By Melynda Joy Schauer
Growing up as a third-culture kid on opposite sides of the planet, I’ve had the chance to experience hospitality in multiple cultures.
In the American South, hospitality looks like inviting someone over for a meal, sipping sweet tea on the front porch, and letting close friends or family stay in your guest room for a couple of days. The South is known for its hospitality, which extends to strangers striking up conversation in the grocery store—something that often felt bizarre to my friends from other regions when they visited me. As an adult now living in the South again, I don’t think twice about chatting with someone in the grocery store line or at the park; it feels normal to be friendly in public. Even during COVID-19, Southerners chat from behind their masks and comment on the beautiful babies in my “buggy” (a.k.a. shopping cart) on the rare occasions I bring them inside a store with me.
When I was eleven years old, my family moved overseas to Macau, and we experienced hospitality in a new way among the expat and missionary community. Hospitality there often began with a stranger picking you up from the airport, taking you to their home, translating for you, buying you food, setting up your new apartment, and helping you figure out your new roles and how to get to school and ride the buses. These “strangers” often quickly became dear family friends, with many of the kids in our missionary community calling our elders “aunt” and “uncle” as an extended family type of kinship formed over the years of living as foreigners in the same city. When visiting fellow missionary families, we’d leave our shoes outside the door and crowd around the living room with snacks and drinks, perhaps working on a puzzle or playing a game, ready to hang out for a while as the grown-ups caught up.
In the majority Chinese culture where I lived, I learned that hospitality almost always involved giving a gift upon the first visit—and that when your guest gave you a wrapped gift, you didn’t open it in front of them, but rather waited until they left. You also traditionally receive the gift using both of your hands, a habit that even now is hard for me to break. Two decades after I lived in Macau and Taiwan, my husband and I have hosted many Chinese students in our home as part of our work with international students, and we have almost always received a gift when our Chinese friends came to visit.
There is also a risk to hospitality,
because it does require some
vulnerability and effort.”
Every culture has its own nuanced traditions for showing hospitality, but there are many overlapping similarities.
Hospitality is extending an invitation to come in, sit down, eat and drink, get comfortable, and be known; you are invited to rest and learn and go on your way encouraged and refreshed.
The history of the word “hospitable” comes from the French “hospitable” meaning “kind and cordial to strangers or guests,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The root goes back to Latin for “be a guest” and even further back to the Proto-Indo-European root “ghos-ti” which means “stranger, guest, host.”
In the ancient world, a stranger you’re hosting in your home could become a lifelong friend, but strangers could also be a threat. Interestingly, the “ghos-ti” root word for hospitable, hospital, host, and guest is also the same root for hostage and hostile.
“A guest-friendship was a bond of trust between two people that was accompanied by ritualized gift-giving and created an obligation of mutual hospitality and friendship that, once established, could continue in perpetuity and be renewed years later by the same parties or their descendants,” according to Calvert Watkins in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
In my thirty-four years of life, I’ve found hospitality to be an overwhelmingly positive experience of deepening friendships with those whom I’ve hosted, and those who have hosted me.
During my somewhat nomadic adolescent years, many people hosted me and my family as we traveled around Asia. I’ve stayed in guest rooms ranging from a high rise in Hong Kong to a ger in Mongolia. The generous hospitality I enjoyed growing up is a big part of why my husband and I have always kept a guest room in our house, even if it also doubles as an office space. We both value opening our door to traveling friends and family, and even strangers like newly arriving international students who need a place to stay for a few days while getting settled.
I believe extending hospitality is an antidote to the loneliness that characterizes much of our highly individualized American society. Hospitality is more than just a meal or overnight visit—it’s an invitation to community and connection.
But there is also a risk to hospitality, because it does require some vulnerability and effort as you welcome a stranger or even a friend or family member into your home.
Sometimes I wonder, what will they think when they see my unfolded laundry and dishes in the sink? And now as a parent, what will they think of our family if (let’s be honest, when) my kids misbehave? And sometimes selfishly, I question how will my day go if the kids’ nap schedule gets thrown off?
I’m slowly learning that the joys of hosting far outweigh the fear of inviting someone into my imperfect home. As I think back on the friends who have hosted me so well, I don’t remember anything about the cleanliness of their house, but I do remember the warm feeling of being welcomed, enjoying tea and conversation on the couch, and sharing in a meal around their table.
Today, I’m a mom of three kids ages four and under, and we are not in a season of traveling very far or very often. Yet in these last few years, I’ve experienced the rich joy of having the world around my table as friends from Thailand, Taiwan, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, India, China, Columbia, South Sudan, Australia and Turkey have gathered around our table for a meal. We cook, talk, drink tea, play with the kids, go for a walk, share dessert, ask questions and enjoy each other’s company. It’s been a beautiful blessing especially in the last couple of years of the pandemic which have been so isolating for many people.
As a Christian, I also believe hospitality isn’t something for only friendly people to do. All Christians are encouraged to practice hospitality, to both friends and strangers. The apostle Paul urges Christians to share with those in need and practice hospitality in Romans 12:13. In 1 Peter 4:8-9, the apostle Peter encourages Christians to love each other deeply, and to offer hospitality without complaining. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that whenever you offer one of the “least of these” a cup of water, or something to eat, or invite a stranger in, it’s as if we are extending hospitality to the King himself (Matthew 25:35-40).
The great thing about hospitality is that you don’t have to be an outgoing extrovert with a picture-perfect home; anyone can offer hospitality. You can invite a new co-worker to coffee or share a snack in the break room. You can text a mom friend to meet you at the park with your kids. You can reach out to just one person and have them into your home. It doesn’t have to be formal or feel like hard work… ask yourself: what sounds fun? And who is someone I could share that with?
At its simplest, hospitality is an invitation to “come and sit a spell,” as they say in the South.
Melynda Joy Schauer is an adult TCK who grew up in Macau, Taiwan, and Alabama. She now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and three children. She keeps her international side alive by meeting international students in her city and finding the best bubble tea everywhere she goes!