What do Chinese host families normally expect from their house guests? Should I bring a gift for my host family? Are there any cultural norms I need to be aware of? You probably have a million questions about your homestay. Fear not! It’s all part of the discovery process and the magic of living with a host family.
When confronted by a completely different culture, many things you never expected can take you by surprise. My first tip for you before you head to China is to find out all you can about the concept of face. This will be invaluable knowledge for getting by and developing relationships in China.
Secondly, here are some friendly tips about doing a homestay in China and observations to help you prepare for host family life!
Mountains of Food
One of the lovely things about the Chinese culture is their respect, love and attention that can be conveyed by a single meal. The polite thing to do to a guest in China is to pile their plate high with food from the centre of the table. Whether you ask for it, or not.
Homestays are an incredible way to taste a wide variety of local food. You might find your hosts constantly offer you fruit, snacks like sunflower seeds or even occasionally special treats like chocolate. This can be a bit overwhelming at times!
My personal guidelines for when to accept or decline food in your homestay:
- Be open minded to trying things – say yes as much as you can, widen your horizons, don’t chicken out! (Try a few chicken feet)
- Don’t be afraid to say no when it gets to be too much – know your own limits, don’t panic if people keep offering even after you’ve said no
- Take special treats in moderation – avoid losing face by scoffing down all the families most expensive treats (though they might keep offering)
- Beware of Baijiu Alcohol – celebrations and big family dinners can often get a bit wild when local shots are involved. Handle with care!
Chinese families tend to be very conscious of the amount of water used in the home. So, looong indulgent baths or lengthy daily showers might not go down too well. Your family might even be slightly surprised at how often you shower. Feel free to bring this up in conversation with them. The more you discuss differences in living habits, the easier it is to avoid misunderstandings.
In any case, water is the most valuable commodity in the world!
In China, chicken stew means the whole chicken; the head, the beak, the feet et al. Waste not want not!
This idea crops up again and again in food and in other areas of life too. With bath towels and other household items too. (Although perhaps not when it comes to plastic packaging). Be aware of this and try to observe how the family use things.
Discuss these observations with the family! You’re both there to discover these differences. It’s always interesting to find out which of your daily habits are due to the culture of your country, your family or just your personal preference. It’s a weird and wonderful world.
Modern day lifestyle in a Chinese city is busy busy busy. Kids are the absolute epicentre of the family. Everything revolves around their schedule. Dropping the kids of at school, picking the kids up and shuffling them off to badminton class, extra English lessons, lego club, chess or gymnastics championships and finally exam prep, plus more exam prep.
Adjusting your schedule to the family schedule can be a challenge sometimes. The more you communicate with the family about your timetable, your internship hours etc. the more enjoyable the experience will be. You’ll communicate with your host family through WeChat which even has a translate function if conversations get complex.
Top tips for living in harmony:
- Try to set up regular time to spend with the family in the evenings – especially if there are kids!
- Ask advice on the best places to shop, hike, climb or play football – the family with be eager to show of their city and can show you around
- Be patient and flexible -remember how much the family are adapting to make you part of their daily routines
Clubbing and your usual night-life madness might not be so compatible with your new family life here in China. Have a think about what you are committing to and decide what is most important to you. Host families can be extremely caring in China and they do tend to get anxious if their house guests stay out late at night.
Remember, it’s a short period of your life and you might only have this one opportunity to do something so unusual!
Gifts from your hometown go down a treat! Any local to your community at home. Chocolates, biscuits, stickers, tea towels, scarves, pictures etc. Just a little something to show your appreciation.
In China, people always give and receive gifts. It is also quite common for gifts to be put aside to opened later in private. So don’t be surprised if the gift disappears unopened.
Added tip – try to give your gift with both hands!
You have to discover these for yourself. That is part of the homestay journey! However, I would particularly recommend checking out Mamahuhu’s YouTube channel. They’ll give you a fun insight on which to reflect, then build your own perceptions.