It was a couple of weeks ago, just after noon. Kevin and I had just come back from class and I was in the kitchen starting our daily fried-egg sandwiches when we heard a knock on the door.
Kevin opened the door and there stood a girl he had never seen before who said, “Hello! Can I come in?”
I heard Kevin say, “Um...who are you?”
“I am a student from the management department and I want to practice my English. Can I come in?”
1. We've never seen you before. 2. It's lunchtime, not just for us, for like everyone on campus. If any hour is sacred and to be left undisturbed in China, it's the lunch/nap break. It even gets quiet during this time. 3. Isn't this a little bit weird in any culture?
Kevin told her that now was not such a good time, and perhaps she could come back later, or (better yet) come to our office. Every so often this kind of thing happens to us, and I always have a hard time with it. It's funny and frustrating. Never do I feel my American right to privacy and personal space as much as when a stranger tries to invite themselves in. Accosting me on the street is one thing; I can handle that. But my house—it's my space. We have groups of students over almost every week, but I chose to invite them. I'm still in control. This sense of intrusion is always tempered by a feeling of guilt for not being more flexible and welcoming. Isn't that the kind of thing I'm supposed to do? Cultural foot-stamping aside, isn't it pretty selfish of me to open up my home to an occasional brave stranger/student, even if they are a little out of place.
This week my class was talking about a semi-related cultural situation, only in this situation it was a (non-stranger) student showing up unexpectedly. After talking about cultural differences related to scheduling ahead vs. showing up, I presented them with my situation. I asked what they would do in our position. They all laughed and thought it was funny and a little strange, but their answers weren't very helpful.
The first student said she would invite them in and offer tea because Chinese people are always very hospitable, and it is polite to invite in whoever comes to your door. The second student said if it was a friend, she would welcome them in, but if it was a stranger she might feel weird about them coming into her home. The third student said she would tell them, “I'm sure you are a good person, but don't you know it is rude and impolite to come at this time and ask to come in? I don't know you, so I think you should go away.”
So no clear consensus on that one. I know Chinese people do feel a stronger obligation toward hospitality, whether they want you there or not. In truth, though, this is a situation that probably doesn't happen to normal Chinese people very much/ever. It's one of those weird “foreigner on display” situations in which no culture seems to quite know the rules.