Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:42 AM CST – China


Getting To Know You

A discussion about housing prices developed into an explanation of what had happened to her husband

A couple of years ago, I spent a year living with a local family in Dalian as part of my studies. I’d ended up living with them because of a mix up with the university accommodation bureau – but this inadvertent homestay turned out to be one of my best experiences to date.

My family consisted of my host mother (“Ayi”), her father (“Lao Ye”) and her daughter, a girl a few months younger than me (“Mei Mei”). As with many families across China, they were looking for a live-in foreign student to teach their daughter English, so I got to know Mei Mei very quickly. We’d spend a lot of evenings doing mock IELTS interviews, which would morph into informal chats about the similarities and differences inherent in growing up in China (her) and the UK (me).

What I was most surprised by was how close Ayi and I became, especially as my Chinese improved. A lecturer in postgraduate medicine, Ayi was a highly intelligent modern woman, just as likely to be working late helping a master’s student with a thesis as she was to be posting pictures of her and her friends on WeChat. We clicked immediately and would spend many an evening sitting around the coffee table, snacking on whatever fruit was in season and chatting about what we’d done that day.

In the beginning, a lot of our conversations centered on clothes. Mei Mei was extremely fashion conscious and looking at Ayi’s coiffed, dark red hair and colorful tailored clothes, it was easy to see where she’d inherited her sense of style. We all loved a good bargain and it was only after seeing them in action while out shopping that I learned how to haggle properly. When any of us bought a new item, two questions were asked: “Does it look nice?” and “How much do you think I paid for it?” I was initially taken aback by how honest mother and daughter were with each other – “No, Mom, that blue jacket is awful, it makes you look fat” – but as we became closer I came to really appreciate the brutal honesty. I knew if I tried something on and got a shrug and a “hai xing,” then my chosen garment probably was indeed “just OK.”

As time went by and my Chinese improved, we started to discuss more complex issues. Mei Mei was in her final year of her undergraduate degree and was trying to choose a UK university at which to do her master’s. Ayi was highly involved in the decision-making process and the three of us spent a lot of time talking through the various options. Naturally they had a lot of questions, such as which city had the best nightlife or which course would be better regarded by potential employers, and I was glad to be able to contribute. Advice was very much a two-way street and when in the second semester I started to get concerned in the run-up to my midterms, Ayi put it to me frankly: “You’re not doing as well this semester because you’re not working as hard.” She was right, I’d spent a lot more time traveling and eating out with friends, but by recognizing my sloppiness she’d given me the push I needed to reassess my priorities and get the results I wanted.

While we were having lunch one day, a discussion about housing prices developed into an explanation of what had happened to her husband. I had been living with them for nearly six months by this point but, being from a culture where it’s considered rude to ask about such things, I had accepted that I would just never know. She explained in a stoical, matter-of-fact tone that her husband had died suddenly on a business trip to Brazil. He had been on track to be dean of one of the province’s best universities and she told me in detail about how the family had flown out to Brazil, along with a number of his colleagues. She spoke of the tragedy as if it were in the distant past, but with a strong sense of how her present would be different had things not transpired the way they had. Hearing the mixture of pride and sadness in her voice as she described her husband’s spectacular career and how young he had been at the time, I struggled to find the right words – in Chinese or English.

When I moved in I’d hoped to become friends with my host family but had never expected to reach the stage where we were this involved in one another’s lives. We are still in touch and I got to see Mei Mei several times while she was studying in the UK, but I’ll always feel a particular nostalgia for the year we spent living together. If you asked a hundred people about their experiences with homestays you’d get a hundred different stories, but I know I would relive mine in a heartbeat. 


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