We bounced along for hours over a rough road in the mountains of rural China. A local friend had arranged for us to spend the day with his wife’s family who lived in a home made of packed mud perched on the side of a steep slope.
I was leading a team of seven Americans wanting to build friendships with people from this ethnic minority. Later, we hoped to carry out transformational development projects in the region.
Like many other cultures, this group places a very high value on hospitality. Upon arriving we stood in the warm sun and introduced ourselves. Then we waited as the meal was prepared. It consisted of steamed Buckwheat cakes, roasted potatoes and chicken soup with pickled vegetables. The most important dish was pork. A portion was roasted on open coals and the rest was boiled and then dipped in crushed red pepper flakes, numbing peppers and salt.
We sat on low stools circling the cooking fire in the middle of the floor. Smoke wafted up through gaps in the tile roof. We ate the soup with wooden spoons and the rest we ate with our hands.
Sitting there in the mountains of China I learned a lesson in hospitality. I was raised to value hospitality and our family frequently had guests stay with us. But along the way, I had been influenced by thoughts such as “Guests, like fish begin to smell after three days.”
In other words, there are limits to hospitality. Those limits could apply to the duration of the hospitality offered, or the amount that the hosts were willing to spend to entertain and feed their guests.
In contrast, as we ate in that adobe home in rural China I saw something different.
Memories of that day twenty years ago are still fresh in my mind. We did our best to build bridges of relationships with them through our friend who translated for us. Eventually, we told the creation story emphasizing that everyone, no matter where they live or what language they speak are all children of God, the creator of all things. The more we interacted the more I was impressed by the things we held in common despite our differences in economics, geography, culture and language.
As the day wore on, our host was overwhelmed by the sense of honor he felt to be entertaining guests from across the ocean. We were the first foreigners they had ever seen, let alone host in their home.
Initially, our host accepted our offer that we pay for the meal since we had asked for the invitation to his home. But now, he felt that would not be right. So he sent his son out to kill a goat and prepare it to honor us and demonstrate his heart felt hospitality and welcome.
I asked my friend, “how much does a goat cost?” He said “three months of income!”
I was shocked. “How could they even think of spending that amount on strangers?” None of the Americans there would ever have thought of spending the equivalent of three month’s income to entertain guests.*
That day I learned a lesson about hospitality. A lesson I will never forget. Hospitality can become a holy moment.
My understanding of hospitality was forever impacted by that cross-cultural encounter. I can’t say that I live up to the example I experienced that day. But it still stimulates me to greater hospitality. It prompts me to celebrate special events with people. And it reminds me that God is present in ordinary moments when I generously share what he has given us with others.
* Note from the Author: The generosity of our host taught me a lasting lesson. However, I didn’t want it to be a financial burden for them. It was arranged through our local friend for the family to receive gifts of daily necessities that more than covered the cost to host us.
About the Author: Ron is the IDEAS Community Life Director for Asia. He and his family lived in Taiwan for 20 years and he continues to travel extensively throughout Asia. He is also a very gracious host.