For years I’ve wanted to write an article with the title “Welcome, Stranger” because it would give me a reason to talk to people about concepts of hospitality. I think about this whenever I am in another country, especially in England or China, where one is invariably offered tea upon arrival at a home or office. The warm hospitality one experiences in many cultures–where having a friend of a cousin move in for days or weeks is not given a moment’s thought–is not common here at home. Americans are known, generally, to be quite friendly, but we seem to be less and less hospitable. It’s southerners, in my experience, who have more of a traditional sense of hospitality. Those of us who live in the Northeast are, I’m told, cold and standoffish. And maybe this carries over to our behavior on the international scene–we simply don’t know what to do and say, and what not to do and say.
As the Olympics Games begin in Beijing, I have been thinking about Chinese hospitality, and American manners. The U.S. team that marched out of Beijing airport wearing masks has become a urban legend. “How could they?!” a Canada-based friend exclaimed, “It was totally unnecessary and so rude! Like walking into house of a friend whose housekeeping isn’t up to your standards wearing protective gloves.” This morning, as I naively waited for the Opening Ceremonies to begin on NBC, the commentators mentioned the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square and showed footage–the equivalent, one might say, of showing English rioters at Heisel Stadium (the 1980s lager louts) as the World Cup begins. Every nation has painful events in its historical record, and they should be talked about, not forgotten. But the beginning of the 2008 Olympics isn’t the time or the place.
I was crushed to learn that there would be no live broadcast of the ceremonies this morning–and felt even worse when someone emailed me from Latvia a few minutes ago and mentioned that he was watching!