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.
Misunderstandings in Homestay
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
In my research
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.
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.
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.
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,
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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
with Cultural “Unmentionables”
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.
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
“OK, well, you
have to stand here. You have
to lift the seat. And it was just
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
and Personal Space
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
you would like to offer any feedback or comment on your own experiences please
feel free to email me at
 The following information has been taken from Richardson, K (2001) International Education: The Role of Homestay Hosts, Unpublished Thesis, University of Melbourne