Without a doubt, one the best ways to learn about another culture is to do a homestay with local people. That’s why Alpha Exchange has put living with a Chinese family at the center of your exchange experience. By staying at a Chinese home, you will experience first hand China’s culture of hospitality and have the chance to see a day in the life of a Chinese family. You also likely have some questions about what will be expected of you in a family setting. The purpose of this guide is to give you a short introduction to some of the etiquette and protocols of being a guest in a Chinese home and suggestions as to how to make the most of your homestay experience.
To an even greater extent than in many Western countries, family is the basic unit of society in China. Due in part to a strong Confucian heritage which emphasizes the importance of filial piety, closely knit family bonds define Chinese home life. Relatives living in the same city will get together frequently for family dinners and to celebrate special occasions. During your stay, it’s quite possible that you’ll be meeting your partner’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a number of other family members eager to welcome you to China.
In China, age is respected as a mark of wisdom and experience and elderly family members are treated accordingly. At any family meal, the oldest members of the family are given pride of place at the dinner table and are looked after by other family members. At meals, it’s considered polite to allow them to start eating first before everyone else launches in. As a guest, be sure to greet elderly family members with a smile and a handshake when you first meet them and have a conversation with them if linguistic ability permits.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the recently relaxed one-child policy has created more than a generation of only children in China. For this reason, your partner may not be used to having another person of the same age living in their home with them and the sort of space-sharing that comes with having an American “sibling”. Just be aware that having someone new in the house might be an unfamiliar experience for them and allow them the necessary time and space to adjust.
In general, Chinese hosts take their responsibility to visitors very seriously and will go out of their way to make sure their guests are comfortable. In practice, this means they will be frequently checking in to see if you’re warm enough, if you’re hungry, if your bed is sufficiently comfortable, if you would like some tea, if you need an extra toothbrush etc. To some Westerners, this level of hospitality can feel overbearing, especially since Americans tend to believe that part of being a good host is allowing your guest a great deal of privacy and personal space. In China, however, you should patiently and graciously answer your host’s questions even if the level of attention seems a bit overkill.
Upon arriving at their house for the first time, your partner or their family members will likely give you a pair of slippers to wear around the house. Chinese people usually take off their shoes at the door and change into these slippers so as not to track dirt into the home. You should accept these slippers (even if they’re the wrong size) and do your best to remember to wear these whenever you are indoors even if you’re used to wearing shoes or going barefoot in your own home.
As a rule, Chinese people tend to go to bed fairly early. The “early to bed, early to rise” routine may be familiar enough to some Americans, but might require some adaptation on the part of the night owls among us. Your host family will probably be more than happy to let you stay up a bit later, but remember to be sensitive of other people’s sleeping habits and not disturb them. This is especially important if you are going to be sharing a room with your partner who may not appreciate hearing Facebook Messenger alerts go off until the wee hours of the morning. For this reason, it’s probably best to check with your partner in advance to see what their nightly routine is.
Additionally, most Chinese people prefer to take their daily shower just before bed, the logic being that you can wash off the grime of a long day before getting under your crisp, clean sheets. You can still opt to take your shower in the morning if that’s what you’re used to, but make sure to leave yourself enough time to make it to the breakfast table on time and not be late for school.
The last thing to be aware of is that Chinese mattresses tend to be thinner and harder than their Western counterparts. This stems from a belief that very soft mattresses are bad for the spine. If you’re not interested in this kind of board-bed therapy, it’s perfectly fine to ask your host for a pad or blanket to put under your sheets to ensure a more comfortable night’s sleep.
On all levels, the key to a successful exchange experience is communication. This is especially true when it comes to coordinating your daily plans with your host family. While many American parents are happy to give their children a lot of latitude in managing their own time, Chinese parents like to check in frequently with their children by phone or messaging app well into adulthood to determine their whereabouts at any given time. During your exchange, your host parents are likely look after you just as they would their own children, so it’s important to always be reachable both as a general safety measure and out of courtesy to your Chinese family. One of the first things you should do upon arriving at your host family’s home should be to exchange contact information, including your phone number and WeChat info. For more info on what WeChat is and how to use it, check out our dedicated blog post on WeChat here.
Before you set off for school in the morning, make sure you review your plans for the day with your partner and their parents and set a time and place to meet up…then make sure to show up on time! If something comes up or you want to make a change of plans, it’s critical to inform your host family where you will be and what time you will be rejoining them. Consider also whether or not your family will have made plans for a special outing on a given day and respect their efforts by attending and being on time.
When living in a Chinese home, the main thing to remember is to be respectful and flexible. While some of the details may vary, most aspects of Chinese home life will be easily recognizable to Western visitors and foreign students should have little difficulty in settling in. China’s tradition of hospitality means that Chinese families put a lot of effort into being good hosts, so make sure you repay their kindness by being a considerate and conscientious guest.