a Western name given to her by her English tutor at high school, her Chinese name and her local dialect name.

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David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

Global Expat Guide