Generous to a fault

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


Chinese hospitality is a wonder to behold: towering, looming, all-encompassing. It lifts you up in its large, fluffy paw, swings you around a bit and squeezes all the willpower out of you before dropping you down with varying degrees of gentleness.

There are many types of Chinese hospitality. The two most commonly seen by foreigners are 'killing with kindness' and 'aggressive hospitality'. The first almost always results in you carrying heavy and unwieldy stuff. As happened when I swung around Sichuan province to visit the school in which I worked as a volunteer English teacher in 2002.

I was travelling by train, as usual, as part of a prolonged mainland trip, and the kind teachers gave me three volumes of the famous book Beautiful Places in China (weighing 5.3kg) and 3kg of water chestnuts. I had mentioned once in 2002 that I liked water chestnuts, but only to be polite. I am, if truth be told, supremely indifferent to water chestnuts.

The last time I hitch-hiked with K and E in Guangdong province, the guys taking us from Bamboo Sea near Zhaoqing to the next town, 20 kilometres away, inexplicably gave us three large cases of dried sweet potatoes. And I mean large - each the size of four shoeboxes. They would have been the ideal travelling snack - if we'd been with a 16-strong entourage pulling trolleys. This time we hadn't said a word about liking sweet potatoes. They gave them to us anyway.

At least you can discreetly give large packages of dried sweet potatoes to beggars later, and you can send heavy books home by post. Aggressive hospitality is harder to recover from. The thing is, mainlanders as a rule seem to love Westerners and have a need to make us see China in a favourable light, by force if necessary.

When P and I were last in renowned party town Sihui, we had just ordered dinner when we were spotted by a large and rowdy party of geezers across the room. They had eaten and were now doing the routine called 'stand up drinking large shots of brandy while shouting'.

'Join us (or else!)' the biggest and most menacing-looking geezer growled. He was a local police chief, a fact the purple-faced and staggering revellers pointed out to us at least 20 times. Over my protestations that we had already ordered food and beer, P was forced to sluice down three large bowls of fish soup as well as several glasses of brandy. When our own food arrived, he was already full to bursting point and quite drunk.

So remember, when on the mainland, never say you like something just to be polite. People will inevitably give you large bags of the stuff. And if you don't want to get drunk or leave the food you've ordered uneaten, the only advice I can give is: don't cross the border. No one can take on mainland hospitality and win.