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Learning to Be Hospitable

From the series From the ChinaSource Archives


Now that the holidays are upon us, it is a good time to consider what hospitality looks like in a Chinese context. This article from the ChinaSource archives moves us in the direction of better understanding Chinese hospitality. 

Towards a Chinese Hospitality

When my husband and I were a young married couple living in the US, our default method for making friends, deepening friendships, and reaching out was to invite people to our home for a meal. I loved cooking and making our little apartment cozy and welcoming, and both of us loved being around people. We hosted intimate gatherings with gourmet food, holiday feasts, and birthday parties. In North America, hospitality is a powerful ministry tool; people love being invited to others’ homes for meals and parties, and many Christian families work hard to make their homes a haven, a place where the world can see a glimpse of Christ’s love.

When we were anticipating our move to China as a young family, we had no idea what our ministry and friendships would look like once we arrived. We came as learners and sought to observe how locals built relationships before we jumped in too deeply. However, I fully assumed that hospitality—as defined by inviting people to our home for meals—would play a big role in our ministry.

In our previous exposure to Chinese people, we had seen how important a role meals play in their culture. I imagined that as we made friends, we would be invited to their homes for meals, and that we would then reciprocate with an invitation to our home.

However, perhaps not surprisingly, living in China has redefined hospitality for me. While we have hosted our share of parties and meals with friends, we noticed early on as we observed the culture that Chinese did not default to inviting us to their homes for a meal. We have received a few invitations, and we have been in our friends’ homes, but meals with our friends more frequently take place in restaurants. In fact, most of our relationships take place outside of any home.

Most homes in China are small, and Chinese traditionally do not put a lot of effort into decorating their homes to perfection. Home is a place to eat, sleep, and gather with your family, but hanging out with your friends, playing with your kids, having fun—these things take place outside the home, in public. Backyards are rare, but children play in the grounds of the apartment complex. Parties hosted at home are rare, but restaurants and KTV establishments are thoroughly equipped for large celebrations. Private gardens are rare, but public gardens and parks dot the landscape everywhere. Recreation, celebration, relationships—these happen in public, in community, in groups, rather than in a private home.

So where has this left me, as someone who sees hospitality as a gifting but who also wants to see the gospel take root and spread in this culture? We could easily continue inviting our Chinese friends to our home. They do seem to enjoy it, and it’s certainly more convenient for us with young kids who have early bedtimes. We know of many foreigners living here who have successfully used this kind of hospitality as an integral part of their ministry.

But the longer we live here, the less we have found ourselves defaulting to these invitations. Jesus left his world, his culture, to live with us, to be where we are. So we seek to leave our culture to be where our friends are. We take our kids to play in the playground of our apartment complex. We invite our friends to restaurants for meals, or to join us on different outings. And, perhaps most importantly, we allow them to reciprocate the invitations. And yes, on occasion they come to our home and we go to theirs. But this kind of hospitality is no longer one of the cornerstones of our relationship building.

I can’t say I don’t miss having groups in my home. In the first year or two of living in China, I really struggled with the adjustment. Friendships would be so much easier if they could be on my terms, if people would come to me. I can’t say I don’t still struggle, especially during those evenings out with friends when their desire to sit around and chat for hours over a meal means our kids are out much past their bedtimes and everyone is tired and grumpy. These moments, when this routine-loving mother has to give up all control of the schedule, are perhaps the most difficult tests of my love.

But if Chinese are ever to see the gospel as an insider movement rather than as a Western idea, it needs to come to them looking, sounding, smelling, tasting, and feeling essentially Chinese. Sure, we could (and have) invite a group to our home for Thanksgiving and share with them our American and even Christian traditions, but we have wondered if such an occasion, though enjoyable to everyone, actually serves to strengthen the commonly-held notion that Biblical truth is in fact inextricable from Western culture. Would Christ’s love be felt more fully if we instead spent the day with them watching Dragon Boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival, or learned to wrap jiaozi with them over Chinese New Year? Perhaps.

With no clear answers to these questions, we try to default to the path of self-sacrifice. When we find ourselves moving toward the familiar, we stop and ask ourselves if we are being motivated by a desire for what’s convenient rather than by sacrificial love. And we remember that every time we sacrifice what is comfortable and familiar to us for the sake of the gospel, we have the high privilege of reflecting and imitating Christ in a small way. And what could be more worth the sacrifice?

"Towards a Chinese Hospitality" was first published on July 17, 2015.

Image credit: Carrie Smith.

Carrie Smith

Carrie Smith lives in eastern China with her husband and two young children. She and her husband are seeking to leverage his position as a professor in a well-known university to make reproducing disciples among the next generation of Chinese. View Full Bio


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