July 14, 2012
Tonight Boqian’s family hosted a formal dinner in my honor. Like with my teacher’s family, they told me that I should feel at home by practicing my own customs rather than trying to figure out their customs—I really like that invitation even though I still tried to adjust to their customs as much as possible.
Boqian’s father was clearly the head of this family. His place at the table was directly opposite the entrance to the room, facing the door, which I recently learned is where the most important person usually sits. I sat to his right, also a place of honor. Through an interpreter who works for him, Boqian’s father ask me numerous questions. Some related to my opinion of China and Chinese culture, many others about my perspective of his son as a student in America. I couldn’t help but feel that some of what we said to each other was lost in translation—the interpreter tended to shorten my lengthy replies to a few words—but for the most part I think we communicated fairly well.
At one point he asked me what I would like to take back to the United States from China. I interpreted his question as referring to something tangible, like a souvenir of some kind and I carefully responded so as to avoid him giving me whatever I said I would like to take back with me—at other times with Chinese friends when I have merely mentioned that I like something they seem to want to get it for me (mostly something edible, but I didn’t want to take any chances). After a long-winded answer about how much I like the huge stones the Chinese like to put everywhere (something I know I can’t take home with me), he clarified that he wanted to know what aspects of Chinese culture I would like to take to the United States. I was relieved that he wasn’t fishing for what to offer me as a gift before leaving, since they have already given me so much over the past few days, but that didn’t make his question any easier to answer. I think I said something about the Chinese practice of frequently gathering in public spaces, but to be honest I’m not sure what my answer really is. I’ll have to give it some more thought.
In addition to the typical toasts and many plates of traditional foods, I discovered another Chinese custom. During this type of dinner, when fish is served the honored guest must be the first to partake of the fish. I’m not sure how long the fish sat on the table before I took some, but the interpreter let me know that everyone was waiting for me to take some of the fish before they could. I’m not sure why they do this with fish in particular, but it is another way to show respect to an honored guest. Very interesting.