The “grand entrance”
When entering the house, first offer your gifts, such as famous souvenirs, products from your own country like dry food products, spirits, textiles, or books with good packaging (poor package takes points away from a nice gift). Then take your shoes off and change them for the slippers offered to you by your host. You can hand any possessions you do not need with you indoor (e.g. a hat, an umbrella, a jacket, or a handbag) to your host to be stored, because if you keep unnecessary things with you then later you probably would put them on the floor, and in China the floor is considered unclean to put things on.
When you enter the house, you should greet all members of the household. Do greet the senior first, and remember that Chinese children are normally expected to greet you first. The greeting is simple “Ni hao” or “hello” with a quick nod of head is enough. While asked to sit down, you will usually be offered some snacks to eat and a drink. In China it is more common to find hot water than cold water (even in the summer time), especially in regular households, where all the water is boiled; hot water could be offered to you in the form of Chinese tea with dry or fresh fruit, candy or dry snacks such as peanuts. You should never refuse drink and food, so accept them anyway, and put them back to the table (in front of you) if you want others to have them.
The “comfortable conversation”
Once everybody sits down, the conversation begins, and your host will try his or her best to keep you entertained. If you are asked a few questions, it is your chance to demonstrate your openness. A good idea is to have some questions to ask your host prepared prior to your visit. This will prevent your family visit become dull (many moments of silence, or just watching TV with your host). For example, you can ask questions about the real Chinese life in China (the local area, the neighbourhood), or questions about holidays, family traditions to get conversation started and proceed to more significant talks. By doing so you can make the most out of this rare opportunity (normally the Chinese prefer to socialize with non-family members in public locations other than their own home, since it is not common for them to let people see their real life). If you visit a rural household, ask how the village has changed in their lifetime, ask if they use any machinery since in China agriculture is much more labour intensive than in the West, or you can ask which farm crops the family produces. If you visit an urban family, ask your host about their work, their holidays, their neighbourhood, the city and the traffic (has it changed in the last decades). If your hosts have children, ask about their education, and if you have children, you can have a detailed comparison of the education system between China and your own country (this will give your host’s children a chance to get involved in an international experience as well). If you visit older people, ask how China has changed. Bear in mind that many older people still see Chairman Mao as their idol, despite his mistakes, so avoid negative comments about Mao ZeDong. The main point is to focus on what your hosts are familiar with, and not ask challenging questions, or questions dealing with statistics. The Chinese seldom will answer a question “Do not know”. They would rather give an answer according to their best knowledge (guess), because this way they do not only save their face, but also the face of their interlocutor. Also, keep in mind that the Chinese are generally not as open as Westerners are. If it seems that your host is having difficulty with a particular question of yours, you had better change the topic right away!
Note that the favourite conversation topic of the Chinese is always price, so it is never wrong to talk to the Chinese about the price of things, whether it is a house, rent, car, or food. They also love to talk about the foreign exchange rate and the transcontinental air ticket with foreigners. So if you enter into such conversation, you will gain your host’s interest for sure!
The “informal table”
Always wait to be seated and remember to sit at the dining table in the place where you are instructed. It is a Chinese tradition to arrange the seating in a certain way. It is much more relaxed to dine with a Chinese family than attend a banquet, nonetheless there are some customs and rules that need to be followed (for example, let the most senior members sit and eat first). You should act around the informality with respect, and always follow the lead ofour hosts. Since in lot of Asian countries slurping is a way to show one’s appreciation and enjoyment to the food one is having at the moment, if your hosts slurps, you should follow him or her a little too. Moreover, as a good Chinese host, he or she will continue urging you to eat more, and they will keep asking until your fourth refusal.
At a dining table in a family setting, you can help yourself with food and take toasts from your host. You can even take the initiative to make a toast to your host, wishing that your relationship will grow from business partnership into a more personal friendship. You can use Chinese phases such as 友谊永存 (You Yi Yong Cun)-friendship forever and 阖家欢乐 (He Jia Huan Le)-wish your family always be happy, to cheer with your host and his or her family.
In conclusion, if you are invited to visit a Chinese family, you should feel lucky with having such an opportunity, because not only does it provide a deeper insight into Chinese culture and local life; but also a better chance to grow a personal relationship with your Chinese partner. Therefore try your best to get the most of your visit to a Chinese family at home!