How to Visit a Chinese Family (Properly) - Top Tips
Red Yao woman in Longji and her guests
In order to get the most out of visiting a Chinese family, you should: 1) bring a translator, 2) observe the local customs, and 3) prepare some good questions to ask. Then you should have a valuable inter-cultural encounter, providing a deeper insight into Chinese culture and local life.
1. Take a Guide/Translator
Most Chinese cannot speak English, at least not well enough for a decent exchange, answering effectively the questions that will bring you insight into Chinese culture... and many guides struggle too, even those with an English qualification. So make sure your translator is up to the task to get the most out of the experience.
China Highlights guides are tested to make sure they have a high enough standard of English to meet customer's requirements, not just experts on their local sights, but also ready conversationalists and interpreters.
2. What Customs Should be Followed?
When entering the house...
Offer your gifts, which will probably be placed on the table or taken away unopened, as is the Chinese custom. Fruit is popular, though confectionery or souvenir products from your own country would also be welcomed.
Greet all members of the household (most senior first, if possible, proceeding down the social scale; children would normally be expected to greet you rather than the other way round), or as many as you can see from the door. A simple “ni hao”, or “hello” if you would rather stick to English, would suffice. See How to Communicate with Chinese in China.
Take your shoes off and change them for a pair of slippers waiting for you by the door.
If you have have umbrellas/ rain gear, hand them to your host to store.
Once inside the house...
Once inside you will usually be asked to sit down. If you have bags or a coat you want to take off they will usually be given a seat too. Putting bags on the floor is a no-no (the floor is considered unclean, though it may seem fine from a Western perspective) and coat racks are uncommon in China.
You will then be offered something to drink and eat. Plain hot water is popular, especially in poorer households, where all water is boiled. The alternative is usually Chinese tea of some sort. The first food offered will probably be fruit, with peanuts and candy if it's a festive time of the year. Accept these and drink/eat, or put them down on a table in front of you if you don't want to have them immediately.
Then the conversation begins... You host will try to keep you entertained and ask you a few questions first. Then it is your chance.
3. What Questions are Good to Ask?
Having some questions ready to ask will stop your family visit becoming a silent (or TV watching) encounter. The following are just some suggestions to get conversation started and may lead on to to more in-depth questions.
What have you always wanted to know about local life in China? After having a look through the guidance below, prepare a list of things you want to ask to make the most of the opportunity.
The Standard Polite Questions in China
If you meet someone on the street, the first things you'll be asked are usually “Have you eaten?” and “Where are you going?”. While you'll probably avoid the second on arriving at a Chinese home, the first will probably be forthcoming. Answer “I've eaten.” to avoid being offered food until you've eaten the equivalent of a meal's worth.
The Standard Inquiries
After that, expect to be asked about your family, work, and income (which you can politely decline to answer even if the host tells you theirs). You are also bound to be asked where you come from. All of these questions are good starters to getting to know about your hosts.
Favorite Topics of Conversation in China
Chinese seemingly love to talk about the prices of things: the prices of property and land, rent, cars, commodities like rice and fuel, meat, fruit, and vegetables. You may be asked about the price of your airfare and your currency's exchange rate with the yuan.
Enter into this conversation and you'll have your host's interest, and soon find out that most things are cheaper or much cheaper (ask about rent) in China, while some are similar in price, and a few select goods like milk are more expensive.
Questions for Various Hosts
If you visit a rural household ask about what they are farming, and what that involves. You'll find that it's much more labor intensive than in the West. Ask what machinery they use (if any). Ask how the village has changed in their lifetime.
If you visit an urban family ask about what hours they work and what holiday they get. Ask about traffic on the roads and how it has changed in the last 10 or 20 years. Ask about how their neighborhood, the city, and their way of life has changed.
If they have children ask about their education. If you have children too it can be very interesting to compare school in China to school life in your country. This will give your children a chance to get involved in the experience.
If you visit older people you may want to ask about pre-reform China and the cultural revolution. Ask how China has changed. Bear in mind that many still hold Chairman Mao in high esteem, despite his failings, so avoid getting into criticism, or negative questioning.
Questions to Avoid
In China it is considered best to avoid politics and one's views about the government, particularly if you are traveling in sensitive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.
Questions on statistics like local population, distances, areas, etc. may be better directed to your guide, as locals may waffle on or give vague or best-guess answers, rather than say directly that they don't know. Focus on what your hosts are familiar with.
Avoid questions that will cause your host to lose face. In China it is customary to avoid embarrassment at all costs, and maintain dignity, even if lies must be told to do it. Chinese are generally not as open as Westerners. If it seems that your host is having difficulty with a particular question, move on to something else, rather than pressing the issue.
4. If You Eat a Meal with a Chinese Family...
Sit where you are instructed to sit. Certain seating arrangements are followed by Chinese as a matter of tradition.
Chinese Dining Etiquette with a Chinese family will be more relaxed than going out to eat or attending a celebratory banquet, though there will be some customs that are followed, like letting the most senior member sit and eat first.
Try to follow the lead of your hosts, striking a balance between informality and respect. If your hosts slurp, feel free to slurp a little to create a harmonious atmosphere.
Your hosts will probably continuously urge you to eat more, and only be satisfied that you're full on the third refusal.
Visiting a Chinese Family with China Highlights
Several of our tour products give you the opportunity to visit a Chinese family. You can also ask to visit a local family anywhere in China while booking and our travel experts will do their best to tailor it into your tour in a way that suits you.
In Beijing's hutongs you can make dumplings with a local family and learn about life in the traditional housing areas of Beijing. On our Tibet Everest Tour you can visit a Tibetan family living in simple conditions.
Having a family visit is mentioned on our Longji Terraced Fields page, where it is possible to see the way of life of the local minority people through having a meal with them. On our Guilin tours there are several family visit options, not just in Longji; you can also visit your travel advisor's family.