Author  – Kathryn Richardson  

 

Kathryn Richardson is an ESL teacher who is currently setting up an international education program in a private school in Melbourne. She has previously worked as an ESL teacher at an English language School in Melbourne and as an ESL cluster teacher in country Victoria. Kathryn completed her Master’s research in 2001 where she examined different perceptions of the roles of homestay hosts.  She is now undertaking a Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne as an extension of her previous investigations.

 

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in Homestay

By Kathryn Richardson

 

Over the last few years I have been researching some of the cultural interactions that happen within homestay households.  The introduction of someone from another culture may be exciting, but it can also add dimensions to your family life that you did not expect.  On the other hand, if you are a homestay student you might find yourself in a family very different from your own. 

 

In my research[1] I have looked at some of the aspects of homestay that homestay hosts have found interesting, both good and bad.  The experiences that hosts mainly talked about included aspects of family life such as family meal times and food.  They were surprised about different attitudes toward housework, and quite a few different cultural “unmentionables” were discussed.  Homestay hosts also made comment on communication in homestay and their concerns about their privacy and differing cultural ideas about politeness and honesty.  If you are a student reading this you might get some ideas to help you understand your homestay host better.

 

Evening Meals:

The evening meal is considered an important part of the day for many Australian families.  It is a time when the family can communicate with each other about their day.  Some homestay hosts expected the students in their care to participate in family mealtime.  However, this can sometimes be difficult for some homestay students as one of the hosts explained.

... a couple of nights ago [my student] said, “Could I have dinner in my room?”  And I said, “Sure, that’s okay.”  And then and hour or two later, I said, “Do you like having dinner in your room?”  She said, “Oh, yes, it’s so much easier.  I can relax.”  I just said, “well you know, this is a time when we try to all get together because we’re all so busy and this is a time when we talk and you can talk and practice your English.”  And she looked at me as though I was weird.  So it’s interesting.  I think there are so many things that we really don’t understand.

Homestay students will often feel tired due to the enormous amount of energy they put into communicating everyday.  It is very important to recognise the students’ need to escape the pressure of communication from time to time. 

 

The homestay hosts found that some students find talking at the dinner table very difficult.  In several cultures it is normal for families to eat in silence.  One host explained,

…She said in a lot of Asian countries when they sit down to eat a meal they don’t talk.  They just sit down and eat.  And here we are thinking this meal thing … and she said, “You’ll actually have to say in Australia we talk … we eat and this is the time to catch up and to share and it helps your English and so on.”  So we’d been going on for about two or three years trying to do this meal thing and we’re struggling to get these kids to talk…

 

Another difficulty students might have is they are used to eating out at night with their friends.  This can sometimes be difficult for homestay hosts if they expect their student to be home for meal times and the student decides to eat out without informing them.  Some hosts have also talked about some cultures, which consider it polite to eat loudly.  This can cause embarrassment for the hosts if they are unused to ‘eating noises’.  It can be important for you as a host and students to communicate about what mealtime traditions they have experienced and what generally occurs in your house and be understanding of the way each culture.

 

Food

One thing that differs a great deal between cultures is food.  Some homestay hosts found it difficult to provide international students with food from their county, while other hosts felt they should try to accommodate the students’ need for familiar foods.  Since food has such personal and cultural ties, students can sometimes experience physiological symptoms from not having food, which is familiar to them. 

 

In order to accommodate your student’s needs with regard to food there are several things you can do.  Firstly, you might like to ask your student to cook their favourite meal and teach you how to make it, too.  This can create a lot of fun as you learn more about your student’s culture.  You can also pick up some handy cooking tips and dinner can become a cultural exchange.  If your student has a craving for home food, but you can’t provide it, it is a good idea to have a list of good restaurants in the near vicinity that would cater for the student’s needs.  There are some very good Asian and Middle Eastern supermarkets around Melbourne.  It might be interesting to take your student shopping to find what they like.

 

Household chores

Homestay students come from many diverse backgrounds.  Some might have grown up with servants to do all the housework; others might come from a background where it is a woman’s role to clean; still others might have come from families where everyone helps with the household chores.  As one homestay host stated, “Some of [the students] are used to having servants and they literally don’t know how to wash a dish.” With this in mind, not all students will come into a homestay with the same values as the homestay hosts.  Again, it is important that both parties communicate about what happens in each culture and what the host family expects.  It is important to bear in mind that some students might initially need help to learn how to do light chores, such as doing dishes and keeping their room tidy. 

 

Some homestay students can be more difficult to persuade to help with household chores.  It is important that communication remains open about what is expected.  They also might have the perception that they are paying the host for services.  This can result in the host feeling more like a servant than a host, especially female homestay hosts.  To help overcome this it might help explaining to the student about living standards in Australia and the cost of maintaining those living standards.

 

 

 

Dealing with Cultural “Unmentionables”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the research for me was looking into the way people communicate about the cultural ‘dos and don’ts’.  These covered topics such as toilet and bathroom use.

 

 

Toilet use

Toilets around the world can differ immensely from the porcelain bowls we use in Australia to squat toilets, to holes in the ground.  Not only to toilets differ in appearance, but they also differ in the ways they are used and how people use to clean themselves.  If you have travelled you also might have experienced interesting moments in this regard. It can be very confusing for a student who has come from a country where toilet use is different from toilet use in Australia.  One homestay host related an embarrassing incident after she kept finding water all over the toilet floor.

So I actually went with this, he was about 19 or 20.  And I said to him, “We have to talk about the toilet in Australia, and all this water,” I said, “are you standing in the toilet?”... 

He said, “No, no, no, no.”  He was not standing in the toilet.  He was standing on the toilet.  I was killing myself.    Don’t laugh…

“OK, well, you have to stand here.   You have to lift the seat.  And it was just hysterical.

 

Several hosts offered practical suggestions to help avoid embarrassing confrontations. Perhaps the most important suggestion was to explain to students how to use the toilet when they arrive. 

 

The Bathroom

Bathing also differs between cultures, depending on the ways the bathrooms are designed, the availability of clean water, the climate, etc.  There were two main things that hosts found difficult with regard to bathroom use.  Firstly, they were concerned about the idea of ‘wet bathrooms’.  Several hosts indicated they often found the bathroom floor covered with water.  Some students are used to having bathrooms with drains in the middle of the floor allowing for extra drainage.  On the other hand, it is less usual for Australian bathrooms to have extra drains. 

 

Bathing rituals also differ.  Some cultures value running water while they bathe, others stand in the bath and ladle the water over their bodies, while others (like in Australia) value a good ‘soak’.  Again probably the best solution to this is to explain to the students when they arrive about Australian bathrooms and bathing rituals.  It might also be worth asking the students what they are used to. 

 

The second concern about bathrooms involved the use of water.  Australia is a relatively dry country with frequent droughts; therefore water conservation has a fairly high priority.  On the other hand, some students come from very hot, wet countries where water conservation has less priority.  Several hosts were concerned that their students have excessively long showers and/or very frequent showers (up to three or more per day).  It is a good idea to communicate to your student the importance of water and conservation in Australia.  Some hosts have also put timers on their hot water systems in order to limit time under the water. 

 

Utilities

A lot of hosts in both questionnaire responses and in focus group interviews complained about over use of utilities, such as water (as previously discussed), gas and electricity.  A questionnaire respondent wrote,

Students who leave lights on all night/electric blankets or heaters – take very long showers, don’t realise that being wasteful or not security conscious makes life more difficult.

There are several explanations for why students use a lot of electricity, gas, etc.  Firstly, some international students come from countries with tropical climates.  With this in mind they often feel the need for extra heat, especially during winter.  Secondly, they are often not aware of the cost of excessive utility use.  Students should be informed of the dangers of leaving blow heaters and electric blankets on during the night.  Again it is important that you communicate about what the student is used to and what is done in your home.

 

Telephone usage also came up as an issue.  Some hosts had difficulty with students making long phone calls to family and friends overseas and refusing to pay for the bill.  One strategy to avoid difficulties could be to encourage the students to buy prepaid mobile phones.  You might also have a second phone line at your house, which the student could rent directly from the telephone company. 

 

Animals and Pets

Because many students come from large cities and densely populated areas they have had little contact with animals as pets.  Sometimes students request homes with no pets for religious reasons.  Insects and spiders can also cause panic for some homestay students.  While some students will communicate about their concerns with regard to animals, some students’ sense of politeness hinders them from conveying their fears.  One homestay host told the following story:

So with all the students every year and I ask them a number of questions at the end of their stay, which they write up and ask them some of the memories.  And it’s interesting there that … in writing what were some if the brave things that they’ve done.  And it’s often to do with things like “I lived with a spider in my room for three days.”  I think, “Why didn’t you tell me.  It was such a simple thing to say.”  And she had to get this off her chest.  But spiders have been a taboo thing with a lot of the young Asian girls.

 

Politeness and honesty

In many Asian countries the idea of politeness and saving face is very important.  For example it can be considered impolite to express your true feelings, especially if they might cause disagreement or argument, rather a person should say what others expect.  Sometimes this sense of politeness can be interpreted by Australians as dishonesty, whereas it is possible the students are merely trying to please or to save face. 

 

Some hosts described the students as ‘stoic’, and at times they related their frustration about students not communicating how they felt.  A homestay host stated:

…often the students are very stoic, or appear to be stoic and aren’t ones for complaining if they’re ill.  I’d have to really observe them very carefully because they would hide some issues. If there’s something that really doesn’t appease them they will put up with a lot of difficulties and you really have to be on the ball. They’re…I don’t know if they do, that they culturally complain.

 

Other hosts were concerned about students who would say one thing and then do another.  It is important to develop a safe and understanding environment to help students learn to express what they really feel and open up lines of communication.  On the other hand, if a homestay student is endangering their own safety, or the safety of the homestay household it is important to both communicate your concerns with the student and possibly report your concerns to the homestay organisation.   If you are a student it is important to realise your hosts will probably expect you to let them know what you are thinking, even if you feel it is unimportant.

 

Communication

Many homestay hosts found communication with their homestay students difficult at times.  There are a few reasons for this.  Firstly, some student’s understanding of spoken English is not as good as their understanding of written English.  Some students are uncomfortable asking questions or clarifying if they do not understand an instruction.  Finally concepts such as humour and sarcasm are very culturally bound and they often take understanding of language and cultural innuendo to understand.  One homestay host explained that she learnt to write  the important things down

I mean I’d always say the house rules verbally, and he’d say, he said to me, “Can you please write them.”  So I thought, what a great idea, because it’s like when you go to a motel, you read it on the back of the door.  So I made a list of all the house rules, like you can smoke in your bedroom but you do not smoke in bed.  Locking the security door at night.  You know, dead locking again, when prior to 6pm if you’re not coming home for dinner, tidy the bathroom after you.  So there was about twenty, a list of twenty sentences.  Did it up on the computer and had it laminated.  Now that is pinned behind every student’s door and they can read it and it’s simple and it makes life a lot easier.  If they, I say, I show them paper and I say, “Please read it.  Whenever you don’t understand, ask me.”  And it’s clear from day 1 what is expected.

 

If you have something important to communicate with a homestay student whose English is not very good yet it is important to remember to say things slowly and explicitly, and/or write them down.  If you are a homestay student it is important to ask for clarification if you do not understand what your host is saying to you.  It is important not to be embarrassed and to keep trying to communicate.  Remember your host is there to help you.

 

Privacy and Personal Space

Different cultures have different ideas about how much personal space and privacy an individual should have.  The idea of modesty was mentioned several times by hosts.  Some hosts were concerned about a student’s lack of modesty explaining, “I had one boy who would get out of the bathroom and just have his towel around and go to his room”.  On the other hand, some hosts felt more restricted with other people in their house. 

 

Another issue relating to cultural perceptions of modesty revolves around the idea that certain items of clothing (particularly female clothing) should not be seen.  Some female students prefer to wash their own underwear.  One questionnaire respondent wrote about her difficulties with “People who wash their socks/underwear in hand basin and hang it in their cupboard to dry.”  

 

Some suggestions to overcome difficulties relating to wet washing being hung in the students’ bedrooms include providing students with plastic sheeting and a small clothes rack on which they can dry their own clothes.  Also if the students are uncomfortable having their underwear washed by someone else, it might help to teach them how to operate the washing machine.  It might also be important to discuss these issues so that you can come to mutually agreed upon arrangements.

 

Another difficulty can arise when the homestay hosts feel like their personal space has been invaded.  Being a homestay host can be extremely demanding as you are expected to look after the physical needs of a student (such as food and shelter), you are often expected to help students with their language studies and you are expected to be their family and friend.  Being all of these can sometimes be tiring.  Hosts found the constant demand difficult especially when they felt tired and needed to withdraw. One host said,

And it’s much easier for them to ask [for help] than it is to go and look it up themselves, and one student I said to her “go and use your dictionary” and she’d come into my bedroom.  I was on the computer.  “What does this word mean?”  And I just thought I have no space left to call my own.

As a host or student it is important to maintain some space you can use as a retreat if you need it and you should also respect the other person’s right to withdraw. Some hosts also indicated that their children would often feel like their space has been invaded.  It is also important to help your children find place to retreat to.

 

Homesickness

Sometimes students show signs of extreme homesickness.  Symptoms of homesickness can include being withdrawn, anti-social behaviour, depression, loss of appetite, etc.  It is important to be understanding, to encourage students to do things which they are familiar with.  Furthermore as a host you and/or your family might also experience some degree of frustration, anxiety, distrust, tiredness, etc due to someone else being part of your household.  It is important to realise that because of the introduction of someone from a different culture into your family, you might also feel the effects of culture shock.  You are not only in contact with someone from a different country you are in close contact with a person who has a very different family and social culture.

 

 

Over the course of this paper I have outlined the most prominent concerns of the homestay hosts I interviewed. You may encounter or may have already encountered some of the issues, and you have probably encountered different challenges than I have touched on.  No matter what your experiences are it is not only important to recognise differences between cultures, but it is also necessary to recognise similarities.  It is important to maintain open communication by asking questions and explaining everything, even things you consider to be simple, trivial or embarrassing.  Homestay hosting should be a beneficial experience, where cultures can interact and learn from each other.

 

If you would like to offer any feedback or comment on your own experiences please feel free to email me at k.richardson2@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au

 



[1] The following information has been taken from Richardson, K (2001) International Education: The Role of Homestay Hosts, Unpublished Thesis, University of Melbourne