My Roommate's Family

Written by Michael Henske, (Student Correspondent) Wesleyan University
MIC Hangzhou, Spring 2015

After staying at my roommates’ family’s house to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I feel as though I am their long lost, big, white cousin. Although I was definitely treated as though I was a visitor, seemingly always being encouraged to eat more and drink more of their homemade rice wine (which I rarely denied), my roommate’s parents and sister really made me feel like I belonged there with them. This might not sound terribly surprising as Chinese people tend to be very gracious and welcoming to invited guests. What will likely sound very surprising is that I was able to build such relationships with people who only speak a language that I do not understand.

Before going to my roommate’s house in the countryside outside of Hangzhou I was aware that most Chinese people spoke local dialects, but I assumed that they also spoke Putonghua. I also thought that the local dialects were more similar to accents than to entirely different languages. Apparently I was completely wrong. While my roommate’s parents were able to understand Putonghua, they could not speak it at all. This made for a very interesting experience, one that I do not think very many people have had before; I could speak to them, but when they responded I couldn’t understand what they were saying whatsoever. I was constantly asking my roommate and his sister to translate the local dialect to Putonghua, which was sometimes very awkward because it often led to long pauses in conversation when I had no clue what my roommate was saying to me when translating (having someone translate one language you do not understand at all into one you only understand a little of is quite a strange experience).

So how was it that I was able to feel like an extra family member after such a short stay with people I could not communicate with? I am honestly not quite sure how to answer that question. It might be that anybody who came to celebrate Chinese New Year with them would have been treated the way I was, but I truly don’t think that was the case. We just seemed to all get along well, even without being able to communicate fully. Whether we were eating a meal, preparing offerings for the Buddhist Gods, digging for winter bamboo shoots or watching TV, everyone was laughing and having a good time.

The day I left my roommate’s mom asked me if it was possible for me to stay one more day with them. It was then that I truly felt like their long lost cousin. I hope that last week will not the be the last time I get to 过年 with my new Chinese family, and I think that they feel the same way.