My daughter once told me that she thought my love language was giving. That sounded right to me. I learned a long time ago that giving just feels good. Without any expectation of anything in return, I give because my heart would burst if I didn’t. I would have said I didn’t qualify as selfish in the least. But after my second trip to China, I learned just how wrong I was.
On my first trip there, I didn’t speak the language, and really didn’t grasp the cultural differences as well as I did on my second trip. I studied Mandarin in order to talk to people in the villages without an interpreter. What a difference language makes! My husband and I were able to walk through villages and talk to the people we met. We were seeking artisans that would be interested in developing their own business from the crafts their people have made (without even considering it art) for generations.
On our walks, I grew to learn about a very common courtesy among the villagers – their form of greeting was to ask, “Have you eaten?” These were villages with houses made of red mud or clay. No cars, no electricity, no running water, and the water for community use served a number of purposes, including washing clothing, animals, dishes, and drinking. As is the custom in China, when asked if you have eaten, you should reply “yes,” even if you have not. In other words, “I’m fine, how are you?” Villagers would often laugh when I greeted them with the same phrase in their native tongue. At first I thought I was saying it wrong, but a Chinese friend later told me it is because my pronunciation is too good, and with blonde hair and blue eyes, good Chinese sounds funny coming from me.
Villagers would often beckon to us to come inside their little houses and eat with them. In China, it is not polite to accept on the first offer of food or drink. This way, the family who has little can save face – they asked, you refused, end of story. If they ask a second time, you should still refuse. But on the third offer, it is then a sincere invitation and you must accept. Believe it or not, we would have a hard time refusing to eat with anyone. We were often the first “lao wai” or foreigner they had ever seen, and they were tickled to have us come into their homes.
In one village, I had noticed some stalks from a plant leaning against the house of an elderly couple. I asked them what the plant was, and they explained it was hemp. They dry the stalks, strip them, spin them and finally weave them to make clothing. They then invited us to come inside and eat. Of course we refused, but they immediately asked again. Again I refused, and proceeded to change the subject, asking about the peppers drying on strings hanging beside their door. They smiled, nodded, and asked us again, motioning us toward their door and kitchen. Their daughter and granddaughter were also there to greet us. I smiled at the child, who was wearing their traditional dress, and told her how pretty she looked. Just like many children, she was shy around these strange looking people. We all stepped inside the tiny kitchen – a room with mud walls, a small wood stove, and a very short square wooden table. Around the table were little stools made of twisted rope. We were given the best seats, and the elderly couple pulled up overturned buckets. A very skinny cat wandered in and out of our feet as we sat there. It was a testament to how poor this family was.
On the table was a big wooden bucket filled with cooked rice, and several smaller bowls containing different vegetables – no doubt from their garden – and some kind of meat. Usually when Americans sit down to a family style buffet, with platters of food in the center of the table, we say grace and then either reach into the center and begin serving ourselves, or we pass the serving dishes around, taking what we want and passing it on to the person next to us. But as we spent more time in China, we learned just how selfish and greedy this made us look. The Chinese people in the villages NEVER serve themselves in this way. They serve each other! And as guests, we were served first. The old man would use his chopsticks and reach into the serving bowl of his choice, and place a piece of meat or vegetable in my bowl of rice! And then he would serve my husband. The wife or daughter would serve the husband or each other, as would the granddaughter. But they always made sure to serve us twice as often. We tried to eat slowly so they wouldn’t keep giving us their food, scarce as it was. We also learned that if we empty our bowl, they will fill it again, because if we empty it, it means they were not generous enough with us and did not give us enough to eat. So when eating with a Chinese family, you never want to clean your plate.
As kids, my parents always encouraged us to clean our plate, because some child was starving somewhere else in the world. And yet here we were, with people who had very little, sharing their meal with us, making sure we had the best of the food they had, serving us, and making sure we had enough to eat. And here, it was the right thing to do to leave food in our bowl. Because if we did not, we were actually taking food out of the mouth of the poor! They would have to feed us more to fill the empty bowl.
My visit to China really opened my eyes to my selfishness in serving myself before others. It opened my eyes to how rare it would be for us to invite a total stranger into our home to share a meal, especially if we had very little. I had always known how silly it was to think that cleaning our plate would keep some child around the world from starving, but now I knew that cleaning it might just mean the difference for some children having a meal or not the next day.