By Lisa Speckhard
Visiting a friend’s home seems like a simple enough ordeal, right? Sure, there might be a few awkward pauses in the dinner conversation, or you may wrestle with the shower for a few minutes, but things don’t generally get more complicated than that.
Unless of course, you are in China, your friend is your university student, and you speak very, very little Chinese.
Last year I became an American cliché and spent a year abroad teaching English in Asia. In Sichuan, China, to be exact. It was obviously an incredible/weird/crazy experience, and one of the most culturally eye-opening parts was getting to visit some of my students’ hometowns.
These were great, albeit exhausting experiences. You may have noticed that most things in life have both good and bad aspects. For example, tacos are delicious but are not located in China. Visiting students is the same way: it is 100% worth it, but also there are some drawbacks. To illustrate, I have described my visits in pro/con list form, for your reading convenience.
Some background: I went with one student to her hometown of Leshan, which is a big tourist city in Sichuan because of the Big Buddha (see below) and another student to her hometown of Dazhou, which is not a tourist city.
GETTING TO BE “THE FIRST” – PRO
Obviously, being first means you are the winner. And I got to be the first:
- Foreigner to eat at my student’s uncle’s restaurant
- Foreigner seen by many people in the city, including a random old lady in the neighborhood who stopped us and a little girl on the metro – BOTH of whom, I would like to add, told me I looked just like a TV actress, so what am I doing wasting my time being a teacher, I ask you?
- Foreign guest in my student’s house
- Foreigner many of my students’ family ever talked to
- Foreigner to enter the city at 6:06 on the fourth Friday of the month. (Unverifiable.)
IDEALLY THESE VISITS WOULD INVOLVE 3 OR 4 NAPS A DAY – CON
- You are often the foreigner on display.
- Everyone is speaking Chinese, and you brain is whirring along at maximum capacity to try to keep up, but all it really does is helpfully identify about 6 words every twenty minutes
- Chinese beds are really, really hard.
- Your student is obligated by law to show you every slightly historically significant site in their hometown, so you’re going to be go go going all day, erryday.
Thus, visiting a hometown is kind of alike running a marathon. A culturally confusing, eating-intensive marathon. You have to have rest, good pacing, and excellent hydration. Except actually forget the hydration, because your student and their whole family think it’s super weird how much cold water you drink (“Cold water is bad for your healthy.”) and then consequently how often you have to find a public restroom.
TRYING DIFFERENT FOODS – PRO
Would it really be a travel story if I didn’t mention the food? And this is awesome! You get to try foods that don’t exist in your city, including many hometown specialties. My personal favorite for these visits were shao mai (description: like dumplings but not) and ci ba (description: rice pounded up all mashed-like, reformed as sticks, and dipped in brown sugar).
TRYING DIFFERENT FOODS – CON
My students, in the interest of giving me the Authentic Hometown Experience, sometimes are a little zealous about showing me ALL the Authentic Hometown Experience foods. This is great, except for the part where you feel like a pig being fattened for the slaughter. But, not wanting to offend the mother/grandmother/whole family/random shao mai vendor that prepared the food, you eat. I knew it was getting bad when I started daydreaming about sitting in my apartment and eating nothing.
The other downside of this, is that the food is not always delicious. On Sunday, they pulled out the pig’s feet and blood jelly, and let me shoot you straight: I was just not feeling it.
The good news is, in 100% of cases, I will be complimented on my chopstick usage and tolerance for spicy food, so at least I get a good ego boost out of the deal.
INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION – PRO
1 English speaker with a leetle Chinese + some Chinese speakers with a leetle English + one really good translator (my student) = endless possibilities for connection, miscommunication, and mental exhaustion on the part of my student!
Seriously, though, it’s pretty cool to sit at a dinner table and see where this equation takes you. During one family meal with my student, her mom, dad, cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandmother, they kept wanting to ask me questions about America (they were fixated on Obama), but not wanting her to translate if I would think they were dumb questions, and then telling her to stop translating to me that they didn’t want her to translate if I thought they were dumb questions.
WHEN YOUR CHINESE CRASHES AND BURNS – CON
Practicing Chinese is fun and all, but it’s also really, really easy to make mistakes, because I always, always forget the tones. Listen close, my friends, whilst I lift your spirits with a tale of my humiliation:
One time, I found myself alone in a room with a student’s grandmother, and, because she spoke no English, I felt obligated to put her at ease and start a conversation. As we had just had a delicious meal of hot pot, and I felt like being topical, and also it contained some of the only words I know how to say, I meant to say “Do you like to cook?” She smiled and shook her head yes, and I thought, “Aha! A successful multicultural conversation! I am really quite talented!” Then, later, when my student returned, she had a conversation with her grandmother and asked me, “Did you tell my grandmother you loved her?” And while I didn’t say that (intentionally, anyway), I didn’t feel like that’s the kind of thing you can deny without sounding like a wee bit insensitive (“Tell your grandmother I NEVER loved her!”) so I said yes, of course that’s what I said, and she translated back to her grandmother and now we are eternally bound by the confession of my love, so there’s that.
HANGING OUT WITH CHINESE FAMILIES – PRO
With one student, her parents have a set of four couples who are all friends, the men in the couples being friends since high school. So they’re kids call the other adults their aunts and uncles, and it’s all very familial, and they adopted me right into this family, making sure I saw them every day I was there. We went to restaurants and on walks and pi pa picking (I still don’t know what the English name for this fruit, the dictionary says “loquat,” and if you know what that is I will give you an award for Best at Obscure Fruit-Related Pretentious Knowledge) where, when they were haggling with the farmer about the price of fruit, they shamelessly used me as a bargaining chip, stating, “She’s American, so you better give us a good price or the whole world will know!” Which was a joke, but also true. Let me report that the farmer did give us a good price. I highly recommend that one farmer somewhere on the outskirts of Leshan.
This family also felt so close to me, that when my student had me try on qi-paos (traditional Chinese dresses) and took pictures of me in each one, they gathered around, men and women alike, to see the pictures and honestly tell me which was most suitable. This was not at all embarrassing.
GOOD OLD-FASHIONED QUALITY TIME – PRO
Between train rides, bus rides, walking around, and hanging out at home, there is a LOT of time for student bonding. (Speaking from experience, you can also achieve bonding by almost missing your return train and sprinting together through a train station and up a million stairs with a full bag of pi pas, but I recommend talking as the preferable way.)
BONUS! COOL TOURIST SITES/EXPERIENCES – PRO
Here is the famous Giant Buddha. It is a Buddha that is giant (Surprise!). It is also, like most things in China, really old. I wish I could tell you more about it, but the random college student who offered to be our English tour guide had very questionable pronunciation, so I can only tell you the following: It was made a long time ago, it was shot at during a specific war, and it is not a fat Buddha, as I had imagined.
I just did some Wikipedia research, and learned that not only is it the largest pre-modern statue in the world, but when the monk who started this project found out that the construction funding was going to be cut off, “he is said to have gouged out his own eyes to show his piety and sincerity.” This is the kind of human interest story they should be teaching their tour guides.
I also got to try calligraphy! Which was super awesome! I was surrounded by 7-year-olds, which is the age most people learn this stuff, and later by a group of Chinese people watching the foreign girl try calligraphy. Also, I got to hold hands with this Chinese man while he taught me, so that was a plus.
As you can see (or could if I had any blog design skills and could make this a two-column pro/con list) the pros definitely outweigh the cons. Yes it is tiring, and no, blood jelly is not my preferred cuisine, but if it means quality student time and getting to hold hands with Chinese men, I am all for it.