Shan Zhou is a well-established Chinese scholar in civil engineering. He had been co-operating with Paul, an American engineer on a large project. Paul had been to China twice for the project. Shan Zhou took great care of him on each visit, arranging everything from accommodation1 to making sure that one or more of his students would go with him—whenever he needed to do something. Frequently Shan Zhou invited Paul to home for meals or went to restaurants with him. He also made arrangements with some of his students to travel around the city with Paul, to help him with shopping. Paul was very grateful, but repeatedly told Shan Zhou that he could take care of himself. Yet Shan Zhou continued to be very attentive.
Eventually, Shan Zhou went to the United States to work with Paul for half a year. Paul picked him up at the airport and took him directly to his temporary2 accommodation. Paul apologized that he had to go home to take care of his two children, and that he would take Shan Zhou out for dinner some day.
Shan Zhou did not speak much English and it was his first visit to the States. He felt like a stranger and expected Paul to at least send his students to help him around, like what he had done for Paul in China. But that did not happen. Paul did take him out to a nice restaurant one evening, and invited him to his home once.
Shan Zhou had expected more from Paul, especially after all the help he had given to Paul. He was very disappointed and hurt by Paul, thinking that Paul should at least return the favor he had done to him. Shan Zhou was so hurt that he said to a good friend that he would not take that much care of Paul any more if he went to China again.
In fact, Shan Zhou was so upset that his working relationship with Paul suffered. Paul noticed the change but did not know where the tension came from.
The Chinese are very hospitable4 people. They tend to take great care of their guests and try to help their guests with everything. They would feel bad if a guest had any complaint. On the other hand, they expect others to take care of them, too, when they become guests themselves.
Though one may not spend as much time with one's guest these days because of the increasingly hectic5 pace of life in China, one still tries to make sure that the guest is treated well. Shan Zhou did this by taking time himself to be with Paul and by asking his graduate students to help Paul.
To the Chinese mind, one should return the same degree of hospitality and kindness if he/she has the opportunity to become the host. Otherwise, he/she would be thought as being ungrateful and even disrespectful6. Shan Zhou felt that Paul's treatment of him fell far short of the courtesy7 and kindness that he, Shan Zhou, had shown Paul. For Shan Zhou, Paul was not acting as a research partners, much less8 a good friend. He felt that Paul did not respect or value their friendship, and it hurt.
North American perspective
The differences here are not whether one should feel gratitude towards a host for hospitality. Both cultures share this value. The misunderstanding is about the degree and form of hospitality expected. As a North American, Paul felt trapped by the excessive9 attention from Shan Zhou. While assistance in getting settled and translation would be expected and greatly appreciated10, Paul would likely prefer time on his own in order to explore his new surroundings, to think, and to become comfortable in his new residence11. North Americans often take pride in being individualistic12 and self-reliant. The level of attention offered by Shan Zhou may have begun to be intrusive13, controlling, and unwelcome to Paul.
North Americans value privacy and this translates into14 valuing private time—time by themselves. Paul assumed that Shan Zhou would feel the same way because he was not aware of Chinese standards of hospitality and reciprocity15. This assumption16 was re-enforced because Shan Zhou spoke some English. Paul assumed that he did not really need any assistance.
Many North Americans have a hard time realizing that the rest of the world is not always comfortable with English or with the North American way of life. This is not always simple arrogance17, but more a lack of experience of “having the shoe on the other foot18”. When North Americans travel, they frequently observe that English is spoken in other countries and they see signs of North American culture in many parts of the world. As a result, they sometimes implicitly19 assume that everyone would be comfortable in the US or Canada.
North Americans also feel highly time-stressed. They tend to expect that those whom they regard as equals will understand the pressures on their time and will not expect “baby-sitting”. While people do expect and deserve reciprocity and help in times of need, North Americans can be a bit more casual—or cavalier20—about assuming everyone prefers to do many things by themselves.