If you're living in China for any decent amount of time, you'll likely be invited into a Chinese person's house at some point. Being invited into someone's home is a great honour in China, and as a guest you'll receive wonderful hospitality. In any country, first impressions are important, but for a foreigner living in China they are paramount because, whether we like it or not, to Chinese people we're representing our whole nation.
So when presented with an invitation to visit a Chinese person's home, what do you say and how should you act on this diplomatic-like visit?
When approached with an invitation, the traditional etiquette in China is to first thank the potential host for their hospitality but politely decline their invitation. In China, refusal is a form of politeness, whether you're refusing food, an invitation or someone's help; it shows you don't want to burden others with extra work.
If you want to be ultra polite, therefore, refuse the initial invitation with a phrase like “Bù hǎoyìsi”(不好意思), meaning “sorry” or “it's embarrassing”. You can then follow up the invitation you so politely rejected with your own invitation. As etiquette requires, your Chinese counterpart will not take you up on this but will rather push you to accept their invitation.
In modern China, however, such airs and graces are becoming less common. It's always good for a foreigner to follow the traditional etiquette, but if you can't be bothered to join this merry dance, just happily accept the invitation and say something along the lines of “Wǒ hěn róngxìng”(我很荣幸 - I am very honoured).
Arriving at the home
Build a friendly and happy atmosphere by arriving at your host's home with a smile and using the polite version of “you” (您 - Nín) with anyone who seems older than you.
Show grace and respect by waiting to be invited in and only sitting when asked to by the host. Offer to remove your shoes before entering and wear the slippers you will inevitably be provided with, even if they don't fit properly.
Make sure you say hello and acknowledge everyone in the room before sitting down. A sure way of building “face” is to compliment your host on their home.
Once you're settled, you'll likely be served with tea; it's rude to request an alternative drink unless it's water. Make sure you say thank you or tap your index and middle finger lightly on the table every time you're poured some tea. If you're lucky you might get some wine or beer with the dinner, but don't expect it.
The idea of personal space is a little different in China, and you might find yourself taken aback by how little physical separation there is between you and your host. The host will typically sit very close to their guest (particularly if they're the same gender) to the point where there is almost bodily contact. The host will happily tap your shoulder, hold your arm when cracking a joke, touch/move your personal belongings and climb over/reach across you. Don't be alarmed. They've just trying to make you feel at ease.
The all-important gift giving ritual usually occurs before the meal when you're sat down drinking tea. When offering a gift to your host, stand up and hand it over with both hands. Fruit hampers, tea and alcohol are usually safe bets. As a foreigner you could also bring a gift from abroad, whether it's a small souvenir or a snack.
If you've been invited to someone's home to eat, don't start or even touch your chopsticks before the host does so. Show initiative by constantly praising the food and your host's cooking, even if your stomach disagrees.
As the guest of honour, you will be offered food by your host and their family, often finding the best cuts are literally loaded onto your plate. By weakly refusing the food when offered you are showing that you don't want to trouble the host, although you should ultimately accept the food and say thanks. Picking up food (with chopsticks) and putting it on others' plates in the same way shows respect.
Despite being the guest and the centre of everyone's attention, it's still good practice to let your host get first dibs on food - a way of acknowledging the host still remains head of the household. When picking up food for yourself, only take from the side of the plate closest to you. Taking food from another area of the plate is deemed extremely bad manners.
When you've had your fill and can't possibly eat any more, leave something to the side of your plate and say, “Chī bǎole” (吃饱了 - I am full). Wait for others to finish and then offer to clear the plates away and, if you're feeling really generous, do the washing up. Naturally, you likely won't be allowed to do either.
After the meal
Once you've finished at the dinner table, the host will probably invite you back to the tea table for further chit-chat. Although Chinese people are obsessed with their phones, playing with your phone when sitting in someone's house is considered rude. Watch whatever is on the TV or just make polite conversation.
If you're being served endless rivers of tea, a good time to make your break-away is when your host gets up to boil more water. Before leaving, turn to your host and their family to thank them for their hospitality and the excellent food.
In China, it's the host's duty to see you off beyond the door. They may walk you to the lift or even downstairs to the street. You should of course politely refuse, parroting “Bùbì” (不必 - not necessarily), although you'll inevitably still get a send off.
Any more tips on how to be the perfect guest in China? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.
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