How to Prevent the 3 Most Common Misunderstanding between International Students and Host Families
August 19, 2014

As The Cambridge Institute’s chief liaison between host families and international students, the Program Solutions Team is thrilled by the vast majority of relationships we observe between students and their American families. Nevertheless, misunderstandings occasionally arise, as can be expected when two parties from differing cultures share a home. We strive to not only mollify misunderstandings that do arise, but to prevent common miscommunications from occurring in the first place.

In order to ensure both host families and students are acutely aware of some of the more common cultural discrepancies they may encounter, we will outline three of the common areas of miscommunication between host families and students: food, transportation and communication styles. We hope that this information will empower you to further facilitate a fruitful relationship between your school, your international students and their host families.

Before expounding on these three topics, however, it’s crucial to understand a cultural nuance that contributes to many misunderstandings between international students and their host families: many international families view the host family as part of the service they receive from their school or from Cambridge since this is how the process would work in many other countries. Although Cambridge endeavors to dispel this notion, it often takes time for students and families to adjust to this cultural difference.


3 Most Common Cultural Misunderstandings

1. Food:

In China, food is almost always served hot. A standard Chinese meal includes soup, vegetables, a starchy carbohydrate and meat. However, in the US, cold food is very common (cereal, salad, sandwiches, etc…). Typically, when students complain about food, it is less about the quality of the meal and more about what cold food symbolizes to them; the student believes that they are being given cold food because they are being punished or the host family does not care about them enough to provide hot food.

Preventative Measure:

Host families should begin by explaining to students that the cold food they serve the student should not be seen as a punishment or symbol that they do not value the student; rather, it’s the same food American hosts would serve to their own family and friends. Additionally, host families can explain to students that this is a great opportunity to experience the genuine American lifestyle by eating the typical American cuisine.
Cambridge also encourages students to occasionally volunteer themselves as cooks for the family. This is a great way for the student to teach the host family about the student’s culture and can be parlayed into a group activity in which the host family and student cook together.


2. Transportation:

Students in China have far more autonomy than their American counterparts in terms of mobility due to a sophisticated Chinese public transit system and a bevy of transportation options (subway, bus, taxi, walk, etc…). It can take time for Chinese students to adjust to the car-centric American lifestyle and relying on host families for transportation. Subsequently, Chinese students are not used to informing host families in advance of when they will need a ride and can sometimes forget to do so. This misalignment of cultural standards can lead to frustration for both parties. Students may feel confined to their American home and school, while the host family may feel they are not being given appropriate notice as to when they may need to provide the student a ride.

Preventative Measure:

Students and host families should set up a transportation scheduling system that details the expectations of both parties. Host families should explain that they are happy to provide students with a ride, but they will need a certain amount of forewarning for planning purposes (e.g. 2 hours advance notice). Again, the key to this communication is to explain that this is the same treatment the host family would expect from their own family.



3. Communication styles:

The concept of “saving face” is highly emphasized in Chinese culture and can lead to a lack of communication on the part of Chinese students. Unlike in the U.S. where we are taught to politely but directly address disagreements or conflicts, in China such an open confrontation would be deemed rude. When students encounter issues with host families, they are afraid of embarrassing their host family by raising their concerns. In fact, most students would sooner request a new host family than face discussing a disagreement with their hosts. Moreover, Chinese students are fearful that they will not be able to maintain a smooth relationship with a host family once an issue has been discussed openly. This lack of communication can be frustrating for host families since they cannot fix problems of which they are not aware.

Preventative Measure:

Unfortunately there is no simple solution to this discrepancy in communication styles; a family (or school) cannot simply expect a Chinese student to disregard the communication style they have used all their lives in lieu of the more direct Western style. Instead, host families should be aware of this discrepancy and seek to proactively engage students if the hosts sense something is awry. For instance, if a host family sees that a student is not eating the food the family provides, simply asking the student if they like the food will not be successful because the student will offer the answer they expect the host will want to hear. Rather, the host family should ask the student what types of food they prefer, as this will allow the student to communicate their preferences honestly without fear of embarrassing the host.




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