You’ve finally arrived – perhaps after a full day’s travel – awakening into a different world and into a culture that appears very different than your own. Nothing is familiar. You are a stranger in a strange land. And then, you find yourself stepping over the threshold into another family’s life. You’re nervous – very nervous – but they’re nervous, too!
Regardless of the efficiency of your pre-departure planning and your level of cultural awareness, your arrival into their home is quite likely the first encounter you’ve had with your new family. You will have researched extensively and sought out information from friends or acquaintances familiar with your host family’s culture. Whether you’re an independent traveler or travelling solo as an exchange student, the organizer of your adventure – a tour company, a service organization such as Rotary International, or your high school or university – will have provided reference material about the lifestyle and cultural expectations of your new family. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to meet someone from this culture, an immigrant now living in your home country.
You and your host family might have exchanged a few emails and made contact on Facebook. But, in spite of all these preparations, this is your first encounter with your host family. You’ve never been here before. You’ve never met them and they’ve never met you. There will be some awkward moments, some long pauses of uncertainty. This important event is new for everyone, not just you!
Making a positive first impression is crucial to acceptance into your host family’s life. Be considerate and responsible. Advise them of your arrival time and arrive at that time; if delayed, notify them promptly. Be yourself: if you’re a shy, quiet person, be that person. If you’re typically gregarious, that’s okay, too. Don’t appear for that crucial first meeting in ripped jeans, scruffy shoes, wearing earphones, absorbed in your solipsistic world of music. Don’t gaze with apparent fascination at your cellphone – don’t act like it’s stuck to your hand – stow it! [If your host family lives in a similar culture, e.g., a Canadian travelling to a Western European country, your peers might understand but your host parents will not.]
Dress with consideration to local customs, appropriate for your age group. This is especially true for females. Forget bare midriffs and plunging necklines. Males in many foreign cultures are already convinced that North American women are outrageous sluts, always ready for sex. No woman ever “asked to get raped” but there is no benefit to encourage unwanted attention. In some Middle Eastern countries Muslim men believe that women harbor nine-tenths of sexual desire (Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks, 1994). I’ve never buried myself beneath a burqa but for traveling on planes and buses and for walking around town, I wear a loose fitting, mid-calf-length skirt. And trust me, the very first time you need your very own privacy tent for those “special” roadside bathrooms, you’ll be glad you wore a skirt instead of pants. I choose camel colored clothing that refuses to show the dirt! Pair this with a long-sleeved, buttoned shirt. If I’m hot, I undo some buttons and roll up the sleeves. If I’m cold or in a culturally sensitive area, I roll down the sleeves and button the cuffs. [Shop in-store or on-line at REI, MEC, or Tilley for attractive lightweight skirts and tops designed to pack and travel without wrinkling.]
Glamorize your outfit with a sarong or pashmina. Either of these can be used to cover your head (or face), if necessary. A lightweight cotton Balinese sarong doubles as a fast-drying bath towel, a beach towel, or attractive head gear. A Persian pashmina shawl can transform to a sheltering blanket. Wear beach wear on beaches – not while watching sunset from the rooftop restaurant-bar of Zanzibar’s Tembo House Hotel. Avoid pants unless you’re hiking,cycling, or riding a camel. And speaking of pants – make sure these are lightweight too – leave the heavy, water-retaining blue jeans back home. Top with a hat! I love hats and think everyone should wear a hat [if you don’t think so, you just haven’t found the right style]. My trademark look is an authentic pith helmet (beige of course!) to shield and shade from rain and sun.
Guys, on the other hand, should be prepared to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, especially in the evening. Pack your shorts and those T-shirts that double as advertisements until you get to the beach.
Demonstrate interest in your hosts. Hopefully you have learned a few words in your host’s language. Greet them using a few key words. Hearing those first few foreign words spewing from your mouth will seem strange. You’ll feel self-conscious and a little embarrassed but your efforts will be appreciated even when – not if – you mispronounce words. Unless you’re a linguistic genius with an ear for different sounds you’ll likely mangle more than a few words of your new language. If you’re in Vietnam your hosts may smile – perhaps even chuckle – if you ask your new friend “Where is your ghost?” instead of “Where is your mother?” The Vietnamese have six different intonations for the syllable ‘ma’. One of these means mother and another means ghost – and most non-Vietnamese speakers cannot hear any difference! When learning Spanish in Mexico, I asked my male tutor: “Prestame tu pene” (pen-nay) instead of “Prestame tu peine (pay-nay).” His chocolate brown cheeks flushed a deep strawberry. At first, he refused to explain. But in the end, I wasn’t worried: my mom always cautioned never to use another person’s comb – so I wasn’t likely to ask someone to loan me their comb – or their penis! Most likely you’ll soon be laughing about your rookie linguistic mistakes.
It’s normal to miss your friends and your family. Learning to speak and think in another language is hard work. Adjusting to another family is hard work. Adjusting to another culture can be so difficult that you miss even those aspects of home you hated. But don’t hunker down in your room being homesick, wishing you’d never come, or spend excess time contacting your friends back home. Interact with your hosts. Inquire about their day at home/work/school. Play with the younger children. Introduce the family to your language by reading a child’s story book aloud. Perhaps your backpack included A.A. Milne’s or Dr. Seuss’ entertaining stories that feature amusing illustrations with basic, easily translated text. Or practice your new language by reading a “learn-to-read” story book written in their language to one of the children.
Be culturally sensitive. Avoid telling jokes to your host family regardless of their potential effectiveness as ice-breakers. Different cultures are likely to misinterpret and be offended by another cultures’ humor. Never swear. Refrain from the impulse to inform your hosts “how we do things at home.” Unless they have asked, your well-intentioned suggestion may be interpreted as a disparaging comment about their country, religion, or lifestyle. Instead of being helpful, you may be interpreted as a know-it-all who thinks your culture is better than theirs. Different, yes. Better, no.
Graciously accept and be thankful for food prepared in your honor. Before arrival, or as soon as possible, politely advise your host family about food allergies or preferences. If you are a vegetarian, be explicit: no fish, no chicken, no meat. Some cultures cannot conceive menus without meat. Other people (including some Canadians I know!) seem to think that fish and chicken are vegetables. Be aware of – and acknowledge – the effort required to prepare the meal. Don’t waste anything – food, drinking water, beverages. If in doubt about the meal, request and insist on small portions. If you can’t finish because you’re full (or because it includes the ‘vegetable’ called chicken) don’t assume your uneaten food will be tossed into the garbage. Ask if some one else would like your unfinished food. Your portion may go to a hungry adult who has taken less to accommodate you, their visitor, or to a young child, or to the dog! Offer assistance with clearing the table and washing dishes.
Express your gratitude with a thank you gift representative of your home country or region. You may choose to present your gifts upon arrival or on your day of departure. Some suggested gifts: art reproductions created by celebrated artists (e.g., Canadian Group of Seven painters), traditional indigenous crafts (Iroquois dream-catchers, Inuit mukluks), cuddly polar bear toys, or maple syrup (in a plastic container for checked baggage). Almost everyone loves this sugary delight but I still vividly recall the appalled expression of my teetotaling, church-going, Creole friend who blurted: “LOLA – you KNOW I don’t drink alcohol! Why did you bring me rum?”
Always show respect for the hospitality of your host family. Don’t leave a trail of your belongings scattered around the house. Whether it is a cramped condo in Japan, a luxurious mansion on an exotic beach in Thailand, a castle in Ireland, or a thatch-roof-dirt-floored cabana in Belize, it is their home. Enjoy your time abroad. You just might be making friends for life!
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes