I thought I’d planned for living with a Chinese family. I’d been living in the ASH (Asian Studies House) with Chinese international students, I’d been taking Chinese, and I’d already been to China to visit. I thought I knew what I was getting in to. All my preparation certainly helped prepare me for my Chinese homestay, but nothing could have taken all the surprises out of it. Trying to list them all would be ridiculous so I will try and give a brief overview.
- Food and eating in general
Food in China is about as big a deal as it is in France, maybe even more. They will cook wonton soup (with a hard boiled egg) for breakfast, often drink tea in the middle of the day, will juice a fresh watermelon for you just because you are studying, will get up to make you (just me) breakfast at 6 am in the morning, etc. It’s staggering (see picture below for reference). One word of advice though. In China, saying “I’m full” in Chinese (wǒ chī bǎo le) does not stop the flow of food.
After eating practically 15 dumplings, I tell them “I’m full, thank you.”
“Eat a little more,” they say. “You can eat just one or two more.”
“No, I’ve really eaten enough,” I reply.
This exchange repeats two or three times before I take refuge in my room. If I don’t stand firm against them, I will come back to America bigger than I left.
Also, did you know that they don’t really talk during dinner? Instead they leave the TV on, and we all watch it together. We’re all too busy eating to speak much anyway. Even so, meal time is family time. I guess the mutual enjoyment of the food is the bonding. Nevertheless, when someone is done eating they can just get up and leave the table. There’s no asking to be excused and no staying until everyone is finished. It took me a while to fall into this habit, as did the habit of using tissues when we eat instead of napkins. It’s not that they don’t work; it’s more that I have to use about three times as many of them.
2. Home life
Bare feet in a Chinese home is considered rude and dirty. You must wear pool type sandals in the house all the time. When you shower, you wear shower shoes. There are never shoes out of place because they all get left at the door. I’ll admit that I occasionally forget this, especially right after I wake up. Hey, what can I say? I’m tired in the morning.
As for the laundry, the washers are pretty much the same. Dryers, on the other hand, simply don’t exist. Everyone, from old Chinese men to college students, air dries their clothes and linens. Sometimes it takes two days. In the winter I’ve heard it will take even longer. It’s not a problem, as long as you plan ahead and don’t wait to do laundry until you have no clothes.
3. China in general
Honestly, the water problems are more troublesome than the air (no matter what the news sites say). I can brush my teeth with the tap water, shower in it, and wash my dishes, but I can’t drink it. You either have to drink boiled water, have a water filter (which my family does), or buy huge water tubs (which IES has). It’s when we go traveling that it’s such a pain. Water may only be about 8 kuai ($1.20) a bottle, but buying them so often adds up.
In another vein, on the subway and the bus random people will come up and talk to you. The bus is .4 kuai per ride ($.06), the subway is clean, efficient, and cheap, and there are stalls with amazing street food on practically every block. In the morning, the parks are always filled with people who are doing Tai Chi, playing musical instruments, and working out on the public outdoor exercise equipment. There is always something to see, something to do, someone to talk to, and something delicious to eat.
Beijing, and China, are giving me a once in a lifetime experience. I’m not just here to learn Chinese; I’m also here to learn about myself and the culture I come from. It’s like uncovering a part of myself that I never knew existed. I’ve always known I was Chinese born, but it wasn’t until I got to China this time that I really started understand it. Now I get the chance to see what it would have been like to grow up here. It’s a chance I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.