The biggest problem with living in a dorm is that I miss out on many of the most important aspects of Chinese culture that occur in and around the home, so when my friend Tony asked me if I would like to visit his hometown with him during the May Day long weekend, I jumped at the opportunity.

The busy Laiwu market on May 1st, perhaps one of the busiest shopping days of the year in China.

Laiwu is a small town by Chinese standards, supposedly smaller than Liaocheng but from my point of view actually seemed larger due to the numerous public parks that covered much of the town (Liaocheng has only one, relatively small public park.)  It’s a two hour drive from Jinan, Shandong’s capitol, and an hour away from Taian, the hometown of Confucious and the site of China’s most famous mountain, Mount Tai.

Tony has been reading up on American culture and somewhere along the way learned the phrase, “Make yourself at home.”  He used this expression just before we got to his house, but it quickly became apparent that at no point during my stay at Tony’s house would I be able to forget that I was a guest.  The tenet of Chinese is hospitality is quite simply to “provide.”  From the moment I walked through their door Tony’s parents bombarded me with offers of food, gifts, and leisure opportunities.  Tony’s father must have asked me 12 times during our first meal together if I wanted to have a beer.  If they noticed I was eating one dish in particular they would shovel as much of it as possible into my mouth.  If I stood up to reach for something Tony or his parents were already across the room beating me to it.  When we watched television I was given the remote and all of its ominous powers.  Every time I left my bedroom Tony’s mother would go in and reorganize it, folding up my clothes, hanging my jacket on the hanger, refilling my thermos.  I hesitated to ask where the bathroom was for fear that they might follow me in and assist with process.

Tony's mom cooks us up a delicious lunch of "jiaozi," Chinese dumplings.

In all seriousness, I had a wonderful time in Laiwu.  It was a wonderful break in the often crushing boredom of campus life, and an amazing window into the everyday life of Chinese people.  Tony grew up in a neighborhood where all the houses were still the old architecture so recognizably China to the Western eye.  They had running water but only from 6:00 AM and 7:00 AM daily, and instead of showers they washed their feet at the end of every day.  Tony expressed a bit of humiliation before we arrived because as he put it, his home was very “simple.” He burst out laughing when I explained to him that I actually preferred his home to the gigantic, blocky, cold architecture of modern Chinese apartment buildings.  Status symbols are very important in China and the home is often considered the most telling of one’s standing in society.  I found it interesting that Tony and his family wanted to live in the newer apartment buildings, not out of any

A contrast between new and old. Because the more traditional style of homes take up more valuable land than do the modern apartment buildings (pictured here in the background), all the small houses in the foreground of this picture will soon be demolished and the inhabitants moved into apartment buildings. While this sort of forced upheavel might cause a good deal of controversy in the United States, Chinese people actually jump at the opportunity to move out of their old homes and into modern ones.

aesthetic or realistic comfort logic, but simply because it was new, and new is better than old.  In the West we have the luxury of choosing to live in a house that might be old simply because we like the way it looks, while in China aesthetics often take a backseat to the way in which your neighbors, co-workers, and family members view your status in society.

By far the most enjoyable experience I had in Laiwu was a dinner with Tony’s extended family.  Tony’s grandmother was a tiny ball of tremendous energy, and from the moment I entered her home to the moment I left she doted on me.  “I think of you like a grandson,” she said.  “You must come back to visit me!  And when you get married, you must bring your wife to meet me.  Here!  Eat an orange!  Have some more tea! Are you cold?  Are you still hungry!  Here!  Eat an apple!”

Tony’s grandfather is 80 years old and suffering from a pretty advanced form of Alzheimer’s.  He spent most of the evening observing the proceedings in silence.  Perhaps the most heartwarming moment of the night was when he tapped my arm and gestured towards the food on the table, eeking out a barely audible, “chi!”  Eat! Many of life’s most basic functions were impossible for him, but he still had the ability to recognize that I was a guest, and to treat me as guests should be treated.  It’s a perfect example of just how important hospitality is in Chinese culture.

I returned to Liaocheng with a bag full of gifts, a belly full of food, and a heart full of warmth and gratitude.  I hope to visit them again some day, and perhaps even repay them by welcoming Tony, who’s English is quite good and may have the opportunity to visit America some day, into my own home.

From Top Right: Baba, Nai Nai, Ye Ye, Shu Shu, Ma ma, Tony, Yours Truly, and Ayie

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