My Private Space

Coal stoves to microwaves.
Public phones to iPhones.
Rolls of negatives to air drop.

The list of changes occurring during my time as a teacher in China is long and there is no lack of observant writers analyzing each one. “Plans cannot keep up with change” says it all. I have no additions to make. Instead I would like to share something that didn’t go out with typewriters and correction fluid.

The gift of hospitality.

In my twenty years in China I have had the privilege of being both a hostess and a guest. I count those times as priceless moments of learning and joy. The gift of hospitality—friendly, welcoming, and generous treatment offered to guests—is still ready and waiting to be opened. Location, security issues, and school restrictions can put boundaries on the use of our homes. But I hope that desires for privacy, or convenience, or a bigger place don’t keep our doors closed and our doorways free of visitors shoes.

What book could I read that would illustrate cultural traditions like a jiao zi making party? Every semester I could watch 20 teachers—just a month into the class—suddenly become a well-ordered cooking machine. Everyone knew their part from childhood and jumped in. The computer teacher rolled up his sleeves and pulled and twisted the dough. The dean of physics chopped the vegetables with precision, and the quiet sociology professor donned an apron and ran the kitchen. Several hours later we were eating and laughing at all the “right” ways to cook dumplings.

Would there be another place where I would find a grad student folding papers into toy soldiers and tanks? He wasn’t interested in decorating Christmas cookies or cutting snowflakes to look like Chinese paper cuttings. He found a corner of my living room and used the paper to make the toys of his childhood. “I never had a toy from a store. But I could always find paper.”

How would I discover what a young math teacher had learned as a boy at his uncle’s restaurant? By giving him and his colleagues my tiny kitchen and ignoring the leaping flames that singed the notes on my refrigerator.

Can an office—no matter how many personal touches—ever reveal who we are like our home does? What’s on my walls, in my bookcase, and on my window sill says something about me. We can pass our phones around and briefly chat about photos in class. But in my home guests often gather around whatever I have hung up for display. A chat is bound to happen.

They have so many children!

Was this a special occasion?

Do you know what that (Chinese) scroll means? Can I tell you?

They are foreign and their children are Chinese!              

Why do you have the words “faith, hope and love” on your wall?

I doubt I will have a more memorable Thanksgiving than the time a group of visiting professors showed up at my door with a variety of dishes—“just like your celebration!” And it was. No, I had never had sausage, tofu, or KFC at a childhood Thanksgiving but the sharing of special dishes? Yes!

The open door doesn’t always include a meal. Sometimes a cup of coffee leads to hours of conversation. A student stops by and blurts out his good news of passing a crucial exam or interview. “This is a peaceful place.” Another comes with news of a failed test or relationship. Tissues may be handed out. Over tea a colleague discusses a difficult shared student. Two computer guys come to help with a problem and stay for a chat. “We can’t believe we stayed so long!”

Opening one’s home is not without effort and risk. Preparation can involve serious cleaning or throwing things in a closet when there’s a knock at the door. After the guests leave the kitchen can be shinier than before or in need of hours of scrubbing.

Your cooking might be enthusiastically received—or not. One freshmen was determined to find support for her belief that westerners consume too much sugar. She refused to try the deviled eggs that others were enjoying. “I don’t eat sweet food,” she said. “It’s an egg,” I pointed out. “I know,” she said and passed the tray on.

When I fulfilled my neighbors’ request for homemade hamburgers we laughed at their futile attempts to use chopsticks. They marveled at their four-year-old’s boldness at picking up her little burger with her hands. She quickly lost interest in our lively discussion of typical foods in our respective families. “You really don’t eat rice/hamburgers every day?” It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening that ended with the discovery of a tiny hamburger minus one small bite—tucked under my couch cushions.

After a night of baking, students were packing up their cookies to take home to the dorms. For several it was their first experience with an oven, measuring cups, and following a recipe. Vanilla had spilled, fingers had been burned, and the recipe had been seen as a good suggestion. They tasted their creations and rated their success. The general consensus? “Can we do it again?” Of course.

As I walked them out to the bus one boy turned to me. “Thank you for inviting us in to your private space.”

My pleasure. 

Image credit: Erica Day