I always thought of myself as a fairly open and welcoming person when it comes to hospitality towards foreigners. I love travelling myself, so when I meet people from different countries and cultures in my home country Germany, I am always glad to interact with them. Whenever tourists ask me for help I am willing to help them out, whenever foreigners approach me with a request I will try my best to serve them. During the last three months that I lived in China however, I made experiences that take hospitality to a whole new level!
Hospitality towards strangers
Whenever I go out to a bar or a club, the moment I walk through the door, I immediately get approached by several Chinese who then very eagerly ask me to sit with them. They offer me beer, cigarettes, watermelons, oranges, apples and everything else that happen to be on their table. Of course they soon notice that I don’t speak Chinese and usually their English is very poor, so having even a basic conversation is almost impossible most of the time. That does not keep them from trying however! They tell me the few English words they know and I answer with the few Chinese phrases that I learned by now. This, combined with a lot of laughter and a genuine interest in me, where I am from and what I am doing in China, makes me feel incredibly welcome in every place that I walk into.
Even more extreme is going to restaurants here. People there will go out of their way to be hospitable. And I am not talking about the waiters or staff members, I am talking about the other guests! As soon as they spot me, a foreigner, they invite me to sit at their table. While I am waiting for the food that I ordered, they encourage me to eat their food! This actually often makes me feel a little uncomfortable, it almost feels like it is too much. After all, these are people that don’t know me, don’t understand me and probably will never see me again after our shared meal. It makes me feel like I am not giving much in return for their kindness. But the truth is that they don’t expect anything, they do all of these things purely out of genuine interest and hospitality towards foreigners. And to top it all off, they then insist to pay for my meal, too! So not only do they share their food with me, they also pay for mine! I usually try to stop them, try to argue with them, try to explain to them that this is too much kindness, but they insist. Most of the time they simply respond: “You are a guest in our country, so we want to treat you like our guest. If we visited Germany, I’m sure people there would do the same for us.”
Are western countries really hospitable?
They thing is, I don’t think they would. In fact, after all the travelling I have done so far, I didn’t experience that much hospitality in any other country! In Germany for example, “hospitality” is usually limited to answering politely when foreigners ask for the way or helping them when they have difficulties with the language. We pride ourselves on being a hospitable nation when in fact all that our hospitality is, is the fact that we are not xenophobic. From my experiences, most western countries define hospitality to foreigners as being oblivious of them. But never in a million years would anyone invite random foreigners from the next table to eat together and then pay for their meal simply as an act of kindness and hospitality!
Of course I know that the positive experiences I made here are largely due to the fact that I live in a relatively small city where people don’t usually see foreigners. If I lived in more multi-cultural cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, I am sure that people would be less enthusiastic to see me and rather treat me as yet another foreigner.
But still I am convinced that the behavior of these small-town inhabitants that I meet every day tells a lot about the mentality of Chinese people in general. While I get treated like a celebrity around here, I am pretty sure that Chinese people that decide to live in small cities in Europe or the US, in cities where people are not used to foreigners at all, would have to face suspicion or even xenophobia.
The China in the news is not the ‘real’ China
I find it important to keep this in mind when legitimately criticizing China for its violations of human rights, its censorship of media or similar. Keep in mind that when China is called not as progressive or open as the western world, this only refers to the economic and political system. Because the Chinese people itself are as open and welcoming as it gets!