What Dumplings Taught Me About Biblical Hospitality

Heidi Hill  |  July 16, 2018

This past summer, my family and I went to see the long-awaited Pixar sequel, The Incredibles 2 in celebration of my younger sister’s return to my hometown in Nashville.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t worry—I won’t spoil anything as I know there many Pixar fans among us! More striking to me was Bao, the animated short that aired before the film. It’s no secret that Pixar shorts are hallmarks for the majority of the studio’s movies, but for me, the story in Bao struck a poignant chord that reduced me to a puddle of tears.

In her directorial debut, Domee Shi tells the tale of a Chinese mother who grapples with the all-too-real “empty nest syndrome” when one of her carefully-crafted dumplings comes to life as an infant son with human-like features. Within eight minutes, we see the mother experience age-defining moments with her dumpling-son. She measures his height on a doorpost, packs his lunch for school, shields him from oncoming soccer balls, shares a box of sweets with him, scolds him when he breaks curfew, fumes over his angsty adolescence, and finally pleads with him to stay at home after he marries.

The entire sequence, as it turns out, is only the dream of a heartbroken mother, actualizing her anxiety over losing a son to adulthood. All is resolved sweetly and the story fades to black as the mother, her human son and his new wife, fold dumplings together. As I left the movie theatre, I realized that my tears had less to do with the parental turmoil and more so the cultural details woven into Bao—all of which reflect the tenderness I see in the Chinese women I befriend as an RUF International intern.   

In the delicate calligraphy hung on the wall, in the bowls of spicy tofu and in the gentle notes of  a Chinese violin, I recall memories of the meals I’ve shared with these women.We sit and assemble our plates in my Dallas apartment while the scent of warm sesame oil wafts in from the kitchen. If asked, I say a short prayer over the food, thanking the Lord for the carved-out time I get to share with my guests. Over the course of the meal, we oscillate between comfortable silence and soft chatter until the last grains of rice are scraped from our bowls, permitting conversation to linger long into the night.  

Still, the best example of this unassuming hospitality came from a young woman from China at the end of our Lunar New Year party in February. For our Chinese students, this holiday is the equivalent to Thanksgiving for Americans because it involves a massive gathering of family and friends as well as a feast of dumplings.

In the haze of clean-up, this young woman stopped me and asked if I knew why the holiday was so important to Chinese families. I admitted that I knew a little bit about the dumpling’s symbolism for good fortune, urging her to tell me more. She smiled graciously and affirmed that, yes, the dumplings are indeed an important tradition for the Chinese holiday. To my great surprise, she gripped my hand and uttered something far more profound:

“We celebrate today because it means our family is together. For me, those are people who live far away, but I still feel the welcome here. It is special for us because this is time we have for just us and nothing else.”

Unbeknownst to her, my friend had reminded me that hospitality, in its holiest form, draws in the stranger and elevates him or her to the status of family. Woah, I thought. How often do I make time for others simply because they are my neighbor? Later on, the thought became: How can we, as Christians, adopt the practice of welcome into our lives?

I cannot give a complete answer yet, but I think it might happen when we seek to love our community as Christ first loved us and when we name Him our greatest Treasure. 
In Mandarin, the word bao has two meanings, depending on how it is pronounced. One refers to a traditional steamed bun, a staple food in Chinese cuisine. The other is a term of endearment that translates to “precious” or “treasure”.

Amid the din of daily life, we forget where our Treasure lies. We are tempted to think that the things we must treasure are exclusive to people, places and things of Earth instead of the One who has knit Himself to our soul. Of course, there can be glimpses of God’s glory in the relationships we experience this side of Heaven. The time that a mother shares with her infant child is one such image. Yet, even those precious things pale in comparison to the person of Jesus. Matthew 6 reminds us: “Store up your treasures in Heaven where moths and vermin do not break in and destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I must admit that my heart seeks out treasure in the wrong place. It wanders off the path, searching for gold in my job, in television shows, in the approval of my parents, in Instagram comments, in my friendships, in my wardrobe and sometimes, in my own willpower. It is only by grace and discipline that I remember that the real Treasure is found in Christ alone, by learning how to pour into others, drop by drop. In doing so, the same wandering heart is cleansed and transforms into a more selfless one—a heart that desires Jesus above all else. 

This perpetual lesson in hospitality is one that I am far from perfecting, but it is the greatest gift I could ever receive from my job. Most of my days are comprised of meals and moments with international friends—where language can be a stumbling block and familiar food and easy company may only go so far.
But if our hospitality is concentrated on the welcome embrace of Christ, we shall never forget that it was He who befriended us as strangers on the street, invited us into His home and broke bread with us.

Friends, the table is far from full. Let’s keep handing out invitations.